How does one become a great pianist? Surely a question as old as the instrument itself. Is it something we are born with? Something we learn to do? Something we have to do? Or is it a combination of things?
When we began researching famous pianists and what they have in common, we expected to find a series of commonalities, traits, habits perhaps, and some fateful similarities. But we were found to be wrong in our assumptions. In our investigation, we discovered that all pianists have one trait in common. Something they do on a daily basis, no matter what era they lived in, what country they were from, or where their career or life took them.
In his autobiography, the Chinese virtuoso, Lang Lang, recalls his daily routine, aged five, devised by his father:
5:45am: Wake up and _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ piano for an hour
Home at noon for lunch: 15 minutes for eating; 45 minutes of _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
After school: two hours of_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ before dinner
Dinner: 20 minutes; two hours of_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ after dinner
Robert Schuman noted that, “Miss no opportunity to _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ on the organ. No other instrument takes such an immediate revenge on sloppiness in composition and playing as the organ.”
The great Italian classical pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, said that “to play, he used to say, means labour. It means to feel a great ache in the arms and in the shoulders. He _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ up to eight, ten hours per day, in quest for an equilibrium between the long for the sound effects that the instrument cannot yield and the sensitiveness that allows one to steal the maximum from it nonetheless, as he used to say to his disciples.”
Polish Pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewsk, famously said that, “If I miss one day’s _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _, I notice it. If I miss two days’_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _, the critics notice it. If I miss three days’s _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _, the public notices it.” The first to notice the drop in performance is the performer, then trained persons (such as professional critics or a teacher or friends), and then the general public.”
Well known piano teacher, Suzanne Guy, states that, “If you cannot always remember when you should _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _, keep this in mind: _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ on the days you eat.”
The “Maharajah of the Keyboard”, Oscar Peterson, was persistent at _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ scales and classical études daily, and thanks to such arduous _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ he developed his virtuosity.
What is this one quality? Do you have a final answer? The answer is…
That’s right, practice. Granted, this is not the answer a lot of us were hoping for, however, sometimes we simply have to accept facts for what they are. As Jake The Dog said, “To live life, you need problems. If you get everything you want the minute you want it, then what’s the point of living?” And what could be more beautiful than working on a “problem” you can not only enjoy alone, but in the company of others when you learn to play piano. But for those of us who hate the idea of practicing, i.e., all of us, how do we know we are practicing right? I mean, what is “practice” exactly? Does it differ from person to person? Or is there in fact an optimal way to do this effectively?
Well you’re in luck, my friend. You’ve come to the right place. As we have mentioned before, Scientists have found that the brains of professional musicians are physiologically different from the brains of other people, and the truth is that they got that way mostly because of practice, practice, practice. Take for example renown classical pianist Anna Fedorova who has been practicing for over two decades since the age of five.
You see, being a musician in many ways is like fighting nature itself. We are essentially rewiring our minds which in turn affect our hands at lightning speed with deftness of touch through muscle memory, whereas it is naturally programmed to grab things and perform other functions. Also with practice comes the ability for us to essentially play on autopilot, like a meditative trance where our instincts take over. As Jazz musician Charlie Parker noted, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
A well known study by psychologist Anders Ericsson of Florida State University helped demonstrate how at least 10,000 hours of practice is needed to excel at anything. It was suggested that this could be applied to any skill. Great sportspeople, politicians, business leaders, and performers all got their 10,000 hours under their belt early in life. This helped them to excel while their contemporaries were left far behind. The most famous example cited is that of The Beatles who played about 10,000 hours worth of gigs in and around Germany between 1960-64. It has been suggested that for musicians at international competitions, it takes at least 25,000 hours before they are at the level of competition. So, how long is 10,000 hours exactly? 10,000 hours is 90 minutes everyday day for 20 years. 3 hours a day will get you there within 10 years. So the key is starting early to be able to capitalize on your hard work earlier in life.
Researchers at The University of Texas conducted a study to find out and assess the different behaviours of pianists. Their goal was to understand the difference between the best students and the most effective way to learn to play piano.
In all, they surveyed 17 piano related majors who agreed to learn a 3-measure passage from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. As you surely noticed from the link, the passage is not for the faint of heart, and incredibly difficult to rely solely on sight reading and to then be played well, along with many other challenges presented by this.
How the experiment was carried out was that each student was given 2 minutes to warm up, then provided with the 3-measure passage printout, plus a metronome and a pencil. Participants were given free reign to practice for as long as they wanted and were free to leave once they believed they were finished. From this, it was noted that practice times ranged from 8 and a half minutes to close to 57 minutes. To keep results equal, participants were then not allowed to practice this passage again for the next 24 hours.
When the participants returned the next day, they were tested and again given 2 minutes to warm up. They were then tasked with performing the complete 3-measure passage 15 times without stopping except between attempts.
Finally, the pianists’ performances were measured on two criteria: firstly – getting the right notes with the right rhythm, and secondly – the researchers ranking the pianists’ performances from best to worst based on tone, character and expressiveness.
What was discovered from this was interesting as it turned out that:
- Practicing longer didn’t lead to a higher ranking.
- More repetitions had no impact on ranking either.
- The number of times they played it correctly in practice also had no bearing on their ranking
However, what they did note mattered was:
- How many times they played it incorrectly. The more times they played it incorrectly, the worse their rankings were.
- The percentage of correct practice trials mattered. The greater the proportion of correct trials in their practice session, the higher their rankings were.
In particular, 3 of the pianists’ performances were adjudged to have stood out from the rest and were described as “a more consistently even tone, greater rhythmic precision, greater musical character (purposeful dynamic and rhythmic inflection), and a more fluid execution.” Upon closer inspection at their practice sessions, researchers identified several distinct practice strategies that were common to the top performing pianists, but occurred less frequently with the rest of the pack. The characteristics, according to the researchers which were most crucial to practicing effectively were:
- A. Playing was hands-together early in practice.
- B. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.
- C. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.
- D. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.
- E. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.
- F. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.
- G. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (slowed down enough; didn’t speed up too much).
- H. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.
The last three of these in particular were the ones rarely utilized by any of the other pianists which in layman’s terms separated the men from the boys. How one handled mistakes was established as the key component. Everyone makes mistakes, but it turns out how one learns from these mistakes is what is key. How the top performers corrected their errors in ways that prevented or helped them from repeating the same mistakes repetitively is what allowed them to play more flawlessly than the others.
Some effective techniques used for error correction were playing one hand at a time, breaking the passage up into smaller parts, but above all the most effective technique and one which helped them the most was slowing the piece down strategically around the sections which were the most challenging, and in turn allowed them to play more accurately. Researchers discovered that slowing down to play the passage, without stopping, right before the place where they made a mistake previously produced far better results. It was believed that this helped the pianists coordinate the correct motor movements first and then adjusting the tempo later on.
As you can see, the consensus is unanimous as practicing, and more specifically practicing effectively is what has been proven to be the most important element of a great pianist. So, remember, when you doubt whether practicing is what makes you better, you can tell yourself that you are simply following a long line of legendary pianists who logged countless hours and made many sacrifices to be written in the annals of history for all time. No one said it was going to be easy, but everyone can tell you that it will certainly be worthwhile.
So readers, tell us what in your opinion is the most important characteristic of a great pianist. Do you agree with us? Is this how you learn to play piano? Do you have your own ideas? Is ability more important than hard work? Let us know in the comments below!