We know you have been meaning to practice more. Why else would you be here on this page? Sitting down and actually practicing can seem intimidating though, especially when you are learning something new. Sometimes you might wonder how professionals practice. We asked professional concert pianist Robert Thies what he does — and we were shocked to learn that even his dog is involved! Borrow some of that star power for yourself and find some motivation to practice that ambitious composition you have been meaning to learn, or work on the mechanics. Practicing does not have to be monotonous!
Learning a New Piece of Music
When you are first learning a new piece of music, what steps or approach do you take in practicing it?
First off, keep in mind that I am a classical pianist, and my experience typically involves learning multi-movement works that might have a duration of 30 minutes. So the nature of the music plays a big role in one’s process. When I learn a piece of music, it is most often because I have programmed it in an upcoming performance. Having a deadline helps me to set goals each week or each day to learn the work. My processes expand slightly if I have to memorize the piece for performance.
In either case, one of the first things I do is analyze its structure and break it down into sections. If I break a piece into eight sections, then I will practice only certain sections each day for a specified time period. If it’s a substantial work, I might spend a full hour on one section, and then move to another section for another hour. I find it important to avoid the habit of starting at the beginning of a piece each time I sit down to practice. So for Monday’s practice session, I might schedule sections 8 and 3, and on Tuesday — sections 7 and 4, or something similar.
Without a plan, my practice will lose focus, and I will begin to panic about the rest of the piece or pieces I’m neglecting that day. However, by making such a schedule, my confidence will not wane, because I know I will cover the entire piece over a prescheduled period of time. And I will often keep a watch nearby, so that I can be motivated by the allotted time I’ve given myself. This way my practice session is much more focused and productive. And by starting in different parts of the piece each day, I will avoid monotony and really get INSIDE the music.
What kind of research do you do about the piece to help interpret the music?
Preparing to play a new piece also involves research. Research might be reading up about a composer, understanding their background, and any details on what was happening in their life when they wrote the work. But research might also mean LISTENING to different works by the same composer to learn their “language”, or to different musicians interpreting the same work.
Arranging Your Practice
How do you arrange your practices? Are there things you always do?
Unlike many other musicians and artists, I do not have a daily regimen. Some days I might not practice at all, and other days I might practice five or six hours. It really depends on what performance lies ahead, how much time I have to prepare, and how much music I need to prepare. The only thing I always do is create an environment devoid of distractions. This means I will exercise my dog (and sometimes me) so that my practice session can be without interruption.
How do you practice your musicianship?
To develop one’s musicianship, a musician should be very musically curious and explore as many different kinds of music making as possible. In my own experience, that has included: solo recitals, concerto performances, chamber music, orchestral music, opera, pop, jazz, world music, film music, musical theater.
Pianists and string players need to work with singers and wind players to learn how to breathe and phrase. One should improvise, because this inspires you to make music without depending on the written score. It compels you to listen, take chances, and enjoy the beauty of your instrument. And it’s just plain fun.
But most of all, keep in mind that music is an aural art above anything else, and we need to train our ears by listening critically to music. This is just as important as it is for us to learn, read, and absorb as much music by as many composers as we can.
Preparing for a Performance
How do you prepare for a rehearsal with other musicians?
The first thing is to do is know your part inside and out, and be performance-ready with your own part. Rehearsal is the time you get together to hear how the piece fits together in ensemble.
As each musician is a part of the greater whole, the rehearsal is the process by which the “greater whole” is discovered together. In order for this to happen, each musician needs to listen to recordings to get the piece in their ears and study the full score on their own. Only then can they formulate ideas to share in rehearsal.
In short, you can do this too!
Photo courtesy of Elaine Lim.