by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
These are a few things that I have done over the years as a pianist and they have worked well to improve my technique and keep dexterity and fluency in my fingers.
One of the most critical things you can do to improve your technique is practice it consistently. In other words, practice every single day. Do not miss a day. Even if you can only play for five minutes, do not miss a day.
How Much Technique
If you have two hours to practice daily, start with the idea of one hour of technique practice per day. The second hour spent on actual repertoire makes sense toward decent progress. During your piano technique practice, incorporate scales, etudes and other exercises such as those found in a good Hanon exercise book.
Scales, Accents and Varying Accents
Start learning all major and minor scales in 4 octaves. Play around with the rhythm patterns of the scales. For example, try playing a scale using the rhythm pattern of straight quarter note rhythms. Then accent the first beat (quarter note) as you play all four octaves of a scale. Then play the scale again (or another scale) as you alternate the accent to the second beat, then to the third beat, then the fourth beat as you play through each scale.
Use Varied Rhythmic Patterns
Use alternating rhythms; i.e., play your scales using the rhythm pattern of a dotted eighth note followed by a 16th note. Then switch to the rhythm pattern of a 16th note followed by a dotted eighth note. Then try an eighth note followed by two 16 notes. Then reverse that to two 16th notes followed by an eighth note.
Use Varying Accents
For each of the previous rhythm patterns, place an accent on the first note of each pattern. Then alternate the accent to fall on the second note of the rhythm pattern, creating a syncopated feel. Then, accent the third note of the rhythm pattern, and so on.
Try using a triplet rhythm pattern, placing an accent on the first note of each triplet pattern. Then accent the second note, then the third note of each triplet pattern as you play a four-octave scale.
Choose some of these varying rhythm patterns for your four-octave scale practice. Use a metronome at a very slow tempo and focus on very clearly articulating each of those accented notes within the rhythmic patterns with relaxed hand placement and curved finger-tips. As you get more fluent, speed up the tempo.
Another idea is to use the above rhythms and accents at the same tempo adding dynamics. For example, start your scale at fortissimo and as you play your scale going up the keyboard, decrescendo until you are playing pianissimo at the high range of the keyboard. Then reverse those dynamics.
Or play the entire ascending scale passage fortissimo then alternate when you descend by playing the entire descending scale passage at the dynamic level of pianissimo. Change the dynamic levels to whatever you’d like, incorporating crescendo, decrescendo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte, and so on
by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
Learn to play piano with both hands based on a single-minded focus on goal-oriented, multi-step tasks. Approaching piano practice in this manner has proven highly effective for me.
One Hand Only
For example, choose one hand to work on at a time. Isolate the bass part in the left hand. Then, break down your left hand practice into feasible chunks; work on only playing the correct notes for example.
Practice the left hand part while fully focusing on the first selected goal (correct notes). Don’t worry about the rhythm, the fingering or any other aspect other than what you’ve chosen to focus on practicing (correct notes).
After you play through the section with full focus on that one goal, stop and evaluate. If successful at playing that particular section with no hesitation, move on to the next goal and repeat the process.
Multiply Your Focus
Then add the first two goals together (correct notes and rhythm) and practice that until you are able to play through successfully without any hesitation. Add the third goal, and so on.
Repeat Procedure With Opposite Hand
Switch to the opposite hand and repeat the process of focusing only on one goal at a time, stopping to evaluate, then repeating until you master each section and goal. Then repeat until you are successfully able to master multiple focus goals with the musical section chosen for that hand.
Put Both Hands Together
Finally, choose a small section, one goal (correct notes) and play both hands together. Do not jump to this part of practice until everything prior to this point has been successfully mastered. The same process applies when practicing hands together.
If you make mistakes, stop immediately and evaluate why, then go back and practice until that issue is resolved. For example, if you played through a few measures correctly and then made mistakes, determine what happened. Usually the problem is that mentally you dropped the ball. Were you daydreaming about lunch? Were you distracted by someone walking past your window?
Go back to the trouble spot and refresh your single-minded focus on the practice aspects you’ve chosen. Once you achieve success, play through a larger section, or the entire musical composition. Be sure to apply the exact same practice strategy and address any mistakes immediately. Otherwise, you may make the common mistake of practicing your mistakes repeatedly (This is how many students typically practice and defeat progress!), ingraining them further into your mental memory and making things more difficult to correct.
One Last Note (heh heh)
Practicing with clear goals, one hundred percent mental focus, evaluation and troubleshooting issues is an incredibly effective way to progress as a piano player. However, if you run into difficulty, besides lack of focus on a particular goal, the most common culprit for difficulty in piano practice is practicing too fast! So, if you are having problems with the above-described practice strategy, SLOW DOWN and try again! Most of the time, slowing the tempo resolves the problem.
by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
I have been asked how to compose for piano. Basically, I recommend two approaches to composing for piano:
COMPOSE BY IMPROVISING
A: Determine a chord progression
Start simple. For example, use C major key and this chord progression: C, Am, F major, G7. Typical ‘Heart and Soul’ chord progression. If you can’t remember the order, write these on paper.
B: Practice playing
Since you are interested primarily in PIANO, use the above basic improvisation exercises to practice specific piano styles: walking bass, chords with color tones (7, 9, 11, 13ths), arpeggios, triads, 6ths, octaves, doubled notes, etc… Just repeat the chord progression using one or more of those (or other) piano techniques.
These are some of my ideas for improvising outside of the jazz tradition. Of course, pick your own chord progressions for more challenging, intriguing and fresh music.
COMPOSE BY BLUEPRINT
Once you have a form or structure for your music mapped out, determine a chord progression for each section. Usually the B section changes keys to the dominant chord or something else to be less predictable and sound different from the A section. For example if A section uses that C major progression above (C, Am, F, G), then the B section would start in the key of G major (or often Am, the minor 6th of C major). Then go back to your original chord/key in the next A section.
C: Discover Melodic Motifs
Once your form, key and chord progressions are drafted (this may change, pending how your melody transpires! Be flexible and go where you musical ideas take you, of course!), using notes within that progression/key (C major in the A section), play around with melodic motifs that fit within that key/chord progression.
There are SO many things you can do, and so many books have good suggestions for your question, so check some of them out! Hope this gave you good food for thought!
Jenny Leigh Hodgins is a published writer, poet, lyricist, composer, vocalist, and pianist. She is founder and chief operating officer of Team4MusicandSound, a global audio post production team. Jenny Leigh has 30 years experience in music, piano, vocal and choral education and has performed for more than 25 years as a soloist throughout US and Japan. She is co-admin of multiple music-related social media groups (5200+ members), has coordinated promotional content, music-niche articles, scripts, podcasts, and multiple creative collaborations. Jenny Leigh holds a Bachelor of Music degree in music composition.