Workshop on Effective Practice Techniques
Make Your Practice Sessions Pleasurable

by Carol Barth

On Sunday, May 22, 2005 Nancy ONeill Breth led a workshop designed to help AMSF members develop effective practice techniques. Twenty members attended the workshop, which took place in the home of Carol Barth. Ms. Breth gave each person an excellent resource, a copy of her published pamphlet, The Piano Students Guide to Effective Practicing, published by Hal Leonard Corporation. The Guide contains an overview of the topic plus 58 very practical tips to help students address problem areas in their playing.

Prior to the workshop, Ms Breth invited members to submit specific practice problems, either for discussion or for some collaborative work during the workshop. Here are some of the specific issues addressed:

  • Pat Onufrak asked for a discussion of the process of getting started on a new piece, of fingering and getting off to a good start
  • Nancie Marzulla wanted to discuss the daily practice schedule, technical exercises such as Czerny, and practice tips that would help with memorizing
  • The following members played various selections for which they were seeking Nancy's practice suggestions:
    • Steve Rosenthal and Felicia Weiss, first movement of Milhaud Scaramouche
    • Jean Moore, June from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, Op. 37b
    • Allan Reiter, Forlane by Ravel
    • Anne Williams, Invitation to the Dance by von Weber
    • Diane Cormicle, Chopin Nocturne Db Major Op. 27, #2
    • Carol Barth, Ravel Valse A La Maniere de Borodine
    • Ed Aymar, Scarlatti Sonata in D Major

Ms. Breth offered advice to each participant to specifically address each problem area, and for many the results were immediately apparent. Nancy told me that I just needed to memorize four measures, so I didnt have to concentrate on both the written page and where I was traveling on the keyboard. I have now memorized that very short section, and am able to play the piece much more fluidly and with expression.

Richard Smith commented that "A few basic ideas wove throughout Nancys presentation. First, technique should serve the music. The point of technical precision is not virtuosic display but musical expression. The tips explained in her Guide to Effective Practicing involve repetition, training in muscular relaxation, and building confidence in ones ability to play difficult passages so that the performer can move beyond anxiety about playing the right notes and focus instead on the primary task at hand--i.e., bringing the music to full expressive life."

Nancy stressed that there are always many different possibilities for interpreting a piece and that we should focus on those within our technical abilities. She commented that the great performers whose recordings we listen to might not need to use such tools as dynamic variation because they have subtler expressive means at their command. We may not have this option. When you can play like Mitsuko Uchida, she joked, then you can perform three repeated phrases all at the same volume, but till then, youd better consider varying the dynamics to keep it interesting.

She also stated that while we want to stretch ourselves technically, of course, we should also be realistic about our abilities. She provided the following rule of thumb. When starting work on a new piece, it is not possible to play the entire piece up to tempo. But, she said, we should be able to pick out any given measure and play that measure, just that one measure, at full tempo. If we cant, the piece may be beyond us at the moment.

Donna Baldwin felt that it was fascinating to watch Ms. Breth diagnose the practice problems people presented. Seeing her methodically work through difficulties provided a very useful model. Rather than repeating mistakes over and over, without understanding why they were occurring, she demonstrated how to pinpoint specific problems so they can be fixed.

In the heat of practicing, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by complex passages or problems, but Ms. Breth demonstrated how to break seemingly complex problems into smaller, more manageable units. Approaching practice from the perspective of "making the hard parts easy" is an effective way to overcome obstacles.

Ms. Breth said that punishing ourselves for our mistakes is "just cruel." All we need to do is correct our mistakes and move on. (She said this in the context of using buttons to track progress in playing passages perfectly 5 times in a row, using this as a game to make repetition fun.)

I enthusiastically recommend Ms. Breth's Guide to Effective Practicing to every member.