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Better learning from practice that better engages our cognitive practices

Here are some practice tips from one of my favorite teachers, Polly van der Linde (who runs the Sonata and Sonatina piano camps for adults and kids in Bennington Vermont). These are winners, precisely because they engage deep processing of the sort that cognitive scientists have been showing in recent decades is so important for learning. Faster and better learning: what’s not to like?

1) “Opposite practice”: for instance, if it’s staccato, practice it legato a few times. One thing to be clear on, when doing opposite practice, to not do it too much as that will defeat the purpose. Most of this kind of work is done to double check that you know the repertoire inside out. It also brings out the pitfalls of the original score. For instance, if the score is staccato, you’ll be releasing notes all the time. If you practice it legato, you might notice that your fingering choice is inefficient. Practicing it legato will magnify fingering choices so you’ll choose the best solution and hopefully it incorporates into your bones enough that when you release the note for staccato, it sticks.

2) Practice the downbeat of every bar. Most chord changes occur on the downbeat and so that reinforces your harmonic memory. It also forces you to practice every bar without a running start from the bar before and that helps your memory and finger work.

3) Blocking, which isn’t so much about fingering as it is thinking about chord structures and possibly using a better fingering organization based on how many notes you can cover with your fingers. Fingering sometimes changes from blocking because either where you’re going to or where you’re coming from may dictate a different fingering.

4) Chunking, which is pressing your fingers down for passages that are predominantly scalar and finding the best 5-finger pattern for a passage. The notes will sound gross together but you’ll know where to put your thumb if the RH passage is going up and what finger to turn over with if the RH passage is going down (the opposite is true of the LH).

5) Playing things in different registers. Most people are shocked when they play a piece they know well and separate their hands an extra octave apart. Suddenly your hands do not feel as neighborly and, in fact, they seem to behave in a foreign manner if you’re not concentrating 100%. It’s a great test to figure out if you really know the score.

6) Imagine the music away from the piano or try to “play” your piece on the fallboard with your fingers, no notes, just gestures. It’s hard to do!

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