A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones.

A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of nature (nerves, inferior pianos, noisy audiences, and so on).

Because this blog is all about practical ideas, here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Have the patience to work out a fingering that makes sense for your hand, and make the commitment to stick with it.
  • Make sure you never learn any wrong notes or wrong rhythms – if you never practise any, why should you ever play any?
  • Make the decision to practise a fast piece slowly for a period of time, resisting the urge to breeze through it at speed.
  • Practise a very loud passage softly, to retain quality of sound and physical ease.
  • Consider each and every note, each and every sound before going for the big gestures.
  • Take each hand alone until we can play it fluently.
  • Return to slow practice, hands separate practice and working in small sections regularly, long after you are able to play the piece though.
  • Distinguish between practising and playing.
  • Have a repertoire of easier pieces you can play through for fun.

Constantly review old repertoire, so you don’t lose it and so that you have something to play when called upon to do so, or for when you just want to experience the joy of playing the piano. This, after all, is why we do it in the first place.