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Make Your Music Practice Sparkle, Part 1: Before You Open the Book!


Have you attended a concert where the soloist dazzled the crowd? Flowing melodies, crisp rhythms, shimmering tone that swept you into a world of captivating sound . . .

Contrast that with sitting at your piano, practicing, practicing, searching for the beauty . . . and coming up short.

All hope is not lost! Your daily practice can shine with freshness. The key is to practice musically.

How does a player do just that, and make the music sparkle? Let's look at two vital, but often neglected, practice components that can enliven your piano sessions -- even before you open the music book!

1. Listen to Your Tone

"But I'm already listening," I hear you protest, "and I don't like what I hear! Wrong notes. Sluggish rhythm. Fingers that won't stay down for tied notes."

I hear you. :-) Challenges abound on plenty of pieces of music. Interpreting everything on the printed page can tax the most musically astute mind.

But for all of us players, it is helpful to remember that music, at its most basic level, is sound.

And the kind of sound a player produces is fundamentally important.

To that end -- to enhance the focus on what we hear, and then to adjust our technique accordingly to yield the sound we desire -- I propose we devote a little of our daily practice time to playing without any music score open.

Because then we're in a better position to assess the sounds we hear, without the distraction of note-reading, and, ultimately, to achieve exactly the tone we want.

One of the best ways to discern your tone is simply to play without using any music for a portion of your practice time. Scales, memorized repertoire, rote pieces, improvisations; any playing without the score will do. Your ear will become more attuned to hearing the quality of sound you're producing when reading is temporarily set aside.

Here are some fun ways to vary your practice while the music books are closed:

  • Dynamic level: from pianissimo (very soft) to fortissimo (very loud), play several times a scale or musical snippet you've made up or memorized, using various degrees of loudness.

  • Articulation: play staccato, then legato, then detached like a Baroque style. For extra fun and challenge, play one hand in one articulation and the other hand (simultaneously) with a contrasting articulation.

  • Phrasing: play in two-note phrases (HEAVY light HEAVY light), then three-note patterns (HEAVY light light HEAVY light light), and so on.

Playing without reading, in addition to boosting your listening skills, also helps you attend to the mechanics of your playing. Which leads us to the second important component of refreshing tone production:

2. Use Good Technique to Invigorate Your Tone

Now that your ears are open (and your music still is not!), let your eyes observe your physical motions at the piano. What you hear is often related to what you see.

Is your sound harsh? Notice any areas of tension or awkward positioning: fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, upper arms, shoulders. Problems with tone often begin in the shoulder area. Check to make sure your shoulders are relaxed and well below the ears, rather than hunched up in a shrug-like posture.

Is your sound weak? Maybe some tones are silent when your fingers press the keys? Interestingly, similar to harsh tone, weak or non-sounding tone can also occur when there is tension. For example, if any fingers hover above the key surface while you play, then you are using the muscles in your hands to hold them up in the air, fighting against gravity. The result can sometimes be that raised fingers don't have time to drop into the key far enough to produce a tone before moving on to the next note.

Another thing to check is the distance the piano bench is from the keyboard, as well as your posture and position on the bench. Proper positioning at the piano assists with solid, healthy technique and effective tone production.

Closing your eyes while playing can help, too. Sometimes it's easier to feel what the muscles and joints are doing when you're not looking at anything! Play in a variety of keyboard locations -- there's more to the piano than the two octaves or so in the middle! What do your muscles feel like when you play the lowest and highest keys at the same time? Or when crossing the right hand over the left, and vice versa?

These are a few suggestions for helping your practice sessions come alive. Give yourself time to play every day with the music copy closed, and you will find that, yes, your piano practices can sparkle with vibrant tone!

In Part 2 of Make Your Music Practice Sparkle, I will share some exciting strategies for enlivening your practice time with your music copy open.

What piano activities do you enjoy with no music in front of you?

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