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Maintaining Motivation

It is not an uncommon occurrence that some of my students, particularly the beginner ones,  don't always practice enough. Usually the desire and intention is there, promises are made that this week will be better, but when it comes to the following lesson, it can often be the case that there has not really been much improvement.

How to maintain the motivation to practice

One suggestion that I offer in such circumstances is to have a schedule. A typical conversation, might start,
"So will you practice more this week?"
 "Yes," comes the reply they are expecting I want to hear. To which I reply,
"Every day."
"When every day? What time? When you get home from school, after dinner, in the morning, exactly when?  

... and after a little discussion it might be that we make a little practice diary for them to fill in each practice.

Now this might seem too babyish for a more mature, advanced or self disciplined student, but is it really. Could you not ask yourself  the same questions? Is a practice diary just for younger children or would even an adult benefit from setting themselves goals to achieve rather than aimlessly filling in half an hour of playing their instrument (notice I didn't say practicing).

However, motivation is not just dependent on setting strict goals and schedules, but also on desire and getting enjoyment from practicing, especially some of the more tedious aspects such as technical work or scales. One of the best ways start enjoying what you are doing is to see the results and these results come from those self disciplined plans mentioned earlier. It is a circle which can be either positive or negative.

A positive circle starts with discipline = results = motivation
A negative circle starts with no goals or plan = slow progress = loss of desire to continue.

Maybe in the past or now you might feel in this negative circle and what you need to kick start this circle into reverse is a little self discipline and goal planning.

Please feel free to share in the comments below what you do to organize your practice schedule, or is there something else that motivates you?


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How to play semiquavers evenly

Many years back, an excellent teacher of mine showed me some brilliant exercises to get semiquaver passages even and I would like to share them with you today. The problem often arises with the weaker fingers such as 4th and 5th. For example, when moving from the ring finger to the little finger it is easy to "trip" and rush onto the last note.

In addition to this, it is not only the rhythm that can be affected, but sometimes the evenness of tone. A typical example is the "bumpy thumbs" in a scale of B major. If you play this scale you will notice that the thumbs are always together and the natural tendency is for the thumb to play a little harsher than the other fingers. Try it now and see if you can hear that the thumb notes, are slightly heavier. So lets get to the exercises, which by the way, are suitable for any instrument, not just piano. The first couple use dotted rhythms.
Use these rhythms to play semiquavers evenly

In example A you start with the longest note and alternate long - short - long - short - long - short etc, with a slight emphasis as you would naturally do on the first note of each group and in example B you swap this around. The longer you can make the dotted note and the shorter the demisemiquaver, the better. A lazy almost  triplet rhythm, will be less effective.

Applying this to the scale of B major, you will notice that the accent falls in different places in each octave, contrary to the natural tendency to only accent the thumb notes.

The next pair of exercises uses triplet rhythms.

Using triplet rhythms is an excellent exercise for getting semiquavers even.

Again try and make the long note of each group, as long as possible and the triplet as quick as possible, remembering to slightly accent the first note in each group of four, for maximum effectiveness.

Finally after playing each of the four exercises, you should play the passage normally with straight semiquavers trying not to accent any note.

So why not give it a go, try it on your scales or another passage that involves fast semiquavers and let me know in the comments below if it made any difference to the evenness of your playing.


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Why hands separately practice is unhelpful.

Should you start to learn a new piece hands separately or straight away hands together? This might be a controversial topic and I would be interested in your thoughts, so leave a comment below how you usually practice.

Why hands separately practice is unhelpful.

Obviously it is easier to work on one hand alone, but is it really beneficial? With my own students, I try to get them to put hands together as soon as possible, OK one play through of a section with one hand is acceptable, to familiarize oneself with the notes, but more than this is not helpful. I will explain why and feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

As soon as we start repeating a physical action over and over, we develop muscle memory. When we start a piece hands separately, continuing to practice like this for a period of time, we will develop two distinct muscle memories. When eventually we come to putting these two memories together, it's like we are starting from scratch. You can't add two separate memories together to make a new memory. All the time you have been practicing separately has been effectively a waste of time. It's like you are learning a completely new piece.

This is very obviously noticeable when moving from Grade 1 ABRSM piano to Grade 2. One of the biggest hurdles I have found with my students, jumping from the first Grade to the second is putting scales hands together. They may well have been able to play a single hand G major with each hand, one at a time, perfectly. However, as soon as I ask them to try it hands together for the first time, the muscle memory they developed previously - single-handed - completely falls apart. Fingering goes right out the window. Usually one hand tends to copy the other (incorrectly) and they now need to develop a completely NEW muscle memory.

On this point, it is interesting to note, that in ABRSM piano exams, students generally prepare scales hands together only, from Grade 2 and above. However the syllabus requires that you can play them separately as well. You might think, "well that is easy, if I can play hands together a certain scale, of course I could do it with just one hand" and so you might tend to not practice it such. However, it has been known, that a student has been asked for a one handed scale in an exam and that has completely thrown them off, because they have never practiced it single handedly, resulting in a very poorly executed scale. It all comes back to muscle memory.

Let me know if you agree with my theory, maybe before you practiced otherwise and something today has made you think. Or maybe, you're not convinced. All polite thoughts on either side of the coin are appreciated.


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How to use a metronome correctly.

A metronome can be a very useful piece of equipment, especially when learning faster, more complicated pieces.
A metronome can be a very useful piece of equipment, especially when learning faster, more complicated pieces. Very often students will try to attempt learning a piece too quickly, with many hesitations and these inconsistencies in tempo will remain if we don't first practice slowly enough. You should always practice at a speed that you can comfortably keep going at without hesitation. Then you can use a metronome to very gradually build up the tempo as you develop muscle memory. Many modern metronomes which you can download onto your phone or ipad have a tap tempo function, meaning that you can tap the beat of a speed which you think you can maintain and the metronome will remember that speed in beats per minute (bpm).

As you increase the speed, only do so very gradually so that the hesitant playing does not return. Traditional metronomes increased by intervals of 3 bpm from 60 - 72 and by 4 bpm from 72 up to 120 and these incremental changes are ideal for increasing the speed  gradually. Don't try and run before you can walk.

I tend not to go too far below 50 or above 150, because beyond these extremes the beat becomes too slow or too fast and thus harder to follow. Instead, I subdivide or double the beat. For example, if I wanted a beat slower than crotchet = 60, I would first convert it into quavers and use quaver = 120 and then go lower from there as a quaver beat. When I achieve a quaver = 120 comfortably, I would then go back into a crotchet beat increasing further from crotchet = 60. Of course if the beat subdivides into threes as in compound time signatures you could subdivide a dotted crotchet = 50, into quaver =150

A word of caution here - although metronomes can be very useful in building the speed of a fast, complicated piece, they can also make your playing very mechanical. Therefore you should do as much practice with and without a metronome and when without, you can add little nuances such as rubato (which is not an excuse for hesitant playing by the way).