Teach Your Brain, Your Fingers Will Follow

It is important to understand that right now your fingers are physically capable of playing anything even the most accomplished piano virtuoso can play. The muscles, ligaments, and tendons of the hand are incredible in their speed and dexterity. It is the brain, however, controlling the movements of the hand, where the limitation occurs.

The brain's amazing ability to multitask outperforms even the most powerful supercomputers. Science may never fully understand the inner workings of the human brain in all its complexity. One thing that is for certain: You can teach your brain to control the very precise and rapid finger movements needed for piano playing. Finding the best way to teach your brain is the tricky part. What works for one person may not work as well for someone else. Many people give up on piano playing because of frustration, thinking they lack the talent or abilities, when in reality all they needed was a different approach to teaching their brain how to play.

The advice that follows works for most people, and can form the foundation of a lifelong learning process in piano playing. As you progress, seek out new ways and new ideas. Keep an open mind, experiment with different practice techniques and teaching methods, and evaluate their effectiveness. Who knows? A new twist on how to practice might just be the thing you need to get out of a rut, or bring you to a new level of understanding and performance excellence.

Play Slow and Steady

How fast you play the notes is of crucial importance when learning a new piece of music. It is a natural tendency for you to play the music “up to speed,” or even at a faster tempo than the music is intended. This natural tendency is detrimental to the learning process, and you will actually take longer to learn the piece if you allow this natural tendency to rule over your playing.

Special techniques may be required to play certain advanced piano passages very quickly. These techniques may be different when playing the exact same notes slowly. Until you reach that advanced level of proficiency, just keep it very slow and build speed gradually.

The brain needs to concentrate on each note and phrase in order to play and memorize the piece of music. If music flies by at too great a speed, the brain will not be able to fully imprint the mental instructions needed for the fingers to follow. It is very helpful to play a piece of music at one-half speed and slower, especially when first learning it. Play each note firmly and deliberately. Let your brain feel your fingers pressing the keys slowly as you read the notes. Only after you have learned all the notes and feel comfortable should you try to gradually build up speed until you can play fully up to tempo, or even faster. If you start making errors, pull back the tempo a notch or two and stay there until you are ready to gradually build up speed again. It is of no value at all to play fast, if your performance is sloppy and full of wrong notes and bad timing.

Use Separate Hands

To reinforce the learning process, it helps to isolate complex movements into their component parts. That is what happens when you practice hands separately. Unless the music is easy enough to sight-read perfectly with hands together, learn each hand's part separately. Once each hand is able to play without error, put your hands together. Be sure to slow down the tempo when you first put hands together. Even though you may have worked each hand up to speed separately, go back to half-speed or slower the first time you put hands together. You can then build up the tempo again with both hands together.

Learning music with separate hands does not mean to learn the entire piece first with the right hand, and then the left, and then put hands together. Try learning only a few measures at a time with each hand separately, then with hands together. Proceed to the next few measures and repeat the process.

Isolate Mistakes

When you come to a point in the music where you make an error, especially if you make the same error more than once, it is time to stop and isolate that section of the music. Instead of always playing from the beginning of the piece, start just before the rough spot and slowly play through it. Be sure to play past the difficult section as well. Usually you begin a measure or two before the error you are trying to correct, and continue a measure past it. Of course, you can start even closer to the error, perhaps one or two notes and continue past the error for a few notes. Then repeat, repeat, and repeat just that isolated section until the error disappears. After you can play through the section without any errors three to five times in a row, you can try the piece from the beginning and see if the rough spot has resolved itself.

As you become proficient in reading music, you will be able to look through a piece of music without even playing it and anticipate where the difficult sections are. Concentrate your practice on the difficult sections first using the isolation technique to correct errors, and you will learn the piece much quicker than if you always practice starting at the beginning of the music.

Look For Patterns

Most musical works have a very defined structure. You can find patterns everywhere in music, and that is a great timesaver when it comes to learning a new piece of music. Before you try to play a new piece of music, inspect it carefully, away from the piano if possible. You may find that certain measures repeat exactly in several places. If there is a four-measure musical phrase that appears twelve times in the score, you only have to learn the four measures and you can already play forty-eight bars! Many times, just a few phrases make up an entire work of music. Find the patterns, learn those few phrases, and you may realize that the long piece of music you were initially intimidated by is actually easy to learn.

For practice, look at Figure 20-1, which is a copy of “Fur Elise” that you learned in Chapter 13. Without even going to the piano, see if you can pick out visually the patterns in the music. The main motif is played four times and is highlighted with a bracket. Starting in bar ten there is a four-note phrase first starting on G, then repeated starting on F, then on E. The first nine bars of the piece are exactly the same as the last nine bars. By breaking down the music into repeated phrases and patterns, it is much easier to learn and gives you a better idea of the musical structure. What other musical patterns can you pick out in “Fur Elise”?

FIGURE 20-1: Patterns in music

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