How to practice?
Short notes by Roberto Prosseda
2. Each finger in its place
When playing the piano it is very important to be always aware of where and how our fingers move. This may seem obvious, but it isn't: it often happens, even among professionals, that the job of a performer becomes that of a “finger-tamer”, almost having to contain the fingers' tendency to move and act independently of our will.
In fact, during a concert or in particularly stressful situations (exams, auditions, recordings), our nervous system works differently, and could easily trigger an “emergency” regime, in which habits or muscular tensions arise that normally don't appear while studying at home.
To prevent this, and to maintain an adequate and calm control of our muscular and mental system while performing music, specific preparation is essential during our daily practice.
What we do in our hours of piano practice every day will determine our production. Fortune and unforeseeable circumstances certainly play a role in the outcome of a concert, but their influence can be to some extent controlled precisely on the basis of the stability and confidence we have gained thanks to our preparatory study.
During my courses I have learned that a large part of the students have no study method, and never even face the problem of how to study. Study is often replaced by the mere repetition of a piece from start to finish, maybe without identifying the problems, and consequently without resolving them. Or, on the contrary, it is limited to a methodical but sterile repetition of technical passages at a slow speed, with or without a metronome, or through varying the rhythms or accents.
All these practices are, in theory, neither right nor wrong: they can form part of the preparatory stages for a concert, but alone they are certainly not enough to a guarantee a sufficient control and awareness to best manage a live performance.
So what should we do when studying a piece? What I suggest is to always pay attention, right from the start of learning a new piece, to where we “put our fingers”, and to check the sound we are producing through a constant feedback of listening. Let me explain: a moment before playing, it is fundamental to mentally visualize the position of the hand on the keyboard, and to anticipate the sound (the quality of the sound: dynamics, attack, articulation) beforehand. In this way, each sound will be sufficiently “intentional” and prepared with due care. Vice versa, it may happen that we arrive too late, unprepared, at the emission of a sound, and it is in cases like this that the risk of error increases: and by error I don't mean just a wrong note, but also that a sound doesn't match what we would like. Taking a step back, it is therefore essential that each sound is already perfectly focused in the mind of the performer, both in its musical characteristics, and in the physical means to produce it. Here we enter the sphere of the position of the hand, the disposition of the arm, the part of the finger and the type of lever we will use (the last phalanx, the whole finger, the whole hand, the forearm or the whole arm) and the movement of the entire arm-hand-finger system, to devise a technical gesture that matches our musical intentions.
It is not possible to go into any further technical details here, without the aid of a practical demonstration, but we can examine just one final detail. Let's start from an incontrovertible axiom: each wrong note is due to the fact that the finger hasn't found the right key at the moment to play it. This too seems to be obvious, but most wrong notes can be avoided by making sure that each finger is exactly where we wish. That is to say, returning to what we said before, we shouldn't allow our fingers to position themselves on the keyboard casually, and not under our control. When I watch young students playing, I can often easily foresee the notes they will get wrong even before they play them: simply because I see they have their hands arranged in a way that won't let them press the key in the necessary times and ways. In this sense, playing the piano requires a concentration similar to that of a downhill skier or of a formula one driver: in both cases, it is necessary, as we said, to anticipate in good time every shift of position, every change of direction, and to have our mind always one step ahead of where we are now. The typical mistake of a skier is to arrive late at a bend, not having moved the position of the pelvis in time. Well, this is a perfect metaphor for what happens when we play the piano, in fast passages or in ones involving double notes, where the body needs to be listened to with particular attention: where are we putting our weight, what type of lever are we using, how long do we have to move our fingers to their next position?
One might object: but music should also preserve the aspect of spontaneity and extemporaneity, we can't commit a performance to the total control of the muscles and of the positions on the keyboard. I fully agree too: in the live concert we need to be relaxed enough in order to be able to abandon ourselves to the music, without thinking of all the aspects linked to control; and precisely to achieve this aim it is important that in our daily practice, vice versa, our mind and our body learn to manage as well as possible all the parameters of performing, so as to assume the automatism necessary to allow us an intense, involving and exciting performance.