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Getting Results Through Right Practice

A Talk to Students
Written expressly for The Etude by the eminent Russian Piano Virtuoso

I am devoting this short article entirely to the subject of how to practice the piano, and shall try to point out here what I have found from my experience to be the most efficacious way of setting about it.

hambourg.jpgBroadly speaking, the cardinal rules to be observed in all practicing should be, first, great attention to detail; second, avoidance of overfatigue, both mental and physical. It is also most necessary for the attainment of the best results to set up from the outset some fixed schedule of practicing. Systematically ordered tuition is such an inestimable help in all stages of piano-playing, but even more especially in the elementary one, as I myself well know. For I had the good fortune to start my pianoforte education with teachers who were steeped in the best traditions. My first one was my father, Prof. Michael Hambourg, who had been a pupil of Nicholas Rubinstein; while my second, the famous Leschetizky, had studied with Czerny.

And Czerny especially represents the school of pianoforte playing which has produced many of the greatest pianists of modern times, his influence extending through Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Tausig, etc., down to many famous pianists of to-day. Therefore I am a great believer in starting to study according to a good method, or school, as we call it. Such a method will train the mind and fingers in a definite and organized trend of technical development. Of course, it is a good thing as well to acquire a theoretical and general musical education, but I think, especially in the training of children who intend to become professionals later on, that it is imperative that their main energy and time should be directed first of all to learning how to master the technical difficulties of their instrument.

I do not believe that musical children learn much with profit away from the piano, at least they cannot derive the actual mechanical facility of playing except at the keyboard. I wish to lay stress on this fact, because there are in fashion just now so many clever systems of educating children musically. For instance, they are said to be taught how to compose fugues in imitation of Bach after a few hours of tuition, etc. These kinds of instruction are doubtless of advantage in stimulating general musical knowledge and, above all, for training unmusical little ones and developing the faculty which might otherwise be completely lost to them; but in the education of the young pianist such systems must never be allowed to obscure the main issue, which has always to be, first of all, the acquirement of absolute proficiency at the keyboard.

Practicing in early childhood should never in my opinion extend for a period of more than half an hour at a time, and the whole amount to be done during one day should not exceed one hour. Also care ought to be taken to procure music for children to study which will appeal to their imaginations, and even their exercises should be in pleasant forms of sound and rhythm, which will help to keep them interested. And the best thing is to instil as soon as possible into the mind of the child the desire for beauty of touch and clearness of execution.

No Child Should Practice Alone

No child ought to be left to practice by himself; someone should always sit with him and see that he gives each note its full value. To attain this object it is excellent to make the little one count out aloud while playing. The pedal should never be permitted, and each hand ought to be practiced separately. For if the two hands are worked together the concentration of the mind is divided, instead of being directed to one thing at a time. Besides, a certain amount of covering up of the sound goes on when both hands are playing, which is bad, and impedes clearness of execution and conception of the difficulties to be contended with. These remarks about the separate practice of each hand are intended to apply mainly to the purely mechanical exercises, such as are used for the articulation of the fingers, etc. It is important also that such exercises should be easy and not strain the hand, for very serious results can develop from overstraining of the hand in childhood. Exercises and scales must be practiced in all the keys, not only in C major in which they are generally written, as it is of great benefit to the child to be able to play as easily in one key as another. Another good maxim to be observed is not to allow exercises to be repeated ad nauseam over and over again, as the mind only gets blurred with the unceasing repetitions, and no result can then be obtained.

I am speaking here at some length about the practicing of a child, as, if the routine of good systematic work is acquired in early youth, it becomes a habit and continues naturally throughout life.

I now arrive at a further stage, when, having been carefully initiated, the young student begins to consider the piano as his life-work. His problem then becomes that of all pianists, both great and small, namely and principally, how to practice in such a way as to obtain the maximum of economy in time and effort, to keep always fresh in mind and to avoid too much repetition.

I have never been an advocate of long hours of practice; indeed I think very few people can do really good, hard concentrated study on the piano for more than two hours at a sitting. There is no doubt that far more benefit is derived from several short periods of practice during the day than from long continuous work. Altogether I advise that the average practice of an advanced student and, indeed, of any pianist be not more than five hours a day, and not less than three, under ordinary circumstances. Those who have no technical talent at all and have great difficulty in acquiring adequate mastery of means, or those whose musical memory is weak, can practice more, and often do, but on the whole very extended hours of study only tend to staleness. In any case the student should devise a systematic way of dividing up his hours of practice if he wants to get the best profit out of his work. For until he has experience in concert playing and the frequent opportunity of performing in public (which thing, of course, impedes practicing and also obviates to some extent the necessity of it), he must always give a certain definite time every day to purely technical study.

A Regular Daily Course

To this end the pianist ought to draw up for himself a regular course to he pursued, such as the following: Scales to be played in four different keys each day, with their accompanying arpeggios in every development, also the chromatic and contrary motion scales. Thus if four scales are done each day, the whole range of scales will be got through every three days. After these scales ten or twelve five-finger exercises, comprising all the positions of the hand, can be worked at. Hanon’s Exercises are the ones which I particularly recommend; they are quite excellent for helping to acquire a good articulation of the fingers. The reason why all this technical daily study is so essential is, because to obtain a supple, easy mastery of the piano, it is necessary to possess a real athletic agility of fingers, hands and arms. And just as an athlete in training does a fixed amount of regular exercises every day, to keep the muscles of his whole body in elasticity and fitness, so must the pianist go through a similar process to train his arms, hands and fingers.

Common Sense Practice Ideas

Now there are many common sense axioms to be observed in the details of practicing, which the student will find out by experience. For instance, if he has to play on a certain day a piece in which many octaves and double notes occur, he should on that day make a point of practicing scales and exercises for the simple articulation of the fingers. He should take care during his working hours not to study the same octave and double-note technics as are to be found in the piece that he will be playing later on in the day, for if he does so he will risk suffering from lameness of the hands. Such lameness will appear from working the hands too long in certain extended positions as are peculiar to octave playing, etc. Therefore great variety of motion must always be aimed at, in order to keep the hands fresh and vigorous. Also should the student experience the slightest fatigue in the hand when playing scales and passages, let him instantly cease until that feeling has quite passed away.

I do not find elaborate studies very efficacious for the purely mechanical development of technic, as the embellishments and harmonies which make the  palatableness of such studies only distract the student’s mind away from the main point of advancing the technical power, and thus cause loss of time and effort. For the only really valuable study is that which concentrates its whole energy in pursuing the true object to be achieved in each particular branch of work. And it is far more profitable to practice for a short time with absolute concentration on the technical problem in order definitely to surmount it, than to pass several more or less wasteful hours dallying with the difficulties wrapped up as they are in elaborate studies with a pleasant gilding of harmonies and progressions. Also many of the studies which are given to students with a view to helping them technically are in themselves bad music as well as indifferent mechanical aids. Of course, these remarks with regard to studies in general are certainly not meant to include real concert studies, such as those of Chopin and Liszt, etc., but it is scarcely necessary to say that these are not purely studies for technic, but are rather beautiful musical problems to be unraveled when a certain amount of facility has already been acquired by the student.

Advanced students should also endeavor in their practicing to prepare themselves along certain lines of study, with a view to making a repertoire of pieces, which will be useful to them when the time comes for them to make-up programs for their concerts.

Now as regards how to start the study of a piece, it is as well first of all to look at it from the technical point of view alone. For until means have been mastered no proper musical expression or interpretation can be adequately conveyed. First of all, then, the pianist ought to dissect the piece from the mechanical side and find out where the most difficult passages occur. Technically speaking, of course, all pieces are merely collections of scales, thirds, passages, etc., harmonically treated in different ways and used as the vehicles to express the composer’s ideas.

Mastering Difficult Passages

Having decided which are the most awkward passages to master in his piece, the student should not then just play them over and over again, as so many do, hoping that by much repetition the difficulties will finally be surmounted. He must rather play his passages once or twice, then stop and think about them for a minute, and try to get a clear definition of them in his mind. Then start afresh, and having worked a little more, pause again. By thus stopping to think and keep his mind lucid he will both master and retain passages with much greater ease and rapidity than by confusing his mind through continuous reiteration without ever pausing to listen properly or to consider what the passage should sound like. It is also a very good thing when first learning a piece to divide it, taking, say, each eight bars or so at a time to work at, and thus getting to know the component parts well before reviewing the work as a whole. Another branch of practicing which is too often neglected by the young pianist is the study of the bass or frame work of the music he learns. Many times one hears something played in such a way that the bass part is completely swallowed up, and nothing can be heard but the right hand. This defect is the more difficult to conquer, because the left hand, to which the bass is entrusted, is naturally with most people the feebler member. Yet weakness in the bass parts is a very serious fault, for it often undermines the whole construction of a piece and upsets all the harmonies. After all, music, like everything else, must have a good, stable foundation. Therefore the student must give much care and attention to the bass parts of his piece.

Letting the Music Speak for Itself

When the pianist has mastered the technical difficulties, he should next set to work to try and analyze the music harmonically, and, above all, attempt to find out what the composer intended to convey. And the true artist should not only be content (to borrow a stereotyped phrase of critics) “to let the music speak for itself,” as such a passive attitude is merely like looking at the musical art from the standpoint of photography. No! rather must he endeavor to step into the composer’s shoes, so to speak, to feel again what the composer felt, to imagine with the poignancy of the composer’s imagination, and by so doing to rekindle in the music the living spark, the power of fantasy, energy and individuality with which it was originally endowed by its creator.


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