No, the title isn’t a typo. Today’s post is all about stopping stopping, or in other words, how to prevent pauses and hesitations when playing music. Frequently, after a student plays their piece for me, I will ask them what they thought of their performance. Students frequently point out note or rhythmic errors, or challenging areas, but often don’t notice their pauses while attempting to play the challenging areas. This is where many teachers will pull out their trusty metronome, a musician’s best friend:
Invented in 1814, this tool produces an audible sound at regular intervals that can be adjusted. I have Pro Metronome on my phone and iPad (free on the app store with the option for in-app purchases for more features). This means I bring my digital metronome with me to all my in-home and studio lessons. I use Pro Metronome on a daily basis:
The metronome is certainly useful in finding out what the specified tempo of a piece should be (this information can be found on the top left side of nearly every piece of music). However, the reasons a student pauses may be more diverse. Metronomes show you what the steady pulse should be, but cannot substitute a musician’s inner sense of the pulse. Here are some reasons behind why students pause and strategies to overcome them:
- There is no inner awareness of the pulse – imagine listening to music and tapping along to the beat. This is the pulse of the song. Sometimes students can get so caught up in reading, that they lose their sense of the pulse.
STRATEGY 1: Playing the piece with the metronome can show students exactly where the beats are not lining up. This may be challenging in the beginning because students may not be able to listen to the “ticks” and their playing at the same time to evaluate, if the beats match.
STRATEGY 2: I call this “Tap and Play”. I play the piece, while the student taps along on their lap. Then, I switch and tap the beat, while they play the piece. This often helps students realize, what parts are rushing or lagging without me saying a word.
STRATEGY 3: “Ghosting”: We listen to a pre-recorded version of their piece, while the student silently plays along on the keys (like a ghost).
STRATEGY 4: Playing the piece with a backing track. There is an amazing app called iReal Pro that allows us to create our own backing tracks. The icon in the app store looks like this: It’s $17.99 on the app store. Here’s an instructional video:
Learning to play with a backing track is so important that this is one of the requirements in Conservatory Canada’s “Contemporary Idioms” stream. Students in level 1 to 10 must perform an improvised pieces using a backing track. This skill is important if we wish to perform with other musicians (and what greater joy is there than making music together!?).
2. Students are looking at the music, and/or then checking their hands – There is a difficulty in playing the notes. The student is not decoding fast enough. The student may be spending time reading the notes, trying to find them on the keyboard, or a combination of both.
STRATEGY 1: Find out if this is mainly a reading or location issue. If the student is not reading the notes fast enough, sometimes writing in the note names is a quick fix. A better method is to “spot practice” that area until the notes are internalized.
STRATEGY 2: If the student is not locating the notes on the keyboard fast enough, I have them look down at the keys, staring at the exact key, where they want to go. Sometimes I’ll put a coloured sticky tab temporarily on the piano key to help guide their eyes to where they need to go.
STRATEGY 3: This is actually applicable to reading and practicing overall: Play SLOWLY. Many times what students think is a slow place is only slow compared to the final tempo of the piece. One should play slow enough that the brain has enough time to process all the information. If the brain does not have enough time to process the notes, rhythm, articulation, and dynamic, then something will be lost. In this way, the student learns some of the material, but not all, resulting in a need to go back and add these things in later, wasting precious practice time.
Here’s a page from a student, who is struggling with pauses. Some hesitation spots are a reading issue, so the yellow sticky tabs point to the exact spot, where the student should follow the notes on the page. Some spots are location problems, so we have drawn eyes on the yellow tab to remind the student to LOOK DOWN at the keys and their fingers:
3. Large Leaps – There may be a large leap in either or both hands, so the student needs time to find the notes on the keys.
STRATEGY 1: Memorize the notes and look down at the keys and where the fingers need to leap. Pay attention to the feeling (your kinesthetic memory) of the distance traveled. How much does your arm need to move? How does your body feel? Do you tense up? Are your fingers reaching out as much as they can for the keys? Are you using logical fingering? As the student practices accurately, their body begins to remember how far they need to move to achieve success.
STRATEGY 2: If you need to play two or more notes at the same time, form the shape of the distance needed to play the notes, while your fingers are still in the air, and touch the piano keys briefly before actually pressing the keys. For example, when playing solid triads, I make the shape of each chord and inversion with my fingers in the air as I’m moving to play the next chord. By the time my fingers make contact with the keys again, they are already in the correct shape to play the chord. In the example below, there are huge leaps in both hands. For large chords (such as those in Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C sharp minor”), try learning the lowest and highest notes in each chord first. This way, the inner notes must fall in between the two extremes and will be easier to find and remember.
STRATEGY 3: Move your non-playing hand quickly. For example, in “Celebration” by A.C. Gaudet (found the the level 1 piano etude book), the left hand plays on the 1st and 3rd beat in bar 14. Since the quarter notes are played at a speed of 132-160, it can be challenging for students to not be “late”. Students should begin moving their left hand as soon as it is finished playing beat one. The same rule goes for the right hand (plays on beat 2 and 4). See the example below:
STRATEGY 4: Preparation. The key to nailing a leap is to ensure the fingers are already on top of the keys before they are depressed. Think of the next leap and get those fingers on top of where they need to go ahead of time.
Sometimes reasons outside of those already mentioned may affect the student’s performance. These reasons may include (but not limited to):
- Dim lighting
- Vision deficiencies
- Performance anxiety or nervousness in performing in front of an audience
- A distracting environment, Ex. ringing phone, noisy family members, etc.
- Playing on an unfamiliar instrument
- Cold fingers
- Tiredness (mental, physical)
- Unfocused playing (not thinking about the task at hand, or not actively listening)
- Hunger (it may be near dinner-time!)
What are your suggestions for a polished, steady performance?