In this edition of ’The Practice Project' blog, and following on from our last edition, we review another range of practice techniques from Chuan Chang’s book 'Fundamentals of Piano Practice'.
Specifically, we take a look at memorisation, mental play, pace modulation, and post-practice improvement - all of which we hope will enrich your practice sessions, whether you're a music teacher, student or musician.
To reiterate, Chang's practice strategies are not only for the piano - most of them can be applied to other instruments, as they focus on some of the universal principles of musical practice.
As Chang observes in his book, building instrumental technique, skill and musicality can take many years. But, by taking on board some of his insightful recommendations, you can hopefully make each of your practice sessions much more efficient and effective.
Memorising a piece well is the cornerstone of a polished performance. Chang believes the best time to memorise a piece is when you are first learning it and - for a tricker piece - he thinks there is no quicker way of memorising it properly than incorporating memorisation into the initial learning process.
But Chang's approach to memorising music goes deeper than that. He also recommends memorising the overall sound of a piece first - in other words, its melody, rhythm and structure - and then committing each key to memory, using the sheet music as your guide, along with the corresponding fingerings, hand motions, key signatures and time signatures.
By doing this, what Chang calls ‘keyboard memory’ can be achieved more easily, because you already know how the music should sound. So ‘keyboard memory’ helps you to find the right notes without you having to “read” the music in your head.
Chang also emphasises the importance of memorising challenging sections of a piece during the initial practice and repetition stage. Because the cognitive processes needed for memorising music are the same as those involved in learning the correct technique, Chang recommends exploiting this and enhancing your memory of the piece, and your technique, at the same time.
Chang points out that, if you try to memorise more difficult sections of the music later on in the learning process - after initially practicing and repeating them for technique - then you will be duplicating the same cognitive processes, which is not straightforward. Memorizing music is a complicated cognitive task, even after you have learnt to play a piece correctly from a technical perspective. Which is why some learners who try to memorise a piece, after learning how to play it correctly, can still have trouble with the memorisation aspect.
2. Mental Play
Chang describes ‘mental play’ as the process of imagining a piece of music in your mind, note by note. He maintains that, if you can play a piece flawlessly in your mind, then you're halfway to a flawless physical performance. Chang sees it as a powerful tool for memorisation, and also for reducing nerves or performance anxiety.
Chang explains that we should learn to play the notes in our mind, away from our instrument, but with an accurate technique and also an idea of how we want the music to sound. So if you are busy memorising a section during practice, close your eyes and see if you can play it through in your mind as well.
Chang reassures us that it only requires a small investment of time to become quite proficient at mental play, at which point you will have more confidence to be able to play without technical errors - allowing you to concentrate on the music itself, and how you express yourself.
Mental play also offers a unique opportunity to analyse how the music is structured, and how the themes of the piece develop. This contributes to a more profound understanding of the music, and - from a memorisation perspective - helps to build up your ‘structural memory’ of the piece as well.
Lastly, by using mental play, you can also increase your overall practice time - effectively, by being able to practice anytime, anywhere. Chang believes this will enhance your overall musicianship, while solving some of the logistical problems of practicing for technique and performance.
3. Pace Modulation
During practice, Chang advises you should get up to full playing speed as soon as possible - while at the same time cautioning against practicing too fast, too soon, which he says will only create or reinforce bad habits.
According to Chang, forcing yourself to play the same way faster is not the way to increase speed, and it is wrong to think you will improve more quickly by playing as fast as you can. Your technique will improve most rapidly when you play at a speed at which you can also play accurately. So a gradual but consistent increase in playing speed - so you don’t stay at any one playing speed for too long - will help you to minimise mistakes, and therefore reduce practice stress as well.
For more difficult passages, which may require technical skills you don’t yet have, Chang advocates increasing the speed of your playing in stages. To achieve this, he suggests playing at a speed that is too fast, just to work out what motions you will need to work on in order to consistently play at a higher speed. Then slow down and consciously work on those new motions you know will be necessary to play at greater speeds. This approach will allow you to methodically increase your playing speed in manageable stages, and also work on the required new skills as you progress.
Slowing down also has its place, but extended periods of slow play can be counter-productive. Chang advises saving deliberately slow play for the end of your practice sessions, which should help to secure the best cognitive and memorisation outcomes.
Chang's final insight on pace modulation is to remember the importance of relaxation, to reduce playing tension. By using only the muscles that are needed for you to play, you can work hard but still remain comfortable during practice and performance. It may take time to isolate the relevant muscles though, so stay patient while you learn how to do this (and become accustomed to it).
4. Post-Practice Improvement
Chang explains that there is a limit to how much improvement will be seen by any musician during the course of one practice session. This is because there are two principle ways that we demonstrate improvement through practice.
First is the clear, tangible advancement that comes from mastering the relevant notes and playing techniques, resulting in an immediate improvement in how we play. But second is the improvement that results after practice, because of the neurological and other physiological changes that occur when we learn new skills. This is a process that takes place more gradually, over the course of weeks or months, involving incremental changes to the cells in our brain, nervous system and muscles.
As you practice, Chang advises gauging your progress, so that you can stop as soon you sense that you have reached a point of diminishing returns. But your technique will nevertheless keep getting better. This post-practice improvement can be especially significant during sleep, which is a hugely important aspect of the cognitive process involved in musical learning.
So Chang also recommends practicing in the evening, and wrapping up your sessions by playing a piece slowly, deliberately and correctly. The most common mistake students make is to play too fast just before they stop practicing, which can - to an extent - negate any post-practice improvement. Instead, Chang maintains you should play the best and most accurate example of what you want to achieve - usually at a moderate or slow speed - at the end of each practice session. This seems to have the optimum effect on the level of post-practice improvement that will occur.
In short, after you have finished practicing, your brain continues to process and adapt to what you've learned during the session. And the cumulative effect of this post-practice improvement, if it occurs over a period of months or years, can be very significant.
Chuan C. Chang's practice techniques offer tried and tested strategies for enhancing instrumental practice. By incorporating memorisation, mental play and speed modulation into your practice regime, and also understanding the nature and impact of post-practice improvement, musicians at any level can enrich their practice sessions and performances.
Chang believes his techniques will also help to cultivate musicality, reduce performance anxiety, and boost the cognitive and other physiological changes that occur during sustained practice. So try some of them out, and let us know what you think.