During the school holidays I encourage students to practice daily where possible. The format of practice can be varied so that even if you are away from home, you can be doing something musical every day. Here are some examples below for students that are not near a piano:
Listening and Singing
Do you listen to your pieces every day? If not, you should start doing this. It is a great way to start hearing the melody, learning the structure of the piece, concentrating on dynamic variations and articulation. You could listen to a piece several times and each time pick out a different thing to listen to. The first time, you could choose to listen to the dynamics. You can jot down the quietest part of the piece, the loudest part, how does it begin, how does it end etc. By creating these music markers, you will find that when you sit at the piano to practice it, you will have an understanding of the piece in your mind. It is also good to listen to the piece whilst looking at the music. Once away from the piano and the pressures of finding the notes, you often spot things that you have not seen before. TIP: Do make sure you have a reputable recording of the piece. If you do not have access to the official CD recording produced by your exam board, then ask your teacher to record it for you and you can transfer it onto an iPod Touch or a parent’s phone.
As well as listening, try singing or humming along to your pieces. Music consists of phrases that are marked as long sweeping lines over the top of a piece. A melody is the part of the music that sings to us, so when a phrase ends, it would be where a singer would take a small breath before embarking upon the next part of the melody. If you start thinking of music in phrases, it will help shape your playing and create brief moments of respite for the player and the listener. It also brings a sensitivity to your playing.
Visual and Silent Practice
Ever since I started the piano, I have always been ‘playing’ on any surface be it a table, my knees, a book or any other flat surface! I used to like listening to melodies on the radio and trying to play along with the tune if I was sat in the car. Even though I wouldn’t know what the starting note was as I am not pitch perfect, I would make a good attempt of thinking about how the notes are spaced apart. This all helps with learning to play by ear and sight-read when you start thinking about the intervals between notes.
If you have your piano books to hand, then you could place the book on a table and put your hands in position on the table and practice playing the piece as if you have an invisible keyboard. Many concert pianists do this form of ‘silent practice’ whilst in their hotel rooms in preparation for a recital. Not all pianists are lucky enough to have a grand piano shipped into their hotel room or to be near enough to a practice room, so many swear by this form of practice! Why not try it out and see if it works for you?
If you find yourself away from a piano if you are travelling abroad, then why not take along some theory books?
I try to incorporate theory into every piano lesson, sometimes from the theory books, sometimes just a few Italian words to learn at home. However, it is not always possible in a 30 minute lesson to cover a new theory topic each week, so holidays are the perfect time to set some extra pages of homework. As long as the topics have been covered in the lessons before the break, then it is usually no problem for students to work through the exercises on their own as the theory books are presented in a self-study format.
If you are not keen on the idea of structured homework whilst on holiday, then a fun game that parents can help out with is learning the Italian words and musical directions in the back of the theory book. You can select 10 words or symbols to learn and with lots of repetition, these can quickly be learned and you can move on to the next 10 words. Some of the words you can try and find English words that have a similar sound, for example – accelerando means ‘getting faster’ and is similar to the word ‘accelerating’.
I also have mini Flick Cards that I lend to students working on Graded Theory exams. The answers are written on the back. Do ask if you would like to borrow these.
Maureen Cox’s Theory Is Fun is brilliant for students working towards graded exams. It is A5 in size so fits easily into a small bag, unlike the bigger and uninspiring ABRSM Theory Books. For young students age 4+, Ying Ying Ng’s excellent sticker books are engaging and visually stimulating. I have yet to find a student that does not love stickers!
Encouraging Practice Whilst at Home
If you are not away from a piano, then it may be tempting to take a break from daily practice. For some students, this doesn’t affect their playing too much, although it does not lead to much progress. However, for most students, particularly young students, lack of practice means that lots of the basics are quickly lost and when you return to lessons, your teacher will have to spend another 2 lessons recovering the lost knowledge.
For students that have an exam coming up in the next term, daily practice is vital. If daily practice piano is starting to seem like a battle during the holidays, then try some of the methods listed above. It is good to encourage young pianists to move away from the piano occasionally and listen to their pieces or study the score.
A particularly good trick that I like to do which promotes sight-reading is lend a student a book of fun pieces such as Microjazz, Up-Grade or The Joy of Boogie and Blues. I encourage my students to learn at least one piece to performance standard during the holidays. This is essentially a sight-reading challenge but the aim is to include all the performance directions and get the tempo and rhythm as correct as possible. As the pieces are reasonably jazzy and fun, it doesn’t seem like an effort to learn them and anything that encourages sight-reading skills is a bonus!
Organise your own Recital
Play dates during the holidays are the perfect opportunity to host your own recital. Invite over some friends, grandparents or neighbours to come and hear you perform your favourite pieces. Make an occasion of it by arranging the room into theatre-style seating. Create a programme for the recital by folding a bit of A4 paper in half and creating a cover page with your name on it, the date, venue and PIANO RECITAL in big letters. Inside, you can list all the pieces you would like to play and who composed them. If you want to do a bit of research, then get on the ‘net and find an interesting fact about the composer or the piece. A lot of composers had very colourful lives so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a quirky fact that will amuse the audience. Also look up the titles of your pieces as it’s vital to understand the meaning of the piece in order to convey the spirit of it. In graded exam pieces, this is usually explained in the footnote of the piece but it’s amazing how few students read these notes unless prompted.
When performing your pieces, don’t forget to take a bow before and after, as well as introduce your pieces. The recital doesn’t have to last long but it will give you an immense sense of achievement to do something like this.