What is the best way to practice

Practical reports from the TASTENWELT

by TW-Redaktion on.

Practice is the transition from knowing to doing. This applies to sequences of movements as well as to musical and artistic design. The aim of this post on proper practice is to introduce you to methods that you can use to improve your musical skills and have more fun through a sense of achievement.

Play through notes three times quickly, off to piano lesson - and fell into the trap again. This will sound familiar to many: either from the children or - if you are honest with yourself - from your own musical biography. The bitter realization: Playing through is just not practicing. And unfortunately, the vernacular is right when it says that no master has yet fallen from heaven. The child prodigies of the different ages can be safely left out, because they too practiced.

So if you have to struggle, then you should be not only effective, but also efficient. The goal of the greatest possible success with the least possible use of resources will hardly be achieved when practicing on the instrument, because making music is a highly complex matter and everyone has to struggle with their own individual difficulties. But that doesn't go wrong with the general goal.

There is no shortage of over-the-top ideas in the literature and certainly on the Internet: There is the academic school, where you train fluency for hours and establish fixed sequences of movements; other models start from the sound and derive the movement patterns from the ideal sound. This makes more sense for strings and wind instruments than for keyboard players. Some swear by mental practice, others try to get into the so-called flow - a state of complete immersion and immersion in an activity in which everything goes by itself. A recently scientifically described approach is that of differential learning. The author Martin Widmaier also classifies the principle of rotating attention here - a widespread concept developed by the late cellist and teacher Gerhard Mantel.

Why practice at all

The goal of all methods is to get better somehow, but that is not all. Seymour Bernstein tends to one extreme in his book “With Own Hands”, in which the late pianist, composer and teacher formulates his thoughts on piano lessons and piano practice: “The more we develop our talents, the more efficient we are in everyone else For him, practicing and performing music is, on the one hand, a key to self-realization, but on the other hand, it's about more - about so-called (self-) integration, in which feeling and intellect are brought into harmony. In the first chapter of his book, Bernstein promises: “Anyone who engages in music in the manner of practicing [...] can create the same order and harmony in himself that he finds in music. When this process of practicing gets underway, the practitioner understands it; he takes it in and uses it for every day-to-day process. "

We would rather not promise you that you will become a better person if you read this special and take it to heart while practicing. However, we can help you to understand practicing and to approach it systematically so that your effort and the time invested are not in vain. In other words: Our goal is that you do not get to a point while practicing where you - or your children - no longer feel like making music because they are frustrated by the type and results of the practice. And unfortunately there are enough - maybe even well-intentioned - recipes for exactly this in the various treatises for practicing: It then means that always practiced absolutely correctly and in the same way and that every error must be compensated for by "ten correct passes" . Even if you may accept that for your own practice, anyone can imagine the reaction of a pubescent teenager when the already annoying old people come across with such an announcement. It's good that science now has a better understanding of how learning actually works, and that this sort of grinding doesn't have to be.

What happens when you practice

If you talk to doctors, they tell you exciting details about practicing. After just a few minutes of practicing quick finger movements, procedures such as magnetic resonance imaging can be used to demonstrate that there is increased activity in the area of ​​the frontal and temporal lobes. After about half an hour of practicing, an increase in the size of the activated brain regions can be determined. However, this is not yet consolidated and disappears again after a week without practicing.

Practicing means building, refining and maintaining so-called representations in the brain. These are neural networks that represent a kind of internal action plan. The nervous system falls back on this because it would be too slow for the conscious design of all processes with fast music. The control programs themselves run as far as possible without sensorimotor feedback, but can still be corrected in parts.

At the beginning there is a still uncoordinated draft of the movements, "which is then economized in the course of the practice with the help of learning and doing (procedural learning)", writes Stephan Berg in his thesis it "Practice: Diverse learning paths in the field of tension between different methods and scientific Disciplines ". Not only does he come to the conclusion that the mental imagination of movement sequences or the concentrated observation of the playing movements of other musicians lead to the motor and auditory brain regions involved being activated and the representations being maintained. The sense of mental training has been proven from a neurological point of view.

According to popular belief, anyone who takes the fundamentals about the relationships in the brain to heart will optimize their practice process and thereby gain efficiency. You should know: The content of the exercise is learned and processed in breaks and in sleep. A time interval of several hours is calculated. So sleep deprivation should be avoided. There are also some arguments in favor of distributed practice. Practicing 15 minutes before work and 15 minutes in the evening seems to do more than a single 30-minute session. There is also evidence that the brain learns faster if different forms of movement are practiced in a timely manner. Frequent repetitions without variation take longer, whether they are anchored less stable is still being discussed. Those who practice too much stand in the way of their success. The optimum, however, differs from person to person and depends on the ability to concentrate and endurance. According to the literature, however, after 30 to 45 minutes of intensive practice, a point seems to have been reached at which fine motor performance and exercise success decrease again. Solution: Take a 10 minute break. Possible second problem: Those who exercise too much and / or with the wrong posture also run the risk of falling ill. This starts with chronic overuse symptoms and ranges from carpal tunnel syndrome to various disorders of the musculoskeletal system. On the other hand, there does not seem to be a triggering connection between exercise and focal dystonia, a neurological disorder in which learned movements can no longer be performed. However, chronic overload and previous damage to nerves or muscles are considered risk factors. In addition, musicians also like to call in the back and demand attention.

Create the conditions

An important prerequisite for successful practice is a positive mood: You should look forward to practicing! In order for this to work, you can create a few prerequisites: Your instrument should not only have the prerequisites that people enjoy playing on it, it should also be in a comfortable place. Who likes to spend time in a dark corner? You want to develop artistically, and the space should also play a role. Accordionists have it easy because they are mobile. If, as a pianist - acoustic or digital - you cannot find a nice place for your instrument, you may be able to improve the situation with small changes. Make sure you have good lighting. If you need it more intimate while practicing, a room divider might help. Or is the photo of a pianist model over the instrument an incentive for you?

Anyone who thinks they are on the presentation plate is quickly blocked: The feeling of disturbing other people - in your own household or neighbors - with their own practice has a negative effect on the result. Anyone who expects that the umpteenth repetition of a passage could disturb the family or the neighbors will probably not master the passage. It is therefore important to find time windows in which you can practice in a relaxed manner. If the time window is not enough, digital solutions can help: you can practice on the keyboard with headphones, and on the digital piano too. There are mute systems for the piano, and accordionists can now also practice digitally using headphones. Headphones alone are certainly not a solution, but they can help relax the practice situation.

Then when you start practicing, your own goals are crucial: the principle of hope does not help. Always practice with specific goals and control your success! But set yourself realistic goals that you can achieve in the time you have and with your musical skills in a manageable time frame. Intermediate goals help you to master long-term goals efficiently.

Some educators recommend structuring the practice time strictly: You then read about 2 minutes of stretching, 10 minutes of scales, 15 minutes each for the first, second and third piece of literature, 10 minutes of sight reading and a final 5 minutes of stretching. Instead of a time corset, you should pay attention to a rough time grid so that you can react flexibly to the situation while practicing. A practice diary makes sense, examples of which can be found in Mark Andreas Giesecke's book "Practicing Clever, Practicing Sensibly, Playing Successfully" (in the form of a table) or in Martin Widmaier's "On the System Dynamics of Practicing" (in diary form). So it is not the should be noted before the practice, but the actual afterwards. From the observation you can plan your workload more realistically over time.

Work out a piece

Working on a new piece usually starts with the notes. Exception: If you are active as a cover musician, you will probably start by listening to the piece from recordings and creating notes or lead sheets yourself.

Before the first note of a new piece is played, the notes have to be understood - and that too is an important exercise. More often than expected, amateur musicians fail in complex passages because they cannot grasp the musical text correctly or not quickly enough. Seymour Bernstein therefore always recommended to his students at the start:

“A) Determine the key and time signature.

b) Determine all rhythmic values ​​and their relationship to one another.

c) Learn all the scales and arpeggios.

d) Determine all intervals and determine how they are distributed over the lines and spaces of the system of lines. The following will facilitate visual understanding:

1. Thirds, fifths and sevenths extend from line to line or from space to space.

2. Seconds, fourths, sixths, and octaves extend from line to space or vice versa.

e) Learn to recognize chords and their inversions.

f) Determine all cadences, especially IV - V - I. "

The analysis can, of course, go further, depending on the piece of music chosen. It is also important to recognize molded parts and to penetrate the construction plan. Because if you dive into the details later, the big picture must not be lost from view. The analysis can be well supported by listening: you either already have one or more recordings on CD or you will find it on the Internet. It can also be enough to look for a recording on YouTube. On the internet you have to take into account that you don't necessarily get to hear the optimal interpretation. On the other hand, there are also many treasures by famous performers that are worth discovering. Gerhard Mantel already recommends in his book “Simply practice”: “You can learn from role models. Imitating one another forces one to observe in detail [...] and expands the experience horizon. "

The first attempt of your own will probably be sight-reading. It is important to note that the tempo should be so slow that you can safely read and implement all the basic parameters of the piece, i.e. tones, rhythm and fingerings. Piano teacher and tastenwelt author Martin Pfeifer already gave the important advice in one of his earlier contributions: "There is always a speed at which a difficulty can be overcome - no matter how slow it is." If there are still no fingerings, listen their definition also for the important preparatory work - even if the fingerings can still change in the course of the development.

Relearn how to practice

In his recently published book “On System Dynamics of Exercise”, Martin Widmaier designs a model based on what is known as differential learning. He makes use of the knowledge of sports science, which seems to explore the learning of movement sequences more systematically and more deeply than is the case in music. In principle, it is about varied practice - but with plan and intention. This is based on the results of studies that show that the brain learns movement more quickly and sustainably when difference patterns are recognized. Repeating the same thing over and over again without differences in movements or other parameters, on the other hand, seems less useful.

The fact that one should practice variations is not a new finding - these tips are part of traditional knowledge. Widmaier's investigation shows, however, that variants per se do not yet stand for greater success, but that these should be carefully compared in order to systematically develop the solution space from the differences between the variants. When it comes to sound design, for example, juxtaposing soft and hard seems more effective than trying out different variants of soft. Even if Gerhard Mantel could not have known anything about a differential approach during his lifetime, Widmaier included his concept of "rotating attention" (picture above) in his differential learning model. Mantel postulated: “When playing, attention can only consciously control one aspect at a time; the game has to be able to rely on what has already been learned and what happens unconsciously. ”When practicing, it is therefore important to keep focusing on other aspects and to improve them with attention. Mantel developed his subject area for the cello - as can be seen in the bow division and other parameters. However, you can omit these on other instruments or add your own aspects: With the accordion you think of working with the bellows, on the keyboard also of the registration, with the piano you have to consider pedaling.

The exercise sequence worth striving for could be defined as follows: Apply the topics from Mantel's rotating attention to the exercise piece and pay attention to differences in the individual passages: fast - slow, bound - staccato, soft - hard, happy - sad, etc. Of course, this assumes that you already have a certain basic skill and also have some analytical skills to find meaningful classifications. For children and adult beginners, it is vital that the teacher prepares, guides and teaches the practice.

Honest with yourself

It is essential for the success of your own practice to be honest with yourself. You not only have to set realistic goals, you also have to monitor progress - or failures. Because you can only have limited control while playing, you should use some aids. A mirror can help to maintain the correct position on the instrument; videos are suitable for subsequent observation. It doesn't have to be an expensive camcorder, a video-compatible smartphone can be found almost everywhere these days.

When it comes to listening, you can use the built-in recorder with digital instruments - and here audio rather than MIDI recordings, because the latter may falsify the rhythm actually played through quantization. With acoustic instruments, pocket recorders, for example, are used, with which excellent sound results can be achieved. If necessary, you can also use a microphone that can be connected to the smartphone to achieve a better sound than the built-in microphone.

In this respect, a self-playing piano such as the Yamaha Disklavier Enspire has proven to be the most luxurious variant: The grand piano records the playing digitally and reproduces it acoustically using the automatic playing mechanism and strings.Martin Pfeifer, who tested the instrument for this edition, sees it as a new opportunity for efficient practice: “The position of the listener and the decoupling of the playing process from listening enable you to learn an incredible amount about your own playing in a short period of time and develop solely through the other's perception musically further. Especially since the reproduction of what is played is absolutely exact. A pure audio recording cannot keep up with that. "

Mistakes happen and you have to allow them to happen so that you don't get blocked when you tackle a task. This should be to practice properly. According to research, a complete lack of inner anger about mistakes made also appears to be counterproductive. In the end, however, it is not just a matter of finding mistakes in recordings or in self-observation, you also have to be able to name them clearly and see them as an opportunity to do something better. If a job just doesn't work out, you usually want too much at once. Then it helps: reduce the tempo, reduce the complexity of the voices - and sometimes put it aside. Some problems are then cleared up like in sleep.

Practicing and learning is not a linear process. It runs in stages, and it often happens that you stay longer on one of these so-called learning plateaus than you would like. But don't put yourself under pressure, just relax and enjoy your lovely hobby of music. And if you don't have an instrument at hand, keep your neural networks in the brain on their toes with mental training.


Book tip: making the impossible possible

Alan Rusbridger was editor-in-chief of the British newspaper Guardian for twenty years until the end of May 2015 and played a key role in earth-shattering revelations (e.g. Edward Snowden). The highly decorated journalist also has an artistic side: he has dedicated himself to the piano with devotion. When he heard a hobby pianist play Chopin's Ballad No. 1 during a workshop in France, he was seized with ambition. For a year he practiced the terrifying piece, which is one of the most difficult in the repertoire, for 20 minutes a day. In his book “Play it again. A year between notes and news. ”(Secession Verlag für Literatur, Zurich) Rusbridger takes readers to the limits of what a recreational musician can achieve in terms of dexterity, concentration, control and musicality. He takes advice from pianists such as Murray Perahia, Richard Goode, Emmanuel Ax, Daniel Baremboim, Stephen Hough and Alfred Brendel. Music historians and theorists spur him on and neuroscientists explain to him in a completely different way what playing the piano actually is. The book, written in a very entertaining way, gives very deep insights into music and piano practice and shows that you can make progress on the instrument in addition to a demanding day-to-day work. And by the way you learn exciting things from the world of news journalism - e.g. how Rusbridger freed reporters from hostage in Tripoli during the civil war in Libya, how he started a complicated partnership with the idiosyncratic WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the New York Times and the German Spiegel manages and how he brings the UK magazine News of the World phone tapping scandal to the public.

Tags: home recording, piano