Guest Post by Mark Tanner
In the Mind
We’re all used to isolating tricky passages and working them up slowly, hands separately, applying different rhythms or articulations – but have you tried practising the piano in your head?
I usually encourage pupils to experiment with doing this right from the off, though admittedly some pupils will take to the challenge more readily than others.
Why bother? Well, by building up a reliable audio-visual piano in your head you’ll have an additional means of practising away from the instrument whenever it suits you.
The more nitty-gritty or irksome the passage(s) in question, the more valuable this type of virtual practising becomes.
Coordinating tricky fragments doesn’t always require the player to actually hear what is resulting from their fingertips; it’s more a case of feel, spatial awareness and watching what your hands are doing. Into the bargain, your inner ear sharpens, your analytical powers evolve and you’ll likely find memorising becomes that bit easier, too.
‘Ghosting’ and Internalising
Importantly, there are two immediately profitable (though subtly different) applications of this technique: one is to help negotiate specific mechanical difficulties by mentally hearing and feeling your way around the issues in question; the other is more physical: table-tapping. This latter activity gives your fingers a useful workout in tandem with your musical imagination.
Either way, start with short, simple white key patterns – play them out loud on the piano, then immediately ‘ghost’ them on your knee or on the piano desk while you attempt to ‘hear’ what you’re playing internally; then play it out loud once again to check that what you heard (and felt) was accurate.
Next, expand into playing/internalising intervals and scales, one-handed, then two-handed, involving more and more chromatic notes, stretches, leaps and coordination elements; occasionally, you might try doing this without actually moving your fingers so that the process of imitating the piano is entirely imagined.
You’ll be picturing your fingers move elegantly around the keyboard as you hear the subtlest nuances correspond with crystal clarity in your mind’s ear.
Tricky Passages & Virtual Learning
Spend five minutes a day at the start of a practice session building up this skill, and within a fortnight you’ll hopefully be well on the way to becoming a virtual virtuoso!
You’re now ready to test-flight the technique on troublesome moments in pieces you’re currently working on. Don’t feel obliged to go off-piste while doing this – the score is invariably your best friend when practising tricky fragments of music, or indeed when memorising.
I’ll wager you begin to rely more and more on this kind of ‘virtual learning’, which of course is available to you even as you wait for the bath to run.
Some folk use a dummy keyboard (Rachmaninov famously did) or even a paper keyboard to give yourself a visual halfway stage to moving over to your internalised practising.
I sometimes run through whole concert programmes, using moving as well as motionless fingers, when I’ve no access to a real piano. I find this works particularly well with contemporary music, because my imagined physical movements marry up to the dissonances bouncing around in my head in a rather reassuring way.
Crucially, your fingerings need to be bullet-proof before you launch into internalising music, however uncomplicated, as time spent unlearning is perhaps the most disheartening of all…
EPTA Piano Teacher Talk No.2 (October 2018)
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Special Thanks to Murray McLachlan, Karen Marshall, and Liz Dewhurst.