During lockdown I have had plenty of time to practise slowly. Normally, I practise things because I’m getting ready to perform them. But with all concerts cancelled, there was no reason to prepare in the usual way – that is to say, securing things in a way that I knew I could depend on when I was in front of an audience.
Suddenly there was no pressure to pass efficiently through the stages of preparation in order to arrive at a result. When you have a concert date in the diary, you obviously need a result by that date. You can’t still be working out how to play things.
It was interesting to be released from that pressure. (This was one of the only good things about the situation). I was able to slow right down and observe my playing with attention. Nobody was going to hear me performing any time soon, so why not take things apart and oil the wheels a bit?
Practising slowly during lockdown brought lots of insights about playing the piano, actually, but here are just a couple of the ‘physical’ ones.
I noticed that I was often physically ‘hanging on’ to individual notes longer than necessary (ie. longer than their written duration). I think many pianists do this as a way of anchoring their hand on the keyboard, but it’s a habit which is nothing to do with the music. When I saw myself hanging on to a note, I let myself release it, and this made the next thing easier.
I’ve noticed before that after stretching an octave, many of us retain the tension of that hand position after the octave has sounded. We play the next notes with our hand in an open ‘stretch’ position it doesn’t need to be in – holding the thumb stiffly away from the rest of the hand, for example.
And I noticed that a hangover of tension from preceding notes often makes one strike the next notes at a tangent. This decreases the amount of control you have over the tone. If you can release the tension, you can arrive at the next note with the hand ‘in neutral’, ready to face the note or chord with an ideal position.
As a teenager I learned percussion and have always remembered the feeling of striking, say, the side drum in an unlucky way – from an angle, or on the wrong part of the drumhead – so that I got a stifled sound instead of a pure ringing tone. There are analogies here with playing the piano.
After practising with slow attention for weeks (16 so far), I can sum up my discoveries in a few words. Your hands need to be in the right place to play each note or chord with optimum balance and comfort. As each hand position ends, leave it behind and move on. Don’t let your hand hold the memory of the previous position like a pillow that retains the shape of your head.
The question is: can these insights be preserved when life resumes its usual tempo? After all, the pressures of normal life cause these bad habits to form in the first place. But if you want to change a habit, you must first learn to pay attention to it, and I have, so I am hopeful.