Practicing Away from the Instrument

Question: Is it possible to practice piano playing without a piano? Just like athletes need to go to gym to strengthen their muscles.

Any comment?

– Tingting (Hong Kong)

Albert’s reply: Practicing away from your instrument is not only productive, done properly it can be even more beneficial than doing all your practice at the piano. There is very much that can be accomplished away from the piano, with the primary benefit being to reinforce your understanding and memory of the music.

Practice done without a piano is effectively exclusively mental rather than athletic. I believe that the most important component of mental practice is hearing each voice of the music in your mind’s ear with total accuracy. Generally it’s the inner voices that are heard inaccurately, and as a result they are quickly forgotten in performance or played without proper shaping or shading.

Walter Gieseking and his teacher Karl Leimer had a famous method of learning music away from the piano that involved verbally articulating all aspects of a musical score, e.g., “The right hand starts with sixths on E and C, two octaves above middle C, then descends by sixths on white keys,” etc. As I wrote in the respective lesson, my only criticism of the Leimer/Gieseking method is that the authors curiously never specify the necessity of actually hearing the music in your mind’s ear. In fairness to these excellent musicians, they likely took it for granted that any advanced piano student would do so automatically.

Like practice at the piano, studying music away from the instrument is better done slowly, which enables the brain to absorb the notes and details of the music consciously and deliberately, thus reinforcing the memory. A few concentrated minutes of such study is worth an hour of a tempo practice! The latter will leave but a very general, often vague impression on the mind.

Another exercise that can be done away from the piano is tapping the rhythm. Sing or hum the music to yourself as you tap, and you will likely discover undesired rhythmic inaccuracies or ways to improve your rhythmic articulation of the music.

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