Robert J. Lawrence (Jimmy)
There is a next-level to your quest for solving the practice problem. I’ve talked about engagement and focus, and the following is going to lend to that engagement by giving you many more things to think about during your practice:
One of the most surprisingly impactful things to keep in mind, particularly for pianists (but this applies to everyone) is economy of motion. As my teacher has indicated, why make your fingers (and all their various muscles and ligaments) work so hard when your wrist can do most of that work with ease? Or your forearm? Or your shoulders? Really spend time looking at how much work you’re doing and see if there is a better, more efficient, and easier way.
There is more to music than playing a bunch of notes with rhythmic accuracy; utilizing the larger muscle groups can also lend to improved phrasing. I am always annoyed at myself when I realize that I am playing like a robot. Allowing the body (yes, the whole body) to be more free and fluid gives the music a sense of flow, because, well, it’s almost like dancing. Thinking about how your body desires to move through a passage can offer a lot of insight into how the music itself wants to flow – just remember to keep in mind what the composer is showing you what to portray, and usually it will make sense and you can reconcile it with your larger movements.
Voicing and touch
As for voicing and touch, which are a little more on the finer detail end of this spectrum – though still influenced by the aforementioned motion – think about which notes are most important. If you’ve ever compared a MIDI track to a real performance of the same piece, you’ll notice that there is no life to it. That’s because a good performer has worked out that some notes are more important than others, even in the same chord. And it’s more than just “velocity” (volume); the combination of velocity, articulation, and even start/end time for each note has an impact on how a piece feels. Quick tip: usually, it’s the highest voice that’s most important. But don’t let that fool you; watch for where the melody is, the counter-melody, important bass notes and even small motives. This is where analyzing your piece really shines – knowing which voices and chunks to pull out of the music is personal and one of the most effective ways of differentiating your performance from a bland, soulless, MIDI-esque sound into a meaningful and purposeful one.
Percussionists – from the technique you use to the exact location you strike the drum, this applies to you too. This is why your teachers want your rudiments to be practiced both open and closed, forte and pianissimo, and with a variety of grips and techniques (German, French, Moeller, Finger-Control, etc.)
Drummers – Yeah, you too. How loud is your ride compared to your snare? And how loud is your snare compared to your kick? Just sayin’.
Record & listen
I hate listening to myself on a recording. When you practice, or even when you’re performing, for some reason our mind lets go of all the little nuances that didn’t go as planned. So it really shouldn’t be the only time you listen to yourself; record your playing, get out a pencil and your music, and get ready to take notes. This is a time you can really tell what you need to work on during your practice. Also take the time to listen to others perform the music you are working on – and don’t just listen to professionals! Youtube is a great place to learn what you are doing well, and where you can improve. It also opens you up to other interpretations of the piece that you may want to incorporate (or avoid, for that matter).
Practice differently (again)
Dive deep into your subconscious by practicing away from your instrument. Get into your own head, and go through an entire performance – think about how your fingers feel on the instrument, where your limbs should be, how it should sound. Really try to recreate the performance in your mind as if it were really happening – you might surprise yourself with your own concentration. It’s also a great way to meditate, and if you don’t have access to your instrument while traveling, this will keep your mind sharp and ready for when you do.
Have you tried some of these strategies? Please tell us about it in the comments section!
Jimmy here! My desire is to help others grow musically - especially those who don't have access to resources. I'm a husband, father of three, graduate student, and music educator.