Thoughts on the Art of Practice

Guest Post written by Philip Fowke

I am delighted to include this incredibly helpful post from the internationally acclaimed concert pianist, recording artist and teacher Philip Fowke.

I had the pleasure of working alongside Philip on the faculty of the Thinking Pianist course, where he shared this very wise advice, and am delighted that he has agreed to make it public via the Pianodao website. There is so much here to take in, and of such lasting value.

Before Philip’s article, let’s remind ourselves of his stunning musicianship, recorded here at the BBC Proms performing that beloved masterpiece, Warsaw Concerto by Richard Addinsell:


And now read on for Philip Fowke’s advice on practice…


Introduction

Gordon Green, my revered and much beloved teacher, used to refer to the craft of practising. This made an impression upon me, all the more vivid when he likened the pianist to a master joiner with his box of tools, sharpened, polished and oiled. Each implement was designed for a specific task; a curve, a grooved edge, a finely wrought detail. As the joiner adds to his collection of tools over the years becoming accustomed to some yet discovering new ones along the way, so the pianist has to build up his box of tools and to treasure them as an invaluable resource in their velvet lined box.

This image has remained with me over the years and is one which I endeavour to pass on to my own students. That and Gordon’s view that good practising should always be the occasion of endless possibilities, pleasure in pursuing them, a voyage of discovery. His maxim was that you mustn’t practise to get it right, but never to get it wrong. I was fortunate in that my teacher from childhood, Marjorie Withers, instilled in me similar attitudes so by the time I got to Gordon in my teens I was already doing quite a bit of my own exploring.

I live in fear of received wisdom, methods, and traditions. Words such as tension, relaxation, together with expressions such as legato fingering, loose wrist, arm weight, baffle me as much now as when I first heard them.

A small child comes to a piano for the first time and bangs notes down and is told to stop making such a nasty din. And so the die is cast. The seeds of fear of the keyboard are sown. Yet piano lessons begin and the child is subjected to complicated instructions as to how to approach a key.

I often use the analogy of attempting to teach a child to walk, assuming it had the ability of understanding speech. “Now lift the leg a little higher…, no not that high. Yes, now prepare the foot…no that’s too tense! Brace the other foot to transfer the weight before lifting the other one” and so on. The child would be in a wheelchair after much more of this!

So it has sometimes been with teaching the piano, natural curiosity has been checked at the outset and the possibility of improvisation seriously undermined. The opportunity of natural ease is blocked at every turn with too many conflicting instructions.  “No, mustn’t, never, shouldn’t, ought, wrong”, become the watch words of a negative lexicon on which so much teaching has relied.

And then all those pencil markings on the score… teacher’s graffitti. Circles, wavy lines, shooting arrows, exclamation marks. Independence of thought, pride in marking one’s own score, a healthy attitude towards slips and wrong notes, should be fostered from the very start. In classes I will sometimes, mischievously, ask a student what a particular circle means on their score. I am unsurprised when they seldom know or cannot recall why the teacher put it there. I make it a practice to offer my pencil (for they seldom bring one to a lesson) for the student to make their own markings.  

The aim of a teacher, Gordon often used to say, should be to make oneself redundant. My addenda to this after forty years of teaching is also to do as little damage as possible. I like to tell students that when hearing them practise, should the piece be recognizable, they are not practising, they are simply indulging in fantasy concertising. A common addiction clearly evident as one passes tiny practice studios with an oversized grand piano, the lid full open. Shura Cherkassky once memorably said to me that anyone hearing him practise would think he couldn’t even play the piano.

Thoughts on practising

For one thing, there is a confusion between practice and practise. I have even seen Practise Studios used in colleges. I like to alert students to the difference between advice and advise. That usually settles the confusion. The only problem arises when I am challenged by the American spelling which has a “c” for both the noun and the verb.

What does one mean by the word practice? The more I actually use this ambiguous word, the more meaningless it becomes, for practising has and incorporates so many elements. State of health and physical fitness for one thing. I recommend a simple regime of body exercises before settling at the piano.

  • Posture seems extraordinarily overlooked in these days of aerobics and Tai Chi. Sit neither too high nor too low, neither too close nor too far. Be within easy reach of the extremities of the keyboard. Always feel comfortable in the shoulders with a continual sense of ease and freedom of movement.  Feet at pedals and not restlessly moving about.  Lean forward and gently clasp the cheeks of the piano for a few moments. Be aware of the extent of the keyboard and the space in which it exists, and also of the instrument. Be aware of circles, eg. the length of the keyboard being the diameter of a circle horizontally and vertically. 
  • Finger exercises have their place and studies such as Joseffy, Beringer, Dohnányi and Cortot (as many instructions as there are notes!) are recommended provided they are used intelligently and imaginatively. They can be played musically. I find Tankard and Harrison covers most things. Invent your own.
  • Improvise by way of warm up. Just explore the feel of the keys and don’t concern yourself with conventional harmony. Crawl over and caress the keys with the fingers. Make beautiful sounds out of dissonant note clusters. Arpeggiate, cross hands, fake a fugue. Make up ripples and roulades. Create a mood.
  • A thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios also contributes to the basic kit of a pianist. But in this, I encourage an imaginative and creative approach. Reinvent them, use different rhythms, adapt and recompose them, play them 2 and 3 octaves apart, in different keys simultaneously, different dynamics and touches. Contrary motion starting from the extremities of the keyboard downwards/outwards, scales descending/ascending. Be comfortable in what you do. Above all, avoid starting with C, but by all means learn to play all scales with C major fingering
  • The keyboard is not only left to right, right to left, but front to back, back to front. Make use of the topography. Slide. Explore and enjoy it. Grope the keys.
  • Learn to use the wrist and fingers in different combinations, high and low. Imagine investing in a movement account. I often think that the word tension is used inappropriately as, in my experience, many problems which cause tension are often due to poorly conceived fingering and an overdrawn movement account. Tension is often the symptom of a difficulty rather than the cause. Emphasizing tension with a student can be unhelpful and I avoid this intrinsically negative use of the word preferring to talk in terms of comfort and discomfort.
  • The insistence on legato fingering in all circumstances has done a lot of damage and caused needless misery and tension, let alone ugly sounds. Excessive and tortuous finger substitution can be relieved by judicious pedalling and the shocking permission, let go of the key. I like to talk about moral and immoral fingering; I prefer an immoral beautiful sound to a moral nasty one. 
  • Morality can be equally applied to pedalling! In general the pedal is changed too quickly too soon. Too often it is used indiscrimately to flavour everything like tomato ketchup. Learn to pedal in rhythms and pulse, independent of that in which one is playing. Integrate the fingers with the pedals. I use terms such as twitch, dab, flutter, squeeze. Ultimately one pedals with one’s ears and with one’s fingers.
  • Don’t allow the pressure of memorizing to tyrannise you. There’s more to music than memory.
  • Too much practice is unnecessarily loud. Work at forte passages ppp. Learn to listen to every nuance of sound and colour. 
  • Conversely practise ppp passages fortissimo. Sometimes it takes the most energetic practice to make the most beautiful sounds. The minutest pianissimo requires considerable strength
  • If you think you’re playing piano, play quieter… and quieter again.
  • If you think you’re playing forte, you probably are… too much so.
  • Avoid wishful listening. 
  • Practise staccato passages legatissimo. You won’t get so nervous.
  • Difficult passages can always be broken down into easy components.
  • Consciously breathe when practising. Breath rests.
  • If any kind of a slip or hesitation occurs, ask yourself why.
  • Sometimes a problem is caused by the approach route. Examine previous bars leading up to the problematic one. Amazing what one can discover en route.
  • Problems can be solved in many ways. There is no one way.
  • Slow practice, vitally important though it is, can lead to equally slow physical and thought processes. Furthermore, it can slow down the listening responses. When practising slowly there can be a danger that you’re practising to play slowly. Physical and listening processes benefit from practising in and above tempo in short sections. Always know your intended pulse and where the beats lie. Then drop from above into it. Be brave!
  • Practising hands separately has benefits, but fewer than one would think. The hands and arms need to collaborate early on. Each hand can inform the other over fingering patterns, for example.
  • Be alert and adventurous when fingering. Never be tied to an editor’s view. Choose a range of options to explore. There is fingering for sound, fingering for colour, fingering for balance, fingering for memory, fingering for pedalling, to suggest but a few. Sometimes the fingers insist on their own choice. Provided they are well informed, allow them to follow their instincts. Occasionally they can be right!
  • Practise away from the keyboard. Listen with the score.
  • Start learning a piece from the middle out. Makes a change!
  • Practise on the surface of the keys making no sound except the delicate padding sound of the finger striking the surface. Good for memory, and the neighbours love it!
  • Practise looking at the keyboard imagining the act of performing; sight lines and where to look. Strategic visualisation is seldom thought about. The old mantra of never being allowed to look at one’s hands has a lot to answer for.
  • Take regular breaks and do some body stretching and breathing exercises. Check shoulders. Gently rotate them.
  • The fingers are all members of a platoon and need to be thoroughly briefed when out on exercise. Some have a wilful character and need restraint whilst others hold back and need persuasion. They all have individual personalities. Encourage teamwork and diplomacy.
  • Fingers are all members of a corps de ballet. They need disciplined bar work in addition to thorough coaching with the choreographer. Shapes, movements, preparation of positions, anticipation of leaps, harnessing and releasing of energy, comfort points. Always guided by the arm, with a sense of comfort and ease of movement in the shoulders.
  • A performer is producer, director, script editor, lighting engineer, prompt, all rolled into one. The best performances occur when one is at one remove from all these processes yet monitoring them at the same time.
  • Don’t let the good be the enemy of the better.
  • Find balancing points – moments when you can gather your forces physically, musically, technically, psychologically. Performing is like riding a bicycle; a momentary wobble will lead to disaster.
  • A performance is as strong as its weakest link. There must be no room for thoughts such as here comes the difficult bit. Nerves often occur in proportion to the level of preparation one has done. Whereas there is such a thing as over practice, there is no such thing as over preparation.
  • Quantity of practice is common. Quality of practice is rare.
  • Know the exact sound you want before attempting it. Thoughtless repetition is the enemy of discriminating listening.
  • Record yourself practising – occasionally.
  • Practise your vulnerabilities, not your strengths.
  • In performance, try to play a little slower than you mean to in the quick sections, and a little quicker than you mean to in the slow sections.
  • Always play to trusted friends and colleagues. Get the shaky playing over in private before exposing yourself in public!
  • Good luck!

This article is copyright Philip Fowke, reproduced here with his very kind permission. Giles Gate, March 2022

Philip Fowke

The Daily Telegraph:
“……...Claudio Arrau was to have been the soloist in tonight’s Promenade Concert. The virtuosity and acute musicianship of Philip Fowke, who took his place, repaired the omission in no uncertain terms.”

Philip Fowke, known for his many BBC Promenade Concert appearances on radio and television, and recordings covering a broad range of repertoire, has appeared in many of the major concert halls worldwide with leading conductors including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Simon Rattle. Klaus Tenstedt and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.

He has also enjoyed a distinguished teaching career beginning at the Royal Academy of Music where he was a professor from 1984 to 1991 and was awarded the F.R.A.M. After a period at the Welsh College of Music and Drama he became Head of Keyboard at Trinity College of Music in 1994 where he became Emeritus Professor at the renamed Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

He is widely acclaimed for his imaginative teaching in which he explores students’ potential, encouraging them to develop their own individuality, challenging accepted methods and received opinions.

In 2020 Philip Fowke gave a 70th birthday recital at the Chetham’s International Piano Summer School in which he premiered Sonatina Nostalgica written for the occasion by his friend and colleague, Stephen Hough. 

In 2021 Philip Fowke announced his retirement from the concert platform and has recently been awarded an Honorary Fellowship at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London.

To conclude, another wonderful video from the archives…



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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Art of Practice”

  1. This is absolutely superb, probably the best summary of advice on practicing piano (US person here so “c”) I’ve ever seen.

    I spent about 9 years with a Taubman Approach teacher, so the sections on the potential harms of legato fingering and “the shocking permission, let go of the key” seemed especially apropos. Too many teachers are still having students practice everything without pedal even when pedal is indispensable, and insisting on connecting everything with the fingers even when that is close to impossible and gives an unmusical result.

    THANK YOU!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How inspiring! The sheer notion that a teacher will invite their students to become masters of their own destiny through the process of empowerment, as opposed to the wilful imposition of a more traditional and didactic approach, is of itself wonderfully invigorating.

    Liked by 1 person

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