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Before You Bang Your Head Against the Wall…Try These

You know that feeling when you’re practicing a piece of music and no matter how many times you go over a passage it never seems to improve? I can hear you nodding.

Rather than playing something over and over again like an automaton, maybe it’s time to employ a new approach. Today I’ll share a few practice tools which can be used when struggling with a passage that just isn’t sticking.

I’m no neuroscientist but I’ve always believed that the more ways we can demonstrate a new skill to our brains, the more deeply that skill will sink in. So here’s a short and simple list of fresh ways you can approach those tricky parts in the score that will not only make learning quicker but will also save your brain from being slammed against the wall in frustration.

Cross Handed Playing 

Yes, it’s exactly as it sounds. Now this isn’t for the faint of heart but if you are willing to sit down and give it an honest try then it will help untangle that chaotic mass of fingers and keys. As it sounds, it simply means to have opposite hands play opposite staffs. Have the right hand play the accompaniment and the bass tackle the melody; when you return to regular position you will find the music has suddenly been absorbed more deeply than before. I used this while learning a Mozart sonata in my first year of university and it’s come in “handy” during those times when regular repetition just isn’t doing it.

Backwards Playing

Not only is this an excellent party trick, it’s a unique way of teaching the music to your brain. When your fingers are getting tied in knots try playing (very slowly) a few measures in reverse. Be careful not to change the fingering at all as that would defeat the purpose of the exercise. I recommend doing it hands separately first. After you’ve returned to the beginning play it forwards again. In some passages you can even go back and forth, strengthening it in both directions!

Tapping

Bear with me as this one is a little far out. I once heard from one of my piano professors that when Glenn Gould was faced with a particularly difficult spot in the music that he just couldn’t master (imagine that!) he would place one hand over top of the other and tap the fingers. So, with his right hand on the keyboard over the tricky spot, he would place his left hand on top of it and tap the tops of the fingers of the right hand. This way he literally had both hands playing the same notes which must have created some cross-brain connection for deeper learning. I have to admit, I haven’t used this one much yet but if I’m ever in a bind it’s good to know that it’s available. Probably best done in private.

Ghosting

This has nothing to do with Hallowe’en approaching! I find this exercise particularly useful. Play a difficult part hands together BUT only sound ONE of the hands. The other hand simply taps the tops of the keys with the correct fingering while not actually depressing them. Then switch. This one has been incredibly useful over the years. It makes me hyperaware of the ghosting hand’s fingering as well as forces me to listen to the other hand that’s actually playing in a more nuanced fashion.

Whatever you’re working on keep these tools in mind. Make sure that you’re undestracted (as you should be when practicing!) as each one requires a great deal of concentration to be effective.

I’m sure there are many more weird and whacky examples out there that may be great for changing up your practicing routine. After all, Glenn Gould also used to turn on the vacuum cleaner while he was practicing in his youth. For some reason, he found that not being able to hear himself play made his practicing more effective.

If you have any other unique, odd, and kooky practice approaches then feel free to share them below!

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