A couple of years ago I picked up a book written for piano teachers and found myself reading instructions on how to practise. I persevered for a while, wondering who on earth the author was, that he felt qualified to give such precise guidelines; he certainly wasn’t of the stature of, say Heinrich Neuhaus, former professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, whose The Art of Piano Playing was required reading when I was a student. I put the book aside, annoyed, but then realised that I had been lucky enough to have studied with some of the best teachers, and pianists, so perhaps I should think and reflect more on my own practising, which is what this section of the website is about. If you’re reading this, I hope that some of my experiences may trigger ideas for your own practice, but I’m not writing a ‘how-to’ guide: this is what I do, not what you ‘should’ do and I’m quite happy to break the rules! After more than fifty years of playing the piano, I think I’m allowed.
For anyone wanting more helpful advice on practice techniques, please read the Practice Matters article.
Many pianists and teachers advocate warming up with scale playing. I don’t do this; I never have. I don’t remember being taught how to play scales. My first teacher gave me a scale book and expected me to learn them by myself for grade examinations. In the UK they are still a requirement for most exam boards. I learnt all major and minor scales and arpeggios thoroughly, after passing Grade 8, then never practised them again – but can still usually demonstrate one if necessary. The first ‘studies’ I played were by Cuthbert Harris – quite tuneful and fun to play. My second teacher introduced me to five-finger exercises: Beringer, Pischna and Hanon, then Dohnanyi which could be quite brutal and probably created a lot of unnecessary tension. Harold Rubens made me practise Joseffy’s exercises for the left hand; I also had Brahms’ 51 exercises for the piano (I played about ten of them) and after I’d left the GSMD I found Cortot’s Rational Principles of Piano Technique in a music shop and dutifully worked my way through the entire book.
After a break of some years, I picked up the Cortot exercises again, hoping to recover my technique. I practised them for less than a week. With limited time available, I wanted to spend my hours at the piano in a more meaningful way and this led me to Bach’s Preludes and Fugues – after all, they were written for instruction purposes and the fact that each one is a small masterpiece is an added incentive to putting in the work. For years I began my practice sessions with the C minor Prelude (excellent for the little fingers) and Fugue before gradually learning the rest of Book 1; I recorded them from November 2017 to May 2020, completing the last four shortly before moving to Northumberland. Now I’m revising Book 1 again; perhaps the familiarity of the pieces is reassuring as everything else is so different from my previous life, but I think it’s more that I am finding new ways of practising and thinking about the music when revisiting each piece again. So now my ‘warm-up’ is playing one or two from memory, and then working at one I’ve not played for a while. When they are all in the head and fingers I can go back to Book 2.