In this fantastic interview with Graham Fitch (first recorded in February 2018) we talked about practice strategies, and managing practice expectations with adult students.
Click on any word to jump to that point in the audio. 🙂
Vibrant vibrant vibrant music teaching proven and practical strategies and ideas for music.
This is the vibrant music teaching podcast. I’m Nicola Cantan and you’re listening to Episode 23 which is an interview with Graham Finch first recorded in February of 2018. Enjoy.
Hi teachers Oh my gosh do I have a treat to share with you today. I have an interview with the wonderful Graham Fitch. Graham Fitch runs the blog practicing the piano and it’s just a treasure trove. I mean he wrote these books that completely changed the way that I thought about practicing myself and also helped me to get some of these ideas which he focuses on mostly intermediate and advanced students and take it down to the beginner level so I could get my students practicing correctly from the very start. It really revolutionized how I thought about practice getting results from my practice time and just teaching in general.
So they’re wonderful books, he’s a wonderful blog as well.
And he’s here today to share just some fantastic inside some of his practice strategies. And we talk about his piano teaching journey and also that how he practices himself because he’s still performing and he needs to prepare things. And how does he go at it as a practice expert.
At the very start of the interview there were some issues with the video. I apologize. The sound is still good and the information is fabs. I’ve decided to include that as is. And then the video will kick in just about 30 seconds one minute in. So just bear with me. There is some technical glitches as I was traveling around recording these interviews for you. I really hope you enjoy the interview today though it’s absolutely fantastic. Well worth watching and I know you’ll get a lot out of it. Let me know if you have any questions about what we chatted about or the thoughts that come up as you’re listening to the interview today.
So I’m in the home studio of Graham Fitch. It’s great to chat with him about practice.
You may know Graham from his blog which is practicing the piano or his online academy and he also does lots of teaching works with the Steinway all videos and all this stuff so it’s fantastic that you could join me today.
Thank you so much. Welcome. Yes lovely to see you. And first of all I just want to actually thank you because when I started looking into practicing myself I had a good practice better. That’s when I found your blog and your books and they just helped me open up the whole world of efficient practice and actually doing hard work at the piano rather than just playing through things and hoping it sticks. I’m very glad. Yeah that’s it.
I think that’s the main thing with practice. It’s got to be methodical to work.
Exactly. You have to go through. Yes. So that’s what we’re going to chat a bit about today. Yeah I read before this interview. Back to the very very start of your blog post March 2011. Well yes that’s quite a while back.
And in that post you talked about how you felt very fortunate to have teachers who taught you to practice. Yes. Is that why you started the blog in the first place.
Is that what you do. Well I think if you look at the field kind of pedagogy of teaching you can apply that seem to be a lot of people writing about the repertoire.
A lot of people writing about aspects of technique and I thought well what’s missing from my experience is a kind of teacher has often been how or practice. So I would say I would ask a student which is really where it came from when I was a youngster I had a teacher who used to ask me I’d say well I’m having trouble with those big parts of the row about on that score and you say so how are you practicing it.
And that made me think because it wasn’t actually just do this and it’ll be fixed it was a process that he was wanting me to be aware of.
So that during lessons between sorry during the week between the lessons I would have something tangible to actually do when I kind of enter rather than just open the book and sort of stop at the beginning get to the end to three times which is probably what a lot of people do. Less than most of us do.
Yeah. Yeah I would certainly walk through practice in the lesson but I was never told that that was what was happening. I think it’s so important that he said How are you going to practice that I got you involved. Yes and actually yes you know verbalizing how it works.
Which which is what I do with my students. Now if you’re having a problem with something it might be a technical problem that might be something that could just be quickly fixed and then in the course of a lesson just instantly.
But it also could be I’ve often found people coding things the technical problems with are actually perceptual problems they haven’t really figured out what’s going on on the page.
So that that of course is where practice comes in. I had somebody come the other day for a lesson. I mean she was a professional parent in the sense that she graduated from a conservatory and there were. Areas of her pieces that never actually unravelled. So she said I having a problem with this by having a humble background and I looked at it and she hadn’t actually unravelled what was on the page. So just penetrating the score is one thing that should happen in a practice during the practice and you find the problem in a lot of cases when that happens is actually the rhythm or divine decisions that that’s they’d not leave it closely.
This is not just not looking so it could be the fact that say a middle no to the chord is held for a crutch it is a moving voice on either side and they haven’t seen that. Just play play to block an idea a blow. Yes exactly an idea.
So the idea of what it is and if you constantly repeat whatever you constantly repeat will becoming great is as we know. Yes.
So she had just ingrained what I would call kind of laziness a lack of really looking to see what’s in the score what the composer has taken pains to notate. Also when I was reading that post I came across this idea that this clinic that you set
Up in a university yes it was a practice clinic was just basically the idea of the practice clinic was to get pianists together to problem solve which would mean sitting around the piano not talking about technique. I would try and avoid talking about technique because the students were coming from different teachers so I didn’t want to say something
Technical that might contradict somebody else’s right. He’s a colleague. Yeah.
So what we did was we can find it purely to practicing solving problems through practice strategies processes. Yes that student so it just was like an open open in open invitation people would drop in and out and it would affect the work that they did during the week how they would set what they would do they did it day by day.
Exactly and hopefully help their teachers that you well.
Yes. My role was to help people with their piano playing and not to tread on toes so if I would say something about a risk position for example that would clash with a colleague’s instruction on that then I would not be doing a particularly useful job. So I avoided giving instructions about technical matters and just to do with process but also helpful for the teachers because then they turn up
At their next Assistance Group will take a little bit better practice. Right.
Which is I think a bit more clued up as to what to do. Yeah there’s a lot of them didn’t really know how to practice. I haven’t this time. So what they do is that they just sort of play until something went wrong kind of jab at that passage a few times and so they kind of got it right and then move on to the next bit almost hoping that something would go wrong. So they’ve got something to fix them to do.
Yes but I guess I’m just starting at the beginning and then trying to find a place where there’s an error so that if something to me to focus on and just not understanding that practice is the opposite of play not always the opposite of playing through but unless you’re practicing a performance practicing a play and then you probably do not want to be doing mindless play through.
Exactly. I’d love to dive into some of this specific practice techniques that you have in your books because I love your books. Thank you. One of them that you have which is such a simple idea that I use it all the time with my students is the three S’s.
Yes for three S’s. Yeah. Yes. When you write about piano playing you end up with a bit of jargon. Now you come up with jargon.
And I just thought three the three R’s reading writing rythmic issues that are the basis of the grammar English well it wasn’t so much English it was just education. Back in the Victorian times. And I thought well how can we get to the basics of piano practice.
And so I came up with a three S’s slowly separately and sections working in small sections glowing with that, do they?
Know people don’t do any of those things. No. The idea of sections is one of the things that when I started improving my own practice it just transformed the whole thing actually breaking.
Does that strike you as I was doing was it. Yes.
When you think about you know processing information whether that’s learning those or refining phrasing or sound or fixing mistakes the working memory contain a certain amount of information they say 7 plus 2, 7 or 9 pieces of information for working memory. So whatever that equates to is it not literally seven or nine notes on the page but it’s a small enough section so that you feel like you can hold that section in your hand so that from time you get to the end of that section you’ve remembered everything that’s happened during exactly. Could be a bar like one bar plus one note. So we’ve got that jargon even more BBB plus 1, 1 bar.
So bar by bar plus one so one bar plus one no stop.
Yeah. And repeat that bar.
Yeah I did that with my students I got a letter posted after the first being the next guy because otherwise we just the temptation is there to just totally keep going.
And that’s the thing I think that’s the thing with practice it’s that reining in the temptation just to want to sit and play which is for me spending you know sitting playing your pieces through his spending. Yeah and practicing his investing and saving. So it’s it’s a balance between the two. And if you keep spending spending spending your climate the piece gets worse and worse and worse you’ll find a piece you even could play really well starts to get a bit ragged around the edges and then little errors creep in.
Your sound gets a bit rough maybe or the control gets a little less than it was. And so I often do this with students so I’ll say to them something like I can see that that’s happening. I’ll give you an example. I had a student who won a competition and went over to America to play the finals and flew him across and all of that. And he played his program and was a great success and he came back and showed those pieces for a while. Until his school asked him would he play those pieces that he want the competition with so sure. He said he’d play them and he brought them to the lesson just before which was probably three weeks after he’d through it through form about maybe a month after he’d last play and they were not very good condition. And I said when was the last time you practice this slowly. And he said Well when I when I learned it and I did this thing where I dusted this table last week but the dust come back because I’m using this room I’m using this space at the and even if I weren’t using this space the dust really does accumulate Yeah. So it is with pieces that we think we know we’ve got to constantly work on accuracy and that means don’t always play through don’t always just get the score up or play from memory from the beginning to the end do something that probes a little deeper maybe take it back again to the sorts of stages that you did when you learn the that’s in the first place. How is the left hand standing by itself. Can you play without the pedal. How can you make it sound really good without the pedal. Can you play half the speed. Can you work in small sections can you start at the end and work backwards section by section. These are the sorts of things that for me as practice versus playing through.
Yeah that idea of playing slowly I find the words with my adult students actually adult beginners who come to me and they just wanted to sound like the music straight away like they just expect it to instantly sound like their action the music that they’re familiar with the piece that they know or something like that that they wanted to play. How can you encourage students to slow down.
Apart from using a metronome.
Well I don’t I actually don’t like the metronome even though I’m not completely against it but I think it can become a really kind of crippling crutch in the sense that it doesn’t actually strengthen rhythm it just shows you whether you’re in time with a mechanical object.
And I’ve got this theory that if you found a recording of say the most motoric what you think of a strict piece of music is something like they see mine operated from book one but let’s say you found a recording that you really loved it.
This sounds completely straight and you put a metronome on with it. You managed to find the metronome speed of the player. Yeah it would be out within the hour. Yeah even if no music fits into a metronome it kind of that was the way I do it is I sometimes use this analogy of the marshmallow experiment. Yes. Marshmallow Sanford was whatever it was where they put a marshmallow in front of a young child and said you can eat that right now or if you wait half an hour or whatever that time it was we’ll give you two to eat. Even the young child was able to see the greater reward for just chilling about waiting. So if the adult or indeed anybody who was once the instant gratification of playing through is made aware that there’s a process it’s a step ladder approach you can’t go from the bottom rung of the ladder to the top rung of the ladder without going through the intermediary rungs. And to learn to enjoy the slow practice I think this is something that people don’t yes.
But I think that’s something that comes with a very much later on.
Yeah an efficient models to them. I will sit and show show people what the ultra slow practice is the speed of no mistakes practicing at the speed of their mistakes which could be. One key stroke and then contemplation reflection and then the next key stroke so that before you play anything the command is tangible. I’m going to play a C sharp with my fourth finger on my right hand and it’s going to be Mazza 40 and I’m going to make a lovely to new toe on that. Yeah I’m going to enjoy the physical sensation of contacting my keyboard and listening to the sound that’s conscious speed of no mistakes type of practice.
I love that phrase. There’s been no mistakes. Yes. I often dance. I have my old student there dancing. This is slow. This is actually what slows like because otherwise they just have no frame of reference for it in the beginning I think I
Could Saturday practice yes. What if I fire somebody to demonstrate a slow practice speed.
It could just be usually a tiny little bit slower and then it’ll just come come right back out.
I’ve often found particularly with boys who like some some sort of really kind of clear instruction about solo practice that they’d like to know. What do you mean by slow. So I’ll say half this. Let’s see if I can find half speed so what speed would you like to be able to play this piece out or do you feel that it should go. Can you play that half that speed and then can you play that quarter of this. No it’s half that and they’d like that because the polls can be you know if this is a crutch it polls for the eventual state. You can make that the spin the pulse for the quavers and then the polls with a semi great to see you know. It’s straightforward because then you can actually log what got the speed of what was slow speed. Yeah. But I do have one other thing to say about this which I think is really important that if teachers don’t witness the slow practice it’s not going to happen. But let’s say that everything is active.
I think that’s where we go on a lot of the time is we don’t get enough of the practice happened in the last year make a full walkthrough of exactly what’s going to happen.
Yeah just telling an 8 year old a 15 year old do this this way at home when it’s not going to happen no won’t happen unless it’s unless it’s witnessed in the lesson and encourage and refined a bit.
I mean I’m often asked before somebody plays that piece to me I’ll say. I remember last week we were I was asking you to do some slow practice dying to hear how that sounds. Can you show me your slow practice. And just two minutes. That’s all it needs. Not even two minutes one minute of a lesson for me to hear. For them to actually model model that to me showed me what they’ve been doing and I kept my mind they wanted to suggestions as it could be even. Or Fantastic. Let’s continue to do that and just realize that you can do that. In your practice between lessons. Yeah
I know one teacher who excused themselves to go to the bathroom and ask them to practice lessons about their act.
Then then when they accepted it. I love this idea that you came up with as well as putting sections the pieces in quarantine tests for students really gel with that whenever we come up with different names where but that idea of just this once on a time back or whatever way you want to talk about it.
Where did you come up with the idea of quarantine is it just not developed in your bag of tricks or is a baggage or is it something I developed into them with the term quarantine I guess would be if somebody was sick that need extra TLC so that if they were in a hospital let’s say they would be looked after regularly by the nurses.
Yeah they get a little bit more attention than than just you know wants to once a day or whatever would be ongoing. So the idea would be to. Just to kind of note somehow on the score or on the practice that the sections of music that are weak links that TV program you are the weakest link really sort of. Yes you’ve got you’ve got that kind of feeling that well a chain is only as strong as its weakest link isn’t it. So if you’ve got a measure there that’s not working or a small section over here on the third page it’s not work not working. One would need to extract those two places and do some special practice over and above. So I will often ask somebody you know do you watch movies on the television. They say Yeah I What do you do in the commercial breaks and I’ll just sit there and play my hand. Well how about during the commercial break. How long are they. Five minutes. Come to the piano and just do one quarantine spot really nicely. And that’s that’s like over and above your routine practice. Yeah. So start your practice with the quarantine spots for all the pieces can be a scale quick that you put in quarantine. Start the practice with those practice your first piece go back to the quarantine as your second piece finish your practice with the quarantine and then make a couple of trips back to the piano during the course of the day for the quarantine. Yes and then the teacher would ask for the quarantine spots before they play the piece because again modelling what I want them to do in the practice and if I can see that they’ve not done it I’ll work on on those sections with them again and then if the same situation happens a week after that they haven’t done it. I will say well I’m afraid you know that you can’t help the old sick patients back into it so we’ll have to leave like this one so we don’t hear the rest of the piece. How soon. Oh yes they must actually practice those places first. Yeah
Until those are better. There’s no point working. Yeah.
Is that good. Yeah.
Yeah. I love the idea of keeping a practice diary and I don’t know if this is something you do yourself or your urges students to do.
Behind you there is a big black book that was actually a in a reject pile in a bookshop because it wasn’t printed it was a nice sort of coffee table style book. It was they just didn’t print it. So it was being sold as a kind of notebook thing. And I’ve had it for years and I keep it very close as the piano. Whenever I’ve got ideas. Or I need to log something I will use that as my practice notebook. Yeah but I think with practice diary practice that book is for people that are having regular lessons who need a little bit of structure. I quite like the idea of just having two columns so one what do you plan to do. Yeah. One where you actually end up doing because if you don’t end up doing what you’ve planned you need to read you get a little bit because I don’t think practicing is not. It’s not an exact science is it. You might find you you know you really on a roll with something and you spend a little bit more time on that than you’d hoped so therefore you didn’t quite manage to do everything do you just reject the what you do the next day.
Yeah but even the act of making a plan what you’re going to do is so valuable even if you don’t. Yeah. Just doing all of that.
Yes. And I think the other thing that’s really valuable is the reflection afterwards. Yeah reflecting on how did you do so if you’re playing piece through from beginning to end don’t immediately dive in and go over those spots it didn’t work. Chill sit back with with your notebook and write a few reflections could simply be. Well actually I think it’s on the right track. I seem to be getting close to the temper that I want but I’m still not happy with my left hand control. In the second subject I need to do a little bit of work on the left hand there. For example. And then you might write. You might write down what it is you need to do so few bullet points is something that needs a little bit more accent practice or maybe some practice using a different rhythm whatever it may be or maybe stiff some staccato practice at the fingers aren’t articulating clearly whatever it may be. See what you’ve got that is a reflection in bullet form for the next practice session rather than mindlessly literally mindlessly. Yes. Hacking away at the scene with no kind of time for reflection because you talk about these three sections of the practice.
Yes you have the feedback loop.
Yes well you see the feedback loop if you imagine three boxes box A box B box C box a is what you do before you play. So fun to pick up my phone to take a photo I focus my image on my subject and then I know when I’m ready to press the shutter. So I plan what it is that I want to do before I do it. Then the box B is the plane but itself is they could be just one bar. It could be a whole recycle program whatever. Yeah well C is where you value it. Yes. No. So in other words did it’s what I did in Box B. Did it match what I intended to do in box A. And then you can put a tick if not in what ways did it not match what I intended.
Feed that information back into a new box. A See what I’m saying. So then when you do your when you repeat anything you’ve got concrete tangible
Plan for what it is you want.
Yeah I mean it’s also a tangible way. Actually listening to what you’ve got to listen.
Yes it’s fantastic.
These are things that they and they’re not even it’s music. Did you not hear it. No. Totally. Yeah. Keep that back.
What do you do when you start a new piece of music these days. You say it’s going to be something that’s fairly challenging know.
Well okay good very good question. I think the first thing I do is not to go anywhere near the piano. OK. Not to go to the piano. If I if I know the piece well I just haven’t played it. I would probably sit with the score for a while quite a while. You know understanding the shape of the piece the character of the themes hearing it in my head analyzing the structure of the harmony the should before and then I might listen to some recordings but I would listen to quite a number of them I would listen to just one. And I would only listen at that kind of stage of the I wouldn’t listen later. And then then I think what I’d also. Well certainly not I think I’ve said what I’ll do is do a bit of research. This is for my diploma people I would say write your program notes. Once you’ve chosen the program because then you’ve got something that you’ll find out from research about what it is that you want to bring out in your own performance. You know for example the Mozart a minor Sonata K through 10 you know a lot of people don’t know that he wrote that Sonata in the wake of his mother’s sudden tragic death and it’s filled with despair and tragedy.
Know that what they do is they just they bring and say well what should I have any pattern in this first left hand. And I’m thinking well let’s get to that later. Let’s first of all fix it. Let’s take a picture first a bit of research. Much research as you can really do. What was going on in the composer’s life at the time. What other music was he or she writing around that time. Listen to that. So if you’re play of his 10 Beethoven number one sonata listen to number two because it’s not the three four are there any links that you can find between somatic sort of structural similarities or Milosevic similarities because he was writing those kind of together though it’s just a question of for me of getting as much clarity on all of that before then go to the piano and I don’t necessarily start at the beginning yeah.
Do you jump to action that you think is going to be challenging.
Yeah. I made it may very well do or I may start with the last movement. Know you have got to remember the inspiration from Rosina Lhevinne. I’m sure that’s a familiar Name founder of the Juilliard paino department with her husband Josef who used to ask students for the last movements of things so they’d go in with a concerto or a tsunami and she said What do you bring in today. And such and such a concerto might be the last one. Me The coda for me. Yeah. So her students were primed to learn from the end. You get to the first bit of a loss maybe. Yeah not necessarily but the idea also if you’ve got a big piece let’s learn a little bit at the beginning maybe learn something of the second theme. Look at the recapitulation have a little look at the second movement and look at the counter of the last movement. So I’ll often assign students you know they bring us an answer. That’s what I’d like to hear next week. Let’s explore this this this next week.
Otherwise it’s just gets good at the beginning and then there’s a kind of activity the you get a demand you end up with accomplishment. Exactly.
Yes. So this was fantastic. I’d love it if if those teachers watching this who they never really taught they’d seen much better practice or never thought of methods this and.
What would you say is the first thing they could try to do if they want to get consumers to focus more on how they’re practicing or teach practice better.
Well I’ve written a lot about practicing. It’s completely free. Just my blog practicingthepiano.2com. There is a Web site a subscription site connected with that but you don’t have to have anything to do. They don’t have to go on that
To get the information. I think. Well I teach practicing on the piano teaches course UK which is with my lovely colleagues Lucinda McCracken Sally Cathcart and Petrovich and we we have Russian McGovern who’s actually sadly leaving us at the end of the year and we have a lovely panel teaches course that we teach it’s part time and so we cover a lot of ground there for practicing I give workshops through the UK I’m practicing I think it just just practically speaking just to ask the student and to ask yourselves How am I going to solve that problem make a checklist you know like a bullet point list of first this then this then is this one can I sure.
Have you ever got time for me to share a story with you about my post graduate by my final teaching in this a lot of it it was an amazing amazing teacher.
She was a student at Morehouse and represent the very best of the Russian so the modern Russian school. I was I remember taking a long shot on Stetson to her and I was struggling with one bit and she asked me how I practicing it. So I said I’m doing whatever it was. She said yes meaning yes. And so I said Oh well I’m also doing and she’s. Yes yes yes. I had to generate probably about 10 things that I was doing. And she did is that fifth thing that you were doing. That stopped. That’s what stopping at all the other things is great but don’t do that fifth thing because otherwise that was counteracting the the the other side. So if one is practicing to get develops speed for example the last thing you’d want to do is to practice slowly at the end of all of that. Yeah. Because that’s the time you’re forming the reflexes for speed. Practice slowly that’s counter you’ve got to have run counter to what it did you want to do. You go after you develop the reflexes with speed then you can go back and practice it. So the afterwards. So again what you probably learned it’s when you develop the speed during that stage do not practice slowly. As it gets in the way. Only when you go back to maintain. Yes. To those third stage. Yeah yeah. But practicing it. It’s really something that once you start to engage with with it it’s fascinating to notice. Yeah. Yeah. There’s a lovely little book called practicing the piano where I got my blog’s name from by somebody called Frank Merrick. You still get that book quite old. I think it’s from the 1950s.
I’m not familiar with that very nice book. His practice seems about with an Ask the English way of practicing the piano as is your mark. Yes. Yes I got some of my American readers writing and say oh you know there’s a typo. I know. But again the English words here but my blog is colorful. So yes the answer is the same.
Yes. I think well people should be should take an ax the fact that they read the.
S word. Yes. Yes that’s right. We know that yes the online academy you’ll see that on the on the practicingthepiano.com website. OK. Yeah. Thanks so much for joining. Thanks Michael.
Lovely to chat with you. I really hope you enjoyed that interview with Graham. The audio was obviously not up to the standard it is when I’m recording in my home studio here but it’s still super valuable information and I wanted to share it with you here because it was recorded before I started this podcast so obviously hadn’t been shared here it had only been shared on the YouTube channel. So I really hope you enjoyed that today and got a lot out of it.
I’ll be back with you again on Monday with Episode 24. See you then. If you want access to more great piano teacher training make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel. In fact you can catch these podcasts. Right on the youtube channel if that’s what suits you. But there’s tons of other stuff to tutorials or reviews. And quick clips where I share excerpts of my teaching in action so you can really see me teaching in my studio. So find it by searching for colorful keys on YouTube and subscribe today.
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