Practice Tips, from the Pros

practicing With my trusty Hello Kitty eraser. Photo by Dre Tsai while visiting me at  Kneisel Hall.

practicing With my trusty Hello Kitty eraser. Photo by Dre Tsai while visiting me at Kneisel Hall.

You’d think that people arrive at music school knowing how to practice. After all, they’ve been doing it for years, with some measure of success. 

Well, I sure didn’t. As kids, my brother and I had a practice routine that was more like training for a 50-yard dash. Upon hearing our garage door open, we would turn off the TV and race to our positions - he in his room with a violin, and me in the living room at the piano - and pretend like we had been diligently working since getting home from school hours ago, instead of watching The Disney Afternoon

Like most musicians, I’ve had to build up my practice strategies over time, finding what works best for me. Before I talk about my own strategies, I’d like to share some of the most impactful practice advice I’ve received, from some of the leading pedagogues around.

ESSENTIAL PRACTICE TOOLS - Edith Wiens

I learned many things from playing for Edith’s voice studio at Juilliard, so much so that I would sometimes jot notes afterwards - and it wasn’t even my lesson! It was fascinating for me to watch as she coached young singers through the music (and the business of music) with a clear-headed, organized approach. She talked about practicing with the same clarity. One of her requirements was that students always have a metronome and a recording device in their practice sessions. They would also record their lessons for playback and review during the week. 

To some, using a metronome and recording yourself is obvious. To others, it is didactic. I agree with Edith - and here’s why. The end-result of the practice is the performance, which is a public event. The entire point of the performance is to project the music outside of yourself. However, your musical intentions may not come across exactly as you hear them. This is especially true for singers, whose ears and instruments are housed in the same body! The metronome and recording device provide impartial, sometimes brutally honest, external feedback to help you make sure that what you are trying to convey is in fact what is coming across. 

WHAT TO PRACTICE - Margo Garrett

Margo was the mama bear professor in our collaborative piano department at Juilliard, supporting all of us in whatever goals we had. She is a true mentor as I’ve defined it - she has advocated for me in numerous arenas, putting her weight behind me to help me achieve my goals - and I cannot thank her enough.  

In lessons, Margo had something on point to say about any challenge. I forget the context, but I remember her saying that, ideally, you should have on your practice list repertoire in all stages of development: perhaps one piece you have just begun, one that you can almost play through fluently, and one that is nearing performance and needs to be refined with a fine polish. I found this formula to extend my practice endurance; by shifting tasks periodically, I am able to focus better, practice for longer, and be more productive. Cuz, let’s be honest, if you’re faced with learning notes for three hours, you’ll probably end up on your phone scrolling through Facebook. 

CREATING THE VISION - Brian Zeger

My lessons with Brian, a pianist and head of the vocal arts department at Juilliard, were intellectual in a way that I really enjoyed. I would often jot down his reading recommendations in the margins of my scores, in the hopes that someday, when performances weren’t breathing down my neck, I’d have some time to check them out. 

I think a lot of my teaching style takes after Brian’s - starting with big principles, proceeding logically, and bringing in lots of context for the music. One of the uniquely pianistic tricks that I learned from Brian was what he called “ideal to real.” The challenge of piano playing is that we have 10 fingers, but often they are sharing musical roles interchangeably and rapidly in real time. Unlike most instruments, pianists are expected to execute counterpoint, that is the interplay of several independent voices at a time. It might be easier if the melody voice was always in the right hand, or always in certain fingers. In reality, it never is, and mastery of the shifting voices in complex music is what sets truly great pianists apart (in my opinion). 

To untangle the tangle, Brian would have me simplify the texture until I could isolate the voice I was trying to shape. For instance, I’d play one voice with the most convenient fingers, rather than the ones actually required, in order to play it in the most ideal way possible. Once I had heard it in its “ideal” form and gotten that sound in my ear, I could then go back and try to recreate it under “real” conditions. 

This strategy has so many benefits - close listening, getting unstuck from the physicality of playing, transcending instrumental constraints and creating the sound world of your dreams. It’s something I often tell my students when they get too caught up in just wiggling their fingers. 

FINDING THE EASE - Jonathan Feldman 

Of course, piano is a physical pursuit, and someone needs to talk about that dimension, but few know how. Jonathan was our department chair and our gruff but softhearted papa bear to Margo’s mama bear. I credit him with rebuilding my flawed piano technique and opening up the entire piano repertoire to me. I fear no piece now, thanks to him and the Taubman approach

To get there, however, he had to break down my existing technique patiently for about a year. Re-learning something you have done for the last almost three decades is not easy, worse if you have been told you are pretty good at it. During my entire first year at Juilliard, as I re-learned how to play each finger, I felt like I had lost the ability to play anything at all. Every time I sat down, I had irrational fears of “falling off” the keyboard, as if the piano and I had gone down Alice’s rabbit hole and it had grown twenty sizes taller. 

I remember Jonathan once, after I had been hacking at a piece with obvious frustration, raising an eyebrow and saying, “You know, playing the piano can actually be pretty comfortable.” Comfort was the last thing on my mind, but you could see it in his playing. If he wanted to demonstrate at the piano, he’d playfully bark “Get up!” and take your place on the bench, then proceed to play with the exact same ease with which he had been sitting in his chair the moment earlier, eating his yogurt. 

The idea that playing should be pain-free and fluid guided me to the technical breakthroughs I would eventually have while working intensively with him at the Music Academy over the summer. It also instilled in me the non-negotiable belief that if something starts to hurt, it is time to stop. No exceptions. Playing piano is a physical pursuit; knowing your body as a pianist is just as important as for any athlete. 

HOW TO PRACTICE - Andrew Harley

Andrew Harley, visiting professor at Juilliard for a year and now at Eastman, joins many esteemed teachers in encouraging the exact opposite of what you hear in the practice rooms: playing through pieces as fast as humanly possible. Pianists are particularly guilty of this, racing through works like gazelles darting helter-skelter across the plains, evading some lethal predator, perhaps an impending competition, important lesson, or one’s own self-doubt. 

And in response, Andrew would say in his scholarly British way: practice slowly with the most beautiful sound you can muster. And you know what? I found that if I had the self-control to actually do it, it saved me hours of time. A few times slowly and beautifully through a piece would engrave my musical vision into my brain way more indelibly than a hundred times running through it.

HOW LONG TO PRACTICE - a recommended source and a not recommended source. 

This is the number one question that I get from people curious about the life of a musician, and it is a big one. But unlike practicing slowly, which most teachers agree on, this question can be very divisive. 

Once, I was at a summer festival having a lesson with a noted pianist and pedagogue, and I have to admit he was not really helping. Among other things, I had asked how much practice time is ideal because I was struggling with the intensive practice, rehearsal, and coaching schedule at the festival. He shrugged and said that when he was a young pianist, the sky was the limit - he would practice as many hours a day as possible, 8 or more not out of the question. Then he paused, and said, “Well, then there’s the other view. Robert Levin says that a smart pianist doesn’t need more than 2 hours a day.” 

Now. I had already realized that this pianist, while a laureate of prestigious competitions and active performer, was not an effective teacher. However, having studied with Levin at Harvard, I know he is a legit genius and a wonderful teacher (his masterclasses are second to none - check them out on Youtube). I am not Robert Levin, but I know I can work smart. Given the choice between Levin’s approach and the approach of this teacher, I now aim for 2-3 hours a day. Look, I need a little buffer to account for the enormous gap in intelligence between me and Bob Levin :)


BONUS: WHEN IS IT GOOD ENOUGH? Joseph Yungen

Joseph Yungen was a fellow doctorate student with me and is one of the most innately talented pianists I know. But he was also amazingly zen and even joyful about playing the piano, an activity that left many of us stressed and/or depressed. I remember playing Beethoven Piano Sonata Op. 78 for Joseph and some other colleagues in preparation for a recital. The enormity of the task of playing Beethoven didn’t help my feeling that I was falling far short of what it deserved. I turned to my friends for comments afterwards, hoping they would lay down the smack and whip me into shape. Instead, Joseph, in his considered way, said, “It’s already very beautiful. But you can’t struggle against it and expect it to get better. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Just let it go and enjoy it.” I generally hate such advice, but in this case he was right - sometimes you just have to let go of perfectionism and expectations and just remember the privilege of playing this amazing repertoire. A practice session in that mindset is never time wasted. 

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