This article presents essentials of piano practice; actual piano practice techniques will be dealt with separately.
What do you imagine when practicing piano? Is it about losing yourself in the music in a state of perpetual inspiration... or waiting for inspiration to strike? Flashbacks of nasty piano-teaching sadists bringing grown men to tears? Hours of hair-splitting, nail-biting drills? Or worst of all: not knowing what to do?
Practicing piano is our single most important activity as pianists, yet the vast majority of piano students have barely the vaguest idea of how to practice. Music teachers are at a great disadvantage in that they are unable to supervise their students' practice sessions, except in those relatively rare cases in which they teach their own children. (Teachers who have done so tell me it is extremely difficult and probably not advisable.) Our contemporary musical culture prescribes a weekly half-hour lesson to students when beginning piano lessons, and in between they are asked to practice for twenty minutes a day, thirty if they are older, or more if they are deemed talented. Parents, many of them non-musicians, are somehow to supervise their children's practice sessions. This is the best that can typically be done, for few have the time and monetary resources to have their children trained one-on-one by a master preparatory teacher for many hours daily (as was done with many of the most promising talents in the past). More often than not, parental piano practice supervision involves coercing children to sit still for twenty minutes at a time. If any productive work is done during this time it is more often than not merely incidental.
Teens and adults are in quite another position. I will not be so presumptuous as to assume that most teens practice quite so willingly. Still, their piano practice is almost certainly of their own volition and their capacity for concentrated effort is developed, if not necessarily mature.
Yet in the vast majority of cases, students have exceedingly little idea what to do when they sit down at the piano. Much of their "practice" time is wasted altogether, and worse still, in so many cases students are actually damaging their playing and would be better off not practicing at all (which many of them might be pleased to hear).
Playing classical music to any degree of finish involves the synthesis of so many musical categories and their attendant mental faculties that even for seemingly simple pieces, demands on concentration are no less than exacting. There is simply too much to think about if we are to play artistically. The details are virtually innumerable, from controlling the subtlest degrees of tension and relaxation in the body, to minute shades of tone color, to controlling time, to listening to the trajectories of all voices in a polyphonic texture, shaping each line interdependently, to balancing dynamic nuances in relation to harmony and meter, not to mention the many categories of musical memory.
Yet it is precisely concentration that is lacking in most music students. Even serious and diligent students will dutifully dedicate six or more hours a day to their piano practice, yet they often spend this time exercising their fingers rather than their minds. Done properly, most of musical work is mental work, yet the natural human tendency seems to be to evade mental exertion.
It's surprising just how many musical problems can be solved in very little time simply by concentrated effort (see Efficient Piano Practice). Many students are unable to control a key sufficiently to play a true pianissimo, for example. They tense up their fingers and depress the key but fail to produce any sound at all. Or they make a sound but it is too loud. While this element of touch should always be subject to refinement, in principle it is easy to develop. Students will allow hours to pass lazily brushing over the problem and letting themselves fail at producing the proper sound. Yet how many of them stop to identify the missing element of their technique—in this case the need to find the slowest speed at which they can depress a key and make the softest sound—and spend just a few minutes practicing one note at a time? (This technical problem should be solved from the fingers alone, independently of wrists and arms, which must as always be free of all tension not strictly needed to hold them up.) A mere sixty seconds' work with each finger would already make for vastly greater control and delicacy. Total time: ten minutes. Practicing this exercise daily would do much to develop a refined touch.
A corollary to the law of concentration is the law of fatigue: Never practice in a state of fatigue. The converse of this rule is to always practice with a fresh mind. Daniel Barenboim could not have been more correct when he wrote in his autobiography: "I never play a single note when my concentration is no longer at its height, for to do so would be to fall into the trap of playing mechanically."
There are two types of fatigue: physical and mental. When the fingers "turn to mush" it is most definitely an unequivocal sign to cease your piano practice immediately. You should become sensitive enough to recognize the first signs of this signal and stop well before the muscles are exhausted. (As always, if there is pain, you are almost certainly doing something wrong and any repeated pain is a signal to seek professional help.)
I have had to disabuse myself of my habit of compulsive practicing when faced with an impending concert. I've learned to take great care of my health, but despite my best efforts to the contrary, energy is finite. I've had to discipline myself not to practice beyond my mind's and body's reasonable limits. We cannot force feed our brains. Even when the fingers are still fresh, if the mind is tired the brain simply cannot absorb musical information. Trying to cram the music into your mind is counterproductive and does yourself a great disservice, as doing so more often than not outright damages our musical efforts. In college I had a personal rule, whereby my definition of a bad day was any day in which I slept more hours than I practiced. This was on top of having two (and a half) majors, overloading my schedule, taking mostly graduate seminars and having a part-time job and a girlfriend. It was only after college that I recognized just how destructive this lifestyle was. The body and mind both need sufficient rest; otherwise musical work, or any requiring mental and physical powers, is impossible in the long term. Excess stress will cripple your piano practice.
Practice time is work time: We don't "play" the piano, we "work" the piano so that we can play it. This is a corollary of the law of concentration. Your piano practice needs to be productive. We systematically learn our pieces phrase by phrase using multiple mental faculties, identify the musical problems and get to work solving them. Mistakes are "unwelcome guests" and we are to check them at the door. This concept is so important that it requires a dedicated article.
How we play is how we work. The results we get onstage or in any performance setting are a direct product of how we practice. Therefore, always work with the utmost care and accuracy.
Piano practice is by far most effective when it is done regularly rather than haphazardly. Weekly lessons ought to help students stay on track and adhere to a daily practice regimen. Some students try their best to procrastinate and learn their music immediately before lessons (or even recitals), but they soon find that musical memory simply does not work this way. Only the very rare exception is able to learn musical information so quickly, let alone retain it, and this exception is in most cases the product of years of careful, professional musical training. (The musical learning process is indeed cumulative when properly trained.) Attempting to cram music into one's brain and fingers at the last possible moment would be like trying to run 50 miles at once rather than five miles a day over ten days. Needless to say, very few people are prepared to run 50 miles at once, and those who are have trained for years with this as their goal.
Genuine musicianship involves a synthesis of many musical faculties. Most important of all is the principle of listening. Hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is passive while listening is active. Listening to ourselves is perhaps the most difficult of all musical tasks. It is the most essential element of all musical technique.
Simply playing the left hand alone will very often reveal musical lines of which you were entirely unaware. You may have heard the notes before, but you weren't listening. Only by careful listening is it possible to give each line full expression and meaning.
Every moment of piano practice must involve attentive listening! Glenn Gould once wrote of having solved a mechanical difficulty in Beethoven's Op. 109 piano sonata accidentally, when the vacuum cleaner happened to be running in the background. The noise drowned out the piano and the fingers were able to resolve the difficulty independent of the sound. This case is the rarest of rarities, yet the incident unfortunately inspired countless young imitators to practice with their ears closed, if you will. At least one prominent pianist has bragged about practicing with the television or radio deliberately blaring in the background. Nothing could be more wrong than ceasing to listen while working. A musician who stops listening while practicing is like a painter who closes his eyes while painting. That this is anathema to art ought to be self-evident.
Once in a while circumstances will force us to work in "unmusical" circumstances. Dogs barking, lawnmowers running or inconsiderate neighbors will vie for our attention. Arturo Michelangeli held master classes in a giant open room with many pianos, and students had to practice all at once. This was a matter of mere circumstance and was not by intent. In these cases we simply need to make the most of the situation. While inconvenient and unmusical, a noisy environment ought to force us to listen even more carefully rather than to stop listening.
In conclusion, remember that the goal of piano practice is to achieve certainty. Practicing piano is learning, it is making imprints in the brain and musculature with each musical thought and stroke of the key. Treat your piano practice with care and the music will pay emotional dividends!