About practising part 3: practising with our instruments by the clock and adding up the time spent working can be extremely misleading. It may breed the assumption that it is not possible to develop repertoire, technique, or interpretation unless we are physically involved, literally playing our instruments during quantifiable, scheduled practice blocks. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Whether we care to admit it or not, our subconscious minds can and will achieve a great deal (positively and negatively) that can affect our development as musicians. Our sleeping hours are extremely powerful in this respect. So often problems that occur one day will miraculously resolve the next if we have had an excellent rest for 7-9 hours overnight!
But we should not overlook what is happening when we are away from our instruments but wide awake and involved in other activities. Though we may not have much control over this, the powers of subconscious processing cannot be over-stated. If we are preparing on a daily basis a Paganini Caprice or a Chopin étude, then the ‘rest periods’ during the daytime will see our minds involuntarily unravelling, reflecting, and pondering over the issues we were involved with when we play.
Let’s take these facts a stage further and explore how we can use the time away from the instrument most effectively. By consciously working internally at the memory, fingering, phrasing, voicing, shaping, characterisation, stage fright, presentation, and tempo we can ensure that we have inner control. We can work towards a total awareness of what we have to do.
If we have inner security, mental strength, and conviction, then it will be so much easier to focus not only on performance under stressful conditions but also in our daily practising at the instrument itself. It is so helpful to sit down on a park bench on a warm sunny day with your score, pencil to hand, and review your interpretive and technical choices. Imagine you are the teacher- what are the important issues to focus on? Write in the score thoughts you have as you survey each phrase.
What are the possibilities? What choices could you make?
Of course, there is nothing new with the concept of internalised practising. Famously the great pianist Walter Gieseking learnt pieces in their entirety from memory away from the instrument before even playing the first note. His ideas are outlined in the excellent book ‘Piano Technique: The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection’, co-written in 1932 with his teacher Karl Leimer.
Though few are blessed with Gieseking’s photographic memory skills, we can all learn from ideas in this excellent treatise, which stresses the importance of reciting from memory analytical features and salient textural details in the repertoire you are studying. This can be build up from brief, elementary sight reading exercises if you look at a couple of lines whilst sitting at your desk for several minutes, then cover the notes up and say aloud everything that you can remember. Don’t simply try to name notes- begin with the pulse, key, tempo, characterisation. Move on and consider the texture, basic harmonies, melodic shapes, striking intervals, articulation, and phrase structure.
Taking the emphasis away from mechanical considerations with internalised practising is extremely beneficial, giving a totally different perspective on learning. But for me, one of the most important reasons for developing this approach when working with repertoire is because it strengthens aural awareness. Being able to hear sounds specifically and precisely in your inner ear is an extremely precious skill for musicians.
It can be nurtured and developed from the first stages to the last. Simply singing or playing single notes, intervals, rhythmic patterns, and melodic motifs then closing your eyes and recalling what was played or sung can be an effective starting point. From this initial basis bigger, more sophisticated challenges can be constructed so that the aural ability and focus of the inner ear are empowered. Think of it as training a muscle- use it every day and it will thrive.
Once the aural recall is developed beyond the elementary stages it is possible to begin ‘practising’ small sections of music away from instruments. You may well find that passages that were confusing at the keyboard- where your fingers seemed to fall over each other- become much easier to understand when you ‘play’ them with your fingers moving in the air or on a worktop.
If you can analyse patterns without the distraction of having to literally play notes at your instrument you may well find that ambiguities become much clearer and less complex. This is as true for mechanical, technical, and interpretive challenges. Use Gieseking’s methodology of verbalising the issues- like a running commentary from a television voice-over whilst a sporting event is (not)taking place.
Though it is obvious that we can use internalised practising to hone our aural, visual, analytical, and even our kinaesthetic memory skills, it is important to work away from instruments for other important reasons.
Internalised practising is basic for conductors as they prepare in advance of rehearsals. Woe betide any maestro who confronts an orchestra ready to work if s/he does not have interpretive ideas firmly internalised! The direction of an ensemble requires foresight and pre-rehearsal preparation. Sadly, many instrumentalists and singers seem to approach their own individual practising without the wherewithal of a conductor.
Though it may be possible to enter the practice studio and simply plunge into note learning, there is no question that the work achieved will be so much more fulfilling, structured, and pleasurable if there is a game plan set up in advance. How exciting it is to ‘pre-practice’ you’re practising with internalised play-throughs of passagework, initial fingers pencilled in away from the instrument, and with key phrases sung and shaped in advance in your head! Imagine all the colours you can.
Turn your sonata movement into a string quartet or orchestral excerpt. What are the different possibilities? How can you reshape a phrase that you have grown accustomed to realising in a fixed way? And once the practice session is complete, it makes sense to internally review what you have been experimenting with aloud. With your score at hand (and perhaps a comforting hot mug of chocolate by your side) it is profitable to sit and play through everything using your inner ear.
But internalised practising should not necessarily be limited to the sedentary armchair approach. Try movement as a means of bringing your repertoire vibrantly to life with motion! This works extremely well with Chopin Mazurkas, Waltzes, and Polonaises… not to mention all the baroque suite movements (allemandes, courantes, gigues) Scarlatti sonatas, and so on. If dancing becomes too energetic, then you can always stand up and take on the role of a conductor as you ‘direct’ each phrase in turn as you want it to sound.
Of course, the easy option here is simply to play a recording and conduct along with it… but it is fare more empowering to physically wave your arms around as you internally ‘hear’ your own ideal interpretation.
Practising away from an instrument would never be complete without a substantial amount of singing. By breathing and shaping the phrases that we play physically, we can create a truly organic, natural sense of flow that should stand us in tremendous stead when we return to playing. Make words up, hum, sing to soh-fah…. By varying the vocal delivery, you will gain fresh perspectives that will enliven and enhance your connection with the music.
Visualisation and meditation
Internalised practising when connected with visualisation and meditation can do wonders for mental health and concert anxiety. By linking positive meditation with internal play-throughs of your music, you are sent a positive message through the actual notes you are about to perform in a concert.
On the day of competition, exam, or public performance event, it is useful to lie down on the floor, close your eyes, take deep breaths…. and play through your repertoire from beginning to end calmly, with loving care. View your internal performance as a wonderful film in which everything you hope to see, hear, and feel in the forthcoming concert itself is firmly in place. Truly believe what you experience, and success is a given!
‘I was born very, very lazy and I don’t always practice very long. But I must say, in my defence, that it is not so good, in a musical way, to over-practise. When you do, the music seems to come out of your pocket.’
Given all these points, the case for everyone developing their skills as practisers without instruments would seem a particularly strong one. With advanced piano pupils, I commonly recommend that up to half of their total practising time should be spent away from the keyboard. This could mean that postgraduate students spend three hours of preparation on scores at the piano, and the remaining time either at a desk or walking down the road… or even meditating with their eyes shut lying down on their beds!
The change of perspective that internalised work offers musicians is invigorating and seems to generate more motivation in those who choose to practise this way. Certainly, the freshness factor is easier to nurture when you do more work in your head rather than at the keyboard. By ‘starving’ yourself of playing through your music, you create a strong motivation to do so. This in turn will lead to even more enthusiasm, love, and energised endeavour as you perform and practise.