Monday, May 12, 2008

15 Reasons Why Practicing Technique Can Improve Your Time at the Piano

"Do I hafta?"

That's the response from legions of pianists who are required to learn mountains of scales, chords, arpeggios. Like oatmeal, technique is supposed to be good for you, but many pianists think that daily doses of it are bland, uninteresting, and merely a preamble to the real business of being a pianist--playing repertoire.

Yet the study of technique is a discipline that can yield much from the fruits of its labor. Here are some of the ways that you can benefit from the regular practice of technique.

1. Learning the building blocks of music. Most Western music is based on a small number of scales and chords. Isolating these elements and making them a part of your daily routine can help you to better understand your repertoire, whether it be classical, pop, rock, jazz, broadway, or country music.

2. Fingering. Humans are equipped with two hands, each of which has a strong second and third fingers, a weak and interdependent fourth finger, a small but spry fifth finger, and an opposable thumb with a completely different manner of operation than the other fingers. Learning the ins and outs of knowing which fingers to use and how can help you tear up and down the keyboard in most spectacular fashion.

3. Sound. Do you actually listen to the sounds you make while practicing those scales and chords? Having a discerning ear for qualities of sound can make those hours become a workout for the ear as well as the fingers.

4. Memorization. The ability to play music from memory is an extremely valuable skill. And where better to learn it than in the workshop of technical exercises and their weird keys, black vs. white notes, fingerings, patterns, and forms.

5. Velocity. Once you're able to slowly and carefully play through a scale, broken chord, or arpeggio, the time is ripe to increase the speed and get through it quicker. I always like to tell students that in order to achieve velocity, they should be thinking faster in addition to playing faster.

6. Warm-up. There is a certain regularity to technical exercises. Many pianists are comforted by having a daily regimen of warm-up exercises that feature technique in order to help them warm up their fingers, hands, wrists, and arms and achieve a sense of grounding at the keyboard before venturing into the minefield of repertoire.

7. Detail. I've lost count of the times I've written that a student's scales were "almost" perfect or "nearly" accurate. Taking that final step to excellence demands hard work and dedication and what better way to get there than by ironing out the details.

8. Focus and Concentration. Everyone says that practicing technique is good for your fingers and overall playing mechanism. That's only part of the story--technique is also a workout for the mind, building mental focus and clarity that can also be put to use no matter what you play.

9. Weird keys. Part of becoming comfortable playing piano is the art of making friends with distant keys. These unlikely friendships (I'm particularly enamored with D flat major) can often spill over into the discovery and enjoyment of new and unexpected corners of the repertoire.

10. Identifying keys. Before you play a technical exercise, it helps a great deal to be able to understand and visualize what it consists of. Dominant and diminished 7ths in particular require some thought as to their layout before embarking upon playing them.

11. Feel the power. What many pianists discover at some time in their development is that playing fast and loud can be incredibly fun. Once you make this discovery, playing technique can be an exercise in power, command, and control of your playing. Rock out, dude.

12. Get those hands playing together. Left vs. right fingering patterns in parallel motion can be entirely different from each other in many scales. And let's not mention that left hands are often more sloppy and inaccurate than right hands. Spending time with the hands apart as well as together can sometimes be a useful fix for this common problem.

13. Keyboard geography. One of my teachers once compared playing piano to sitting in the press box watching a football game. Technique can help you greatly with learning the lay of the land and help you get from end zone to end zone in the heat of battle.

14. Let loose. Practicing technique isn't just about correctness and rigidity, but a lesson in practicing performance as well. Being able to play technique with sparkle and elan is an important step in transforming from student to artist.

15. Evenness and reliability. Above all, a piano technique should be a skill you can rely on and trust, helping you in even the toughest of performance situations with comfort and command.

Further reading:

The 5 C's of Learning Piano Technique
The Extreme Piano Guide, or 30+1 Ways to Improve Your Practice Time
5 Things to Remember About Fingerings
Developing an Artistic Sensibility
10 Ways to Get a Fresh Start With Summer Practice Assignments


  1. Andrew11:33 PM

    Another wonderful post, which I'll be sending to all my students to read. The only thing I'd take issue with is #5 - I try to get students (and myself) to think in bigger "chunks" of information when playing fast, so that they are actually thinking more slowly when playing faster. Often, when I'm playing at top speeds, my mind seems to slow down into some "Matrix"-like zone where I can stop thinking altogether and just let the technique take over.

    Of course, then I start thinking again and totally blow it!

    1. Anonymous8:36 AM

      I actually just keep playing it from slow to very fast and just keep repeating then repeating even though I have already memorized it until my fingers have a mind of their own they move like automatic.

  2. Great post Chris. I definitely need to send this to my students.

    My students look at me funny when I tell them, "If you don't have a lot of time to practice on a particular day, practice technique." They'd rather run through songs (don't we all?). I reply that technique is what keeps our fingers in shape.

    After all, would a basketball player go into the game without having practiced shooting hoops, dribbling or footwork? Of course not.

    I'd like to suggest a #16 - It helps you learn your pieces more quickly. I think it has to do with being able to process the information more quickly due to pattern recognition.

    I've been working on #5 as well. I tend to think in bigger chunks (groups of eight notes or more) like Andrew when trying to increase velocity.

    Ah, the Matrix zone. In martial arts, that's called "mushin", which translates literally to "no mindedness". The rationale is that if one's mind is clear, then he/she can act and react without hesitation and with fluency and fluidity.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Andrew and Rhona-Mae. Perhaps Yoda's comments on Jedi training are useful here:

    "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

  4. Great list to go over when emphasizing technique with students. Using technique to warm up is so important for a worthwhile practice session, especially playing scales, etc, in the key(s) of your repertoire.

  5. Excellent! I love this and I will be sending my students here to read this. So many students do not realize how much easier piano playing can become when they practice technique.