Have you ever wondered if you're practicing your music in the most effective way? In today's Practice Project blog, we explore several key practice techniques from Chuan C. Chang's book, ‘Fundamentals of Piano Practice', which was first published in 2007 and is now in its third edition.
Chang was born in Taiwan, but it was while living in Japan that he started learning the piano. Then, after moving to the US, his interest in piano teaching methods was sparked by observing how Mademoiselle Yvonne Combe taught his daughters to play.
Chang realised that the theory and methodology of piano teaching had never been fully researched or documented before; his book was an attempt to rectify that. But many of the techniques he writes about are applicable beyond the piano, and translate easily to music practice more generally.
1. Listen First
There is a belief that listening to a piece first, before playing it, is akin to cheating - the thinking being that learners may end up imitating someone else’s interpretation of the music, instead of developing their own. But Chang argues it’s impossible to truly imitate someone else in this context, because all musicians’ styles are so individual. And he insists that listening to other musicians play is an essential tool for all musicians.
By familiarising yourself with how a new piece should sound, and listening to different interpretations of the music - before you start to practice it - you expose yourself to new ideas and possibilities, broadening your perspective and your understanding of the music. So the next time you are preparing to play a brand new piece, Chang suggests taking some time to listen to different recordings and performances of the music, and to think carefully about the unique qualities that each one offers.
Listening to the piece first, ahead of practicing it, also helps you to form an aural image of the music - which will act as an invaluable guide when you do start your practice. Aural imaging involves visualising a piece of music before practicing it, as a sort of internal soundcheck. It helps learners to develop an idea of the key musical features of the piece they are about to learn.
2. Analyse Structure
Before learning any new piece, Chang suggests you should also analyse the structure of the music.
By breaking down the piece into manageable sections, and counting bars and repeats for example, you can estimate how long it will take you to learn it. For example, mastering a 4-bar motif, that is repeated 15 times in a 120 bar piece, means you've already conquered half of the piece.
Breaking down the structure of the music in this way can also help you to memorise the piece more effectively. Musicians often organise their memory of a new piece by reference to the overall structural qualities of the music, and then anchor different sections of the music in their ‘structural memory’ using different performance cues.
So Chang’s approach of systematically analysing the structure of a piece - at the start - is ideal preparation for learning and memorising new music, for the piano or any other instrument.
3. Learn Difficult Sections First
Chang recommends prioritising the trickier parts of any new piece. These sections usually take longer to learn, and so should be given more practice time when you are planning your sessions.
By tackling these challenging parts head-on, you should avoid delays and frustration down the line, and also boost the overall accuracy of your performance.
4. Segment Difficult Passages
If you feel a bit overwhelmed by a challenging passage of music, Chang advises breaking it down into manageable sections. Divide a complex 4-bar passage into four 1-bar segments, for instance.
Segmentation allows for focused, consistent repetition, and makes it easier to master each segment individually, before gradually moving on to tackle the entire passage, and facilitating deep-learning.
Practicing short segments also means you can repeat them a number of times in a matter of minutes. Chang sees this as the quickest way to teach your hands the required new motions. Playing faster than your technique allows can be detrimental, but the shorter the segment, the faster you can practice it without affecting your technique - because the shortened segment is so much easier for you to play.
And you can typically practice your segments at - or sometimes beyond - normal playing speed. Chang feels this is an ideal scenario because it will save you practice time in the long run.
5. Practice Hands Separately
When confronted with difficult sections, that are harder to play with both hands, Chang suggests practicing with each hand separately. By isolating one hand, then the other, you can focus on the specific challenges posed by each hand. So as part of your practice, allow yourself to develop the skills and motions of each hand independently, before bringing them together.
This approach reduces physical fatigue, and also encourages precision and deeper-level learning. But it’s important not to become too dependent on one-handed practice. Chang warns it should only be used for complex sections, and should be gradually reduced as your technique improves.
6. Include the Start of the Next Section
Maintaining continuity in your practice is crucial. So when you practice short sections, Chang maintains you should always include the start of the following section in your repetitions as well.
This ensures smooth transitions between different sections of the piece, and prevents blockages when performing the piece in its entirety.
By following this rule, once you have learned two adjacent segments, you should always be able to play them together. Chang also believes you’ll develop a better understanding of the flow of the piece, which will contribute to the quality of your overall performance.
By drawing on some or all of these different techniques, Chang believes you can elevate the quality of your practice and performance. And most of his techniques can be applied more widely beyond the piano. So please go ahead and try them out, whatever your chosen instrument.