In 1500 hours from Beethoven’s Moonlight – Part 1 to Chopin’s Barcarolle Op. 60 sounds challenging? It is and it may require that you had some lessons during your childhood and at least not completely forgotten how to play piano. In this series of articles, I will give an overview about my own journey as an adult, self-teached pianist who – as many of you – struggles to find some time to practice aside from his job and private engagements.
Let me recap how I got back to my piano first.
I had regular piano lessons during my childhood, at least for some 3 or 4 years from different teachers. Most prominent was a professional pianist from the orchestra in Karlsruhe. Getting a year of teaching from her was probably as getting lessons in a conservatory. She was challenging me a lot and waking my interest and joy in every lesson. It was a priceless experience that changed the way how I perceived piano practice and playing.
Unfortunately I had to quit piano playing at the age of 17, as I lost the opportunity to play on the piano in a bar, that my parents owned, and I had no instrument at home. After 5 years, I was able to get my hands on an old and dusty e-Piano. I ripped its electronics apart and built in a MIDI controller along with a piano sound module and restarted playing regularly, at least once a week. I always also used to sing and play along and so I made the next 25 years just fiddling around with some new pop songs, evergreens and whatever came under my hands and voice. 5 years ago, my daughter asked me to give her some lessons. I digged into some teaching and practice literature, which changed the way I perceived piano playing completely. I decided to take it more seriously, jumped back to my old passion of playing classic music (romantics in particular) and started organizing my practice.
During this time I learned so much about practice, the way how brain and body reacts to it, discipline, passion, physiology and a whole lot of things that are important to get the most out of your practice time. So let me summarize the key learnings, that brought me in 1500 hours from a well manageable Moonlight-Sonata (first part) to the rather ambitious Barcarolle, just to give an impression to you, what you could be able to achieve, with the right mindset and methods.
Before I start, just a little note as there‘s a bad and a good news, when you‘re willing to take the journey:
The bad news: There‘s no magic!
The good news: There‘s no magic!
Fundamentals of piano practice changed the way I perceived piano practice. There‘s no such thing as talent says Chang, and I believe he is totally right. Talent comes from passion and discipline, doing things that you love to do, makes them easy to do. An external observer may perceive your capabilities as talent, because he doesn‘t see how much work is required to get to that point. He sees that you love doing what you‘re doing, because you love it, because it is your passion to do it. If you decide to take that journey, make sure that you really love to do it for yourself. Passion will pay back, as it will happen, that doing exercises, especially some boring ones, will require a lot of self motivation and joy. But done thoroughly will lead to impressive results.
You remember? There‘s no magic!
Discipline is the key to become a better instrumentalist. Setting challenging targets without exaggerating, tackling them step by step, day by day without loosing passion and joy, requires discipline and flexibility. Regularity, structure, consciousness and self-reflection are all elements to be observed along the path and these require your readiness to go the hard way. That may also mean that you could be forced to postpone a beautiful piece you wanted to learn, in order to achieve the required premises first. That requires discipline, for sure!
It‘s better to practice 15 minutes a day, than two hours on a weekend. Regularity is the second key to become a better instrument player. Certainly, the more you play, the better you will become. At the end, this is a matter of collecting “flight“ hours on your instrument just as a pilot has to collect a certain number of flight hours in order to get his license. Nevertheless, the way experience is collected must consider the way, how biological systems – such as your brain – improve and learn. It has been proven, that human brain continues to “learn“ right after practicing. You can easily test that by yourself, try to practice a small riff, scale or similar on your instrument, just two to four bars, about 3-5 times. Get a short break of 10-15 seconds and then try again. Compare the result of this exercise with the results you achieve when trying to play the same exercise for 15-30 times.
Regularity on the long term, as well as in your daily practice is the key for a sustainable and durable training of your skills.
Structure is key for everyone that – like me – has to somehow squeeze out time for practice from his daily business and duties. Even if you invest just 15 minutes a day, it makes perfectly sense to think about a structure. You may invest a few minutes into dexterity exercises, such as scales. Then jump right to a piece you are currently trying to improve, to leave some minutes to review a piece you are familiar with already, just not to forget it. Rolling through your repertoire day by day is a good way to continuously extend it, without forgetting pieces you once learned.
Structure is also important when learning a new piece and new skills. Don‘t try to learn too many different things at once, slice the challenge into small and digestible chunks, addressing individual skills that you want to improve. Structure improves efficiency and effectivity of your daily practice.
Instrument playing is a complex psycho-physiological activity. It combines nearly every sensory perception and involves nearly your entire body. Your brain has to combine all this information and transform it to complex motions, including a multilevel feedback of immediate perceptions and longer term “modeling“ to create the right sound and atmosphere. Mindful playing, as well as consciously and continuously analyzing the impact of movements to the sounds you are creating, is required to make “just playing around“ to a satisfactory experience for you and your audience. Observing your posture and motions, keeping relaxed and not forcing anything, is key to avoid pain or even injuries, while you may be distracted by your own playing and improving. Consciousness helps improving your skills at a different level than training itself and is crucially important to make your practice an enjoyable and healthy experience.
Self-reflection consistently improves your learning process on the long term. Taking a few minutes to think, or write down, what went well, what went wrong, how your feelings were during practice and what may have influenced that, will definitely help to improve practice. External stress factors, unpleasant experiences or events during the day, tiredness, all of these have a huge impact on your practice experience. Knowing and self-reflecting that, also helps not to get frustrated, when your fingers don‘t really do what you want, and when you run into a hard time trying to keep focused. Step back from your instrument from time to time, think about, what you were doing. Self-reflection improves the way you practice and avoids loosing time, when things just don‘t work the way you want.
I previously mentioned the “flight“ hours. Instrument playing needs time, there‘s no fast track and as I don‘t believe in talent or any other magic thingy, there‘s no way, other than investing time and considering the factors above to improve your playing. The other time “dimension“ besides the sheer effort or “flight“ hours is time period. You won‘t be able to squeeze major improvements into a short period such as days or weeks. It simply requires repetition (again discipline) and therefore a longer time period to learn the level of complex sensory and motoric coordination that is required to play an instrument. Time matters and in this case, the more you invest, the better you will be playing. There’s no way to optimize this.
Another factor that keeps instrumentalists, in particular amateurs, away from improving their skills, is that it requires to leave the comfort zone, and tackle for new challenges. Please don‘t misunderstand me here. If you are just playing for enjoying yourself, just do it! You should always keep some time just to play and fiddle around, without a specific target besides enjoying and having fun with it. Nevertheless, if you want to improve, you will have to leave your comfort zone and carefully select a piece that you always wanted to play and try to tackle the challenges behind it. This may also be a source for new exercises, extending your range and your horizon. Make sure, not to exaggerate and to select pieces too far away from your skills or try to find some simplified versions of it. Taking lessons here is of great help, as a music teacher can easily judge on your capabilities and help you, selecting the right pieces. For the self instructed, as I am, you simply have to invest some more time into carefully selecting and trying appropriate music. Challenges are, what raises you to the next level as an instrumentalist.
The last one is probably the most important. Music is one of the oldest human forms of cultural expression and communication. In all its diversity, music shows the beauty and diversity of humanity itself. See what happens, when people come together to hear or make music, on a festival or a concert. Music is played to entertain people while they are waiting for an event to start, for something important to be announced, to welcome visitors and statesmen. No color, no gender, no social origin, no religion or political orientation makes a difference, music is everywhere and eternal. It makes you move in synchrony with people you never met before and is able to raise your deepest and mostly hidden feelings. Making music can be relaxing, enjoying and exhilarating. Have fun with it!
Concluding this overview, I must say, that a teacher probably would have further improved my efforts, as it happened during my childhood. If you want to take lessons, carefully select your teacher, as adult teaching has its own challenges. Don‘t believe in that books and apps that let‘s you learn to play an instrument just in a few weeks. I mean, that may be a starting point, just to see, if you really can develop your passion for it, but hey… do you really believe that any serious musician was able to reach this skills within a few weeks or so?
Nevertheless, if you are willing to take the journey, you will see the first impressive results within your first one- or two-hundred hours of practice. As you consciously look back in a self-reflection after this time you will feel the improved dexterity in your hands and you will definitely hear it when playing.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is the first of a series of articles I decided to write after my first 1500 hours of practice. I will go into further detail of the different elements I mentioned here and also suggest some more methods and exercises to improve your playing. While I am a pianist of course, some of these will be related to this instrument. Nevertheless, for the general part, you may discover interesting insights, that can help improving on your own instrument.
Have a beautiful day!
Music is the language of passion (Richard Wagner)