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Building Piano Chops

(Play video at the bottom of the post as a sound track for reading s'il vous plait) This summer, I set a personal goal to become a better piano player.  Not to accompany children.  Not to play for my classes.  I want to better my piano playing just to be better.  I wanted to enjoy sitting in front of the instrument and practicing.

I am pleased to announce that I am achieving my goals.  I'm making outstanding progress with far less practice than expected.  Within two weeks, I was playing with much greater ease and looking forward to practice sessions.  I have gone from 30 minutes of practice per day to over two hours.  I'm sight reading pieces that I could not have worked up before.  I'm playing Chopin and Czerny and Beethoven! 

If you struggle with the fact that your piano skills are poor, take heart.  I'll explain how I am approaching the subject.  I use the present tense because these skills will need years to really develop.  I'm making a solid foundation and enjoying myself immensely.  

Why now?
As you may know, my piano skills have never been all that I want them to be.  My training was as a classical french horn player.  Since many systems have accompanists for choruses or no chorus at all, I've not had to play piano a lot in my teaching career, but it has always bothered me.  I wish that I could be as good at piano as I was at the french horn when I was in High School.  That would be more than enough skill to get me through the simple octavo accompaniments.

So why not develop my skills to that level?  What may be holding you back?  Let's explore.  Without conquering the inner dialogues that keep us from trying, we don't try.

The Inner Game of Excellence
I went to Juilliard in High School and Curtis and NEC in college.  I know what good piano playing is, I've played with the best.  Leon Fleisher was one of the best chamber music coaches I ever had.  He demonstrated for us in Tanglewood.  I've worked with Chrisoph Eschenbach, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Sir Georg Solti, all virtuoso pianists.   I know that I will never be a pianist at their level, so I figured that I shouldn't even try.

They say that becoming a virtuoso at anything takes about 10,000 hours of practice, and that is about right.  I've known many virtuoso pianists and this is the amount of time they've put into it.  When they start, they may do 5 hours of practice a week, but when they get serious, they shoot up to 2-3 hours.  When they finally encounter competition at a camp or festival, they realize that they need to step up their game.  So, after 2-5 years of 10-15 hours/week, they go to 5 hours a day or 30-35 hours/week.  Let's look at this math.  If a pianist does a few years of light practice, then 2-3 years of moderate practice, then 3 years of intense practice, they might get into a conservatory after about 6,500 hours of practice.  That is when they BEGIN to really get good.  Now their 5 hours continues as well as coachings, chamber music, and accompanying for extra cash.  The 10,000 hours is met before college graduation and they begin competitions.

Is it any wonder that I just threw my hands up in the air and decided not to try for many years?

Egotistical little twit who doesn't try vs a mature woman who embraces challenge
Humiliation vs humility
Well, I'm not going to play Rachmaninoff concerti, I just want to play piano pretty well.  Time passes weather I get better or not.  Why not be a grown up and graciously accept where I am and move forward?  Using an inflated and false ego to not achieve something is cowardice.  I needed to confront myself on this point and dope-slap myself.  Turning humiliation into humility is the mark of a mature human being.  My husband and best friend encouraged me to mature more as a musician and just sit down and practice!

Get lessons
For the past two summers, I've taken lessons from our church pianist.  She's had lots of insights about accompanying.  In 2009 and 2010, I concentrated on learning accompaniments I wanted to play for the upcoming year's concerts.  I also learned how to play from lead sheets, make lead sheets, and practice for enhancing my technique.  My teacher was really wonderful in that she tailored my learning to what I really wanted to know.  I got loads of ideas from her and recorded accompaniments at home for playing at school.  I also incorporated more piano into my general music lessons and have been less afraid of the piano.

Practice from a book
My teacher, however, said that I needed to hunker down some day and go through the Thompson books so that I get real technique.  "They really develop you as a pianist.  Kids who play from those books are really polished."

That is what I'm doing this year.  I did book 1 last year and this summer I'm on to book two.  I'm not taking lessons this summer because I wanted to go at my own pace, and I change repertoire every 3 days because I've decided to go through the book with concentration.  I'm a healthy hour each day, about 10 pages a week.  I'm playing Haydn and Chopin, and finally enjoying piano for the first time in my life. 

Next year I'll be on book 3 and I'll go back to lessons.  By then I'll know how fast I can finish a piece and my teacher can give me assignments that really challenge me.

Brief description of how I attacked this weakness, year by year.

Summer 2010 : Took lessons to play piano accompaniments that I thought were do-able.  I learned some new fingerings and worked on technique.  I improved during the summer, but my sight reading was still not good and I didn't feel like I substantially improved on the instrument.

Summer 2011: I took lessons to learn more accompaniments and my teacher had some ideas that she also shared from choruses she had directed.  We noticed that playing from a fake book was very freeing and helped me improve my reading skills at the piano.  Worked on how to write and read from fake books and lead sheets.

Summer 2012: No accompaniments this summer, just piano playing.  Thompson Book II.  Begin the summer with 30-60 minutes per day, 6 days a week.  Now, as of Mid-July, I am playing 1-2 hours per day.  At least 30 minutes of my day is spent sight reading!  My technique is very much improved and I know I am a better player.  I feel like the past two summer were bandages on a wounded skill.  This summer I really feel like I'm a better pianist!  I am sight reading things that used to be pieces I'd work up.  This is so exciting to me that I'm looking forward to each new practice session.  I'm really glad that I did this summer's work.  I feel like I've scratched a musical itch that I had sorely missed since my french horn days.  There's a palpable joy when you finally begin to get good at an instrument.  I haven't felt this way since I was in High School and had just fallen in love with the horn!  

Substantial improvement was accomplished after about 30 hours of recorded practice!  I expected this to happen only after hundreds of hours, but I'm not a beginning musician, just a novice pianist.  I was such a fool to wait so long to try.

August 10, 2012
I finished the Thompson book and ordered "A Romantic Sketchbook for piano, book 1" from the UK.  I'm having a blast playing and my sight reading is so much better!  I'm sight reading pieces that I would not have even attempted in the past.  The progress I made this summer in about 50 hours of practice I expected to take hundreds of hours.  I'm going to play for all my classes the opening week of school to pretest them on form, rhythm, and reading.  I'm so excited. 


Anonymous said…
Illuminating, Thanks.
Anonymous said…
Nice post. I went through the post I found it very informative and useful. Thanks for sharing.

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