(This is a revision of a post from my old blog, originally posted May 21, 2014)
9 years ago, I was in the midst of rehearsing a show as music director and pianist, a show that is known for a difficult piano part. At some point, I had played it with the cast close to a dozen times, and was able to make some observations while I'm playing.
1. In spite of pegging this score in advance as one that I would have to spend quite a bit of time practicing, at least 90% of this score was sight-readable for me. Of the 10% I couldn't sight-read well and had to practice, I didn't have to spend more than about an hour of total practice learning 9% of it. There's about 1% that was genuinely hard and got the vast majority of my time in between rehearsals with the cast.
2. Again, I noticed this 9 years ago, but it still holds up, so I'll keep this as a present tense observation. When I'm playing, I use very little movement. My wrists and shoulder movement are exactly what I teach in lessons, but I'm not doing much of it, just enough to play it well.
3. When I play, I know it "looks" easy. As a matter of fact, it "feels" easy.
All of this led to a conclusion:
The benefits of ease in playing this show are the result of INTENSE PRACTICE of PREVIOUS PIECES.
If you're not struggling with a piece, you are missing out on true growth. It'd be nice if all pieces were ones you can just look at and play on the first attempt. Unless you're an absolute beginner, all of you have pieces like that on some level. However, unless you experience the STRUGGLE of a difficult piece regularly, and learn to overcome it, you will not push your level of comfort to more difficult music. The great news is that what you learn in one piece will help you in future pieces!
To reach this goal of a higher level of playing, here is what I did, and recommend you do.
(1) Embrace the struggle of difficult music. It's NOT a reflection of how little you've accomplished so far. You are not a failure for struggling with music. Each struggle is how you grow. In fact, it's the only way to grow as a musician.
(2) Learn to practice strategically, in ways that solve difficulties in efficient ways. This includes correct practice of accuracy first leading to speed with analysis and repetition as needed. Everything you accomplish in learning one piece will likely come in as great experience the next time you come across something similar.
(3) LEARN your TECHNIQUE! Unless someone mistakes you for The Flash as you play your scales, chords, and arpeggios, they are not yet good enough. There's always room for improvement. The better you are at those, the less music will catch you unprepared. Be consistent - the right notes with the right fingerings every single time. Go as slow as you need, but push for speed as it becomes easy.
(4) Keep improving your knowledge of theory. When I play, I KNOW my notes. I don't even think about them. I KNOW my keys. I KNOW my key signatures. I don't miss sharps and flats because I remember them and apply them while I play. I'm also aware of repeated sections. I also am thinking about the chords I'm playing. The more I KNOW, the better I play it.
(5) Practice sightreading. Take easier music and work on seeing the music ahead of where you're playing, of playing without having to look at your hands. Sightreading can include playing old pieces you either didn't learn well, or have forgotten.
(6) Memorize regularly, even a few measures. When playing from music, page turns sometimes demand remembering what's around the corner, so it's helpful to be able to keep playing off the page without making a big struggle of it.
When you begin to feel frustrated with the struggle of a piece, remember that these are merely dues you pay for getting to the next level. The hard work you spend on a piece will not be spent in vain, even if you forget how to play that particular piece. Each accomplishment in piano will pay dividends later on.
You can listen to the podcast episode based on this blog post here:
or watch on YouTube: