This post will discuss what I call my "back-door" approach to solving problems at the piano. The problems I refer to are mostly ones related to technique.
I wish I knew how the really great pianists practice. I suspect some have extremely effective practice methods, while others simply have so much natural ability they play well despite mediocre practice habits. My experience with people who come to me for lessons who have played before is that many amateur pianists have ineffective, or even damaging, practice methods.
One problem I see a lot is what I call "practicing the difficulties." Many of us were told by teachers to practice the difficult spots in a piece over and over until they improve. It seems reasonable, at first, but one must consider how to practice them. I don't believe that repetition by itself is the answer. At any given moment in a difficult piece or passage in a piece, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of neuro-motor events taking place. If they are not well-coordinated then the passage will be awkward or have inaccuracies, or perhaps it will be correct but played with a lot of strain, and it certainly won't be beautiful. Instead, I try to take away the difficulties of the passage and find what is easy about it. For example: I was working with an advanced student on a passage in a Chopin Polonaise. It was a difficult passage with a broken chord pattern in the right hand with inside notes that made the whole thing an awkward stretch for the hand, and of course it had to be played very fast. First we played just a few notes of the passage, eliminating the stretch and the inner notes, but -- and this is important -- at the full speed it would ultimately need to go (playing it slowly would not have used the same coordination). This was easy but we played it a few times so the hand could get a good feel of the overall movement. Then we added more notes, the part with the bigger distance to cover, but in a way that the hand and arm could just make a big circular motion and reach it with ease. (I realize it may be hard to visualize this from a verbal description.)
When all of this felt easy and comfortable we added the toughest part, the inside notes. The whole point of this is to train the body to find what is easy and get a baseline of the technique well-established, then add each new level of difficulty and let the body adapt to it. If you attempt to master all the difficulties at once, the body (of course I am talking about our hands, arms, fingers) may not be able to respond without straining.
This is the essence of my "back-door" approach: find what is easy, and transfer those skills to the next level of difficulty.
The idea of "transferring" is a powerful one, and one that I use all the time. When a student is having a problem with a particular technical challenge, I often can find a similar one (in the same piece or a different one) where a similar skill is required but, for whatever reason, the student plays with relative ease. I have them play the easier one and immediately play the challenging one afterwards. It's nothing short of amazing how well this works. The body "copies" what it just did on the easier one and often the problem is solved. I often have people play something they do with ease, such as a chromatic scale, and then "transfer" to a difficult run; again, the body seems to "figure out" how to make the latter feel as easy as the former. Practicing the difficult run over and over would take far more time and doesn't achieve as good a result as this creative use of learning to use the body's own natural abilities.
One of the reasons this idea of "transferring" works is this: if you think a particular piece or passage is difficult (or easy), it will be. Science has definitively established the strong connection between body and mind. If you think you'll be sick, you're more likely to get sick. If you think your medication is helping you, it will (the well-known placebo effect). Thus, if you think you are in for a tough time of it playing a particular passage in a piece, your body responds with strain and lack of coordination. If you think of it as a breeze, the body finds a way to just sail through it. While I realize this sounds like an over-simplification, I have seen it work thousands of times. It sometimes has to be done in steps, as I describe above. I try to never say to any student (especially children) statements such as "this is a hard piece" or "this passage is difficult." I find that if they think the piece is going to be easy for them they don't end up with a lot of problems. The body responds to the mind's direction that "this is something I know how to do."
Another fantastic use of transferring is to improvise first, then play the passage. Suddenly you'll find the difficult passage has a freedom and ease you didn't have before. This only works, of course, if you feel comfortable improvising and really enjoy it. More on this in a future post!
There are so many creative and fun ways to practice, it's just such a shame to make it a dull, repetitive, lifeless process. I believe that's why so many young people want to quit their lessons after they've started. They may love the music but they hate the practice. It doesn't have to be that way.