Technical Exercises

by Corinne


I am currently learning the piano, I don't have a problem with the rhythms, dynamics, or playing the pieces musically as this is my second instrument. Although, I have major issues with trying to get my technique up to standard.

It takes me ages to learn a piece even though I know how it should sound. It frustrates me because I know what I have to do and how to do it etc, but I don't have the skills to do it.

I was wondering what your tips are for improving my technical skills and don't mind doing hours just dedicated to that alone.

Thank you!

Maria’s Answer:

Great question! Your problem is very common, and my long answer will be in two parts.

Firstly, the problem with being already a musician is that it is easy to make the mistake of starting to play pieces that are a bit too hard.

Please also read my page about How to Practice Effectively.

As a musician you can quickly analyze a piece, and “get it”, but your arms, hands, and fingers are on a different level, and controlled by a different part of your brain.

So, build up your technique step by step from a much easier level than you think you can master.

It is always better to start from a lower level and then work your way up, than playing on a higher level trying to “cover” loopholes, or problems that originated from lower levels of lack of technique.

Think of it as building a house- you want the ground to be steady as possible- that is not the place to make a hasty job.

The good news is since you already have a knowledge of music, this part of technique building doesn’t have to take so long as it would take for a real beginner.

So, pick easier pieces. Try to figure out what grade level you’re at, then start a level (or more) below.

I would recommend working with the Royal Conservatory Celebration Series, repertoire and studies, as well as checking out the RCM requirements for scales and chords for each level and working with one level at a time.

Take the real RCM exam if you like, or video record yourself for an at-home check-up after completing each level.

You can also check out my page about Piano Exercises for Beginners here.

Secondly, taking forever to learn a piece may not only be that it is the wrong level but can also be a matter of practice technique.

I know myself, having been taught by brilliant master pianists who never seemed to have had a problem with practicing in their life, and who gave a blank stare when I dared to raise the question about how to practice…

There are techniques for practicing, and they give great results, and of course they can be learned.

A book with fantastic ideas (that give real results) of practicing is The Practice Revolution by Philip Johnston. The Practice Revolution: Getting great results from the six days between lessons

Practicing can be a lot of fun, as learning also should be. Make sure to reward yourself for each accomplishment!

Here is a simple road-map to how to learn a piece (adapted from Johnston’s book above):

First of all, divide the piano score into 2-4 measure “chunks” with a pencil. (A harder piece might even need 1 measure chunk).
Each step should be completed without any trouble, mistakes, or hesitation; it may be at once or after some practice. Once completed you do not go back and repeat any step- only forward!

  1. Play the right hand.
  2. Play the left hand.
  3. Play both hands.
  4. Play the right hand by memory.*
  5. Play the left hand by memory.*
  6. Play both hands by memory.*
  7. Play the right hand by memory with metronome.
  8. Play the left hand by memory with metronome.
  9. Play both hands by memory with metronome.
  10. Play the section with notes again and metronome.
  11. Combine with previous parts.

*) By memory in this case does not mean that the piece is memorized yet. It is just important for learning the notes of a piece that you can both read the notes and look at the hands/keyboard equally, without feeling lost. This “light” memorization will not result in a memorized piece but will help at a later stage when the time has come for true memorization.

By practicing like this you have full control over how soon you have learned the piece. See how much time it took you for the first “chunk”. Probably around 10-15 min. (If it took you longer it might be an indication that you should choose an easier piece as mentioned above.) Now time that to the amount of “chunks” you have and the time you have available.

But, Phew! Those 10-15 minutes were hard work! Lots of concentration there! You might find that you can only work 1-2 of those chunks at a time. Take a break, work with something different and let your brain rest.

The first time I tried this process myself, I was blown back at the results. I had assigned a Mozart Sonata to a student. Since I had not played it myself (-Sssh!) I had to learn it quickly.

I soon realized that the piece wasn’t as easy as I had thought, and I had only the weekend to learn it. Working through the above levels diligently, since I also wanted to test this method, gave amazing results. In much lesser time than expected, I learned the first movement.

Finally, I gave myself a” test” by recording on my Clavinova playing at full tempo- and I did- without a single mistake! I had to listen to that recording again and again to believe it. After that, I frequently use this as one very reliable practice tool in my “toolbox” of practice tricks. Of course, there are more stages of learning a piece, but this takes care of that first part of actually mastering the notes!

Good luck and have fun!

You can also check out some of my other pages:
Teach yourself piano and stay motivated
Piano practice for adult beginners
Teach yourself to play piano; tips and ideas

And some of my answers to other relevant questions:
What does it feel like when the piano is played correctly?
Why do I still make mistakes when performing?

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