The very steps that bring you to a certain level of mastery are the ones that will help to maintain that level of mastery. Most people assume that practicing hands separately is a temporary step towards the goal of playing hands together. But let’s examine what professionals do. They will continue to practice hands separately on a piece they’ve played for 25 years! This is because only when you practice hands separately can you really focus on certain nuances that would be obscured if you were spreading your focus between two hands. The better hands are mastered separately, the more reliable and proficient it will be when you then bring hands back together. So, please think of practicing hands separately not only as an initial phase of learning a passage, but also as a way to MAINTAIN and also to further improve and polish a section of a piece you’re working on.
“If something seems too easy at the piano, I must be doing it wrong.”
Reality: If something seems too easy at the piano, it means you’re doing it RIGHT! Our society places such a value on “no pain, no gain.” But in the area of piano study, if you have pain, it is an indication that you are doing something WRONG. You could be over-stressing the muscles. You could be at a wrong height, wrong distance, wrong angle, wrong pressure, etc. There are so many things to consider regarding piano technique. Experiencing pain is a warning that you must STOP immediately and find another way. Pain is your clue that you are on the way to developing carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis or other injuries.
“I could never be a great pianist if I don’t have long, slender fingers.”
Reality: Great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. There is no preference for long slender fingers. In fact, if there were a preference, it would be tapered fingers. These are fingers that are thick and muscular at the point where they connect to the hand, but become thinner towards the tips. This allows the fingers to have strength yet can also easily fit between the black notes, when necessary. In fact, comments I’ve often heard from people who have the fabled long, slender fingers are that they make MORE mistakes, their fingers get “tied up in knots,” and that they are more prone to carpal tunnel injury!
“Improvisation is something I will only be able to do in the future, after I understand theory better.”
Reality: Start now. Don’t be limited by what is normally thought of as “jazz improvisation.” This type of improvisation is what I call “mental improvisation.” In order to do this type of improvisation, you must use your mind to be aware of chord changes and understand various scales and notes that correspond to the current chord. But there are other types of improvisation. There is “emotional improvisation” and “spiritual improvisation.” Emotional improvisation is when you express your emotions through music. Spiritual improvisation is when you are tuning-in to something bigger than you (“channeling.”) Ironically, in order to do either of these two other types of improvisation you must turn OFF your mind. Therefore they are NOT mental. I find that it is valuable to allow yourself to develop these alternative methods of self-expression concurrently (while) you are studying theory. This is because they will create an intimacy or connection to the keyboard that you ultimately will want. For example, if you studied theory for eight years, you might STILL feel a veil between your fingers and the keyboard. Knowing theory alone will not make you a better improvisor. You also need courage, spontaneity, and freedom to express what you hear in your head instantly. How will you develop this intimacy with the piano? Playing your feelings and tuning-in to something bigger than you, without judgment, a little bit every day, is a wonderful way to develop this comfort level. Eventually, when you do know all the theory you desire, your fingers will be at liberty to execute every musical whim.
“When initially learning piano, it is good training to ‘lift the fingers high with precision.’”
Reality: This dictum from the Hanon finger exercise books and other old-fashioned technique carry-overs causes more problems than anything else. When you train the fingers to raise higher than necessary, you are training them to travel a greater distance than necessary. The key depth is approximately 3/8ths of an inch. If you could let the finger tips rest on the tops of the keys themselves, the only distance required for each finger to travel is 3/8ths of an inch! But many people are misguided into raising their fingers high with each key stroke, so they are compelled to make each finger travel up to THREE and 3/8ths of an inch! This seriously slows down your potential speed and creates much more tension in the playing than necessary.