On Piano Playing
By Mickie Willis
Ive been thinking about piano playing a lot these days, because Ive been
playing a lot practicing that is, learning pieces, sight reading, playing for my
own pleasure and practicing without giving some analytical thought to the process,
of how to most effectively achieve the goal, is time not maximized if not wasted or
actually counterproductive. And since Im not getting any younger I have to make the
most of every minute of playing I can manage to squeeze into each day. I bring this up
because I imagine most composers play piano or keyboard of some kind and many, like me,
would like to be much better at it. Since Im no longer a student, at least not
formally studying at any institution, the only teachers I have are the ones I remember
from past years. And I was fortunate to have had some exceptional ones: Castro Carazo,
Milton Hallman, and Madeline Trible. They were and are exceptional musicians, pianists,
and teachers, and they did their very best with me during the times I studied with them.
But, regrettably, I was a poor piano student. And after completing the undergraduate
degree, and piano was no longer a requirement of the curriculum, I first neglected, then
finally abandoned playing the usual repertoire in favor of jazz improvisation. At least, I
reasoned, I could make some money to help support myself and my family while financially
struggling through graduate school, punctuated by many periods of various other kinds of
employment, which also disrupted systematic practice.
[For those readers who may becoming bored with this personal indulgence and are
wondering what the point of this article is, feel comfortable skipping to the
"list" at the end of this article; consider this a preface that so often readers
ignore, and proceed directly to the text. Ive always felt that teaching that focuses
on the professor is poor teaching; the focus should be on the subject matter. But to the
extent that sharing personal experiences can illustrate good and bad things
it can be useful. So bear with me a bit, maybe some of this will sound familiar and
perhaps the things Ive recently discovered and rediscovered can be, if not new, at
In my own defense, I began playing piano just before starting college, and being a
beginning piano student at the start of ones college career as a music student is a
"hard row to hoe" and progress is typically slow. Id been a trumpet player
since the age of eleven and had played in high school band, rhythm & blues bands in
nightclubs, but an injury at the age of eighteen made it impossible to continue to play
any instrument with a mouthpiece. So piano it was. And since then it has been a struggle,
a kind of lovehate relationship, a source of endless frustration. At first I hated
the instrument and only wanted to gain some ability solely as a practical matter because
its so useful for a composer. I found the inability to smoothly blend notes, subtly
bend pitches, crescendo on sustained tones
all the mellifluous features of a wind
instrument, serious weaknesses of the clunky mechanical beast of a piano. You
couldnt even HOLD the instrument but had to sit away from it and reach out to it!
This awkwardness combined with the difficulty of reading so many notes and melodic lines
at the same time, after having learned to read in an entirely linear way so much earlier
in life, combined to make practice a dreaded thing. And the results showed it. I cringe to
remember what my poor teachers must have thought. How difficult a way to earn a living it
must have been for them to have to sit through my lessons. But not only did they sit
through them, they worked and tried; encouraged and offered their best advice and
taught! This is what gifted, committed teachers do. But heres the interesting thing,
the real point of this embarrassing little tale. They did help not so much then
but now! Now that Ive been playing a lot, I remember what seems like every
single thing each of them told me those many years ago and now apply it. I find that
rather miraculous. And equally strangely, I really ENJOY practicing and playing now, and
have discovered a few tips, tricks, approaches whatever youd like to call them
on my own. Now, doubtless most experienced pianists and teachers already know these and
surely many more, I dont profess to be any great piano pedagogue. But having been a
beginning pianist as an adult may help one have somewhat greater understanding of certain
difficulties and recognize what approaches are most effective in overcoming them. Most
really accomplished pianists began their study as small children, and by the time they
became selfaware and analytical enough to evaluate different approaches, so much of
the heavy lifting of beginning study is behind them and beyond their recall. This is
somewhat analogous to learning to speak a language only much harder. Children are not
in any way aware of how they came to learn their native tongues. All they can remember is
having the basic ability. I suspect the same is true of many very accomplished pianists.
Although they may see now, as teachers, what works and what doesnt, some insights
are best gained from the "insideout," so to speak. For knowing something
and accepting it are two different things. And its getting the student to accept and
apply the principle that may be the toughest part of teaching.
Since Im fond of concise lists (it seems we live in an age of lists,
"talking points," executive summaries, etc.) I thought Id delineate these
observations in that fashion. But despite the compactness and usefulness of lists, they
can seem a little cold and impersonal, which is why I prefaced the following items with
Suggestions for Playing the Piano
(In no particular order of importance and with apologies to those for whom this is old
news, but I expect even they will agree that many of these comments bear repeating, and
may be especially meaningful coming from someone who had to learn and appreciate them the
- When starting to play or practice, warm up. If warm-up is not possible, at least use the
trick of soaking the hands and forearms in warm water for a while before playing.
Its not as good as a playing warm-up, but better than nothing. And start with a
comparatively easy piece, or one that is the most secure. Dont expect to be playing
your best at first and be intimidated by a bad start. Just keep going. Stay calm and it
will get better.
- If you get off to a bad start and its a practice session not a performance, and
after ten or fifteen minutes things have not improved, stop, do something else, try to
discover what the mental distraction is and remedy or at least confront it, then go back.
Of course in a performance you dont have this luxury, so discipline has to be
developed to continue no matter what. But practice is precious and bad practice sessions
- Dont be afraid of wrong notes. Certainly strive for perfection, but dont be
thrown off and have the concentration and musical flow interrupted by them. And certainly
dont be so tense and anxious about not playing perfectly that you cant relax.
- Expect that some practice sessions will be better than others, and, like wrong notes,
dont let bad playing of a piece be discouraging and negatively affect the entire
time at the piano or, even worse, discourage you from practicing altogether.
- Dont be discouraged if there is little or no evident improvement immediately after
working through a difficult passage. This is somewhat like athletic activity or
bodybuilding. Improvement often shows up the next time you work out. Although piano
playing is as much (or more) mental as physical, a period of rest between hard work is
still sometimes needed for the full benefit to show up.
- KNOW the music. Memorization is perhaps the best way, but even if not memorizing the
piece, really know what every note, phrase, dynamic, tempo, articulation indication is.
Its surprising (and revealing) to test yourself by trying to recall, if not the
actual notes, other elements of the composition. Its amazing how often one can play
through a piece many times, not having it really soak in what the actual notes
every one of them are in a particular passage. And most mistakes are mistakes of
the mind rather than of the hand: The finger didnt hit the right note because the
mind didnt immediately KNOW the right note. In a paradoxical way, paying attention
to all the other musical markings does not distract from recognizing the notes; it helps
one to remember.
- Stay in contact with the instrument. This is hardest to do with the piano because it
requires some lifting of the hands off the keys and because were not connected to it
in the way the player is with most instruments. So it requires more overt attention to
feeling the keys. Its also indispensable since looking at the hands while reading
can be deadly. Rely on the sense of touch. (In a personal aside, sometimes when Im
having problems concentrating and approaching the playing in a truly tactile way, if I
rest the knee of my right leg firmly under the edge of the action base and feel the
vibration of the strings, amazingly the playing improves. This is constricting to
pedaling, so its not a good general position, but momentarily is has the effect
for me, anyway of helping refocus on the physical connection with the
- The same is true of contact with the keys: Play to the bottom of the key. Dont hit
the surface of the key hard from far above, relying on momentum to accelerate the key far
enough to throw the hammer. Keep the fingers on or very close to the keys and press them
all the way to the bottoms. There are obvious exceptions to this, some rapid staccato, for
example. But to the extent that it can be done, the result will be improvement in tone,
phrasing, and a greater feeling of connection with and control of the instrument.
- Listen, really listen, constantly not just for right notes but to the kind of
tone produced, the phrasing, balance between the hands, uniformity of volume between
fingers, precision of attack on chords, and listen to the effect of the pedal (listening
is the ONLY way to develop refined pedaling skill). Analyze the playing after finishing
the piece to shape your work on it.
- If you have time to play but a piano isnt handy, study the music. It will help
when you do get to play. It is particularly important when sight-reading to go over the
music first, noting any particular aspects that might catch one unprepared: clef changes,
ottava passages, key or meter changes, hand crossings, etc., and try to realize the piece
mentally before touching the keys. Noting unique patterns and relationships, such as
melodic imitation, sequence, repeated chords or notes, stretches where the hand
doesnt have to shift position and so forth, will help guide one through the piece in
a general way. Think of the process of sight reading as somewhat like driving: One
doesnt take off across town without knowing where theyre going, and not
usually without a firm sense of the streets theyll take, turns, stops to make and so
forth. Sight-reading by starting to play the piece without having looked carefully through
it is sight-reading the hardest possible way.
- When playing pieces for the first time as sight-reading, play the notes with whatever
fingers work and dont stop. But if the piece is to be prepared for
performance, carefully determine fingerings and stick to them (unless it becomes necessary
to change; some fingerings that work fine at slow tempos wont be best at the final
tempo required, but try to pick ones that will serve at the ultimate tempo). In connection
with fingerings, even if the first time through the intuitive fingerings work well and you
decide to keep them, if they differ from the editorial suggestions mark them in the
score! You may play the piece many times with no trouble, then one day, perhaps after not
having played it for a few days or more, suddenly notice the editorial fingerings and
instantaneously forget which one you used, and wonder for a nanosecond (enough time to
cause a mistake) whether thats the one you used or not. In other words, if
youre going to use the printed music at all, be sure whats on the page is the
same as youve been practicing. No sense making things harder than they are already.
- Confront problems head-on; they will not go away or get better by themselves, and only
become worse and more difficult to correct later. This is inescapable. There is absolutely
no point in practicing a piece from beginning to end only to stumble through a difficult
spot, hoping that in time, somehow, magically it will get better. Its possible to do
that forever and never have the problem corrected.
- Of course take difficult passages out, isolate them, and apply whatever degree of
attention is required to get them on par with the rest of the piece, but get in and out of
the passage at different points occasionally. If the same starting and stopping points are
used each time, psychological boundaries may develop causing those "seams" to
become unsure. Further, its good music reading practice to start in mid-phrase, on
weak beats, or other seemingly illogical places to begin.
- Slow, sure practice is essential. Without accuracy, the music is lost. At some point,
however, pieces do have to get up to the desired tempos, so this will necessitate pushing
the limit occasionally, even at the cost of sacrificing some small degree of precision.
How much of this can be done without losing ground in accuracy varies with individuals;
some people can make progress, it seems, with less slow deliberate practice than others.
This has to be a judgement call based on personal experience and the wisdom of the
- Always stay connected to the MUSIC. Dont let the piece become just a matter of
playing pitches. I find whenever Im having trouble with the notes, it usually seems
to be at times when Im feeling the music the least. Even when practicing at a tempo
very much slower than indicated, it is still possible essential to play
musically. If you cant maintain the musicality, phrasing, dynamics, articulation,
slowly, then you cant do it at the faster tempos either. If one really has control
of a piece, it can be played musically at a variety of tempos (perhaps not as effectively,
but in terms of control and maintaining of the musical fabric).
Of course many readers will know of items Ive left out; good ideas on better
playing and practice are far more numerous than these, and many may disagree with some of
those Ive listed. But they have helped me. At this point Im no longer sure
which of them Ive discovered independently and which were taught, forgotten, then
rediscovered, but I suppose it doesnt matter. The main thing is that one benefit
from them. I wish it hadnt me taken so long to recognize their value and apply them.
Mickie Willis, composer and jazz pianist, received his D.M.A. in Music Composition from
Louisiana State University, studying with Kenneth Klaus, James Drew, Don Freund, and Dinos
Constantinides. He composes for live concert performance and has created music for films
and videos using MIDI instruments. His concert works include an oratorio, three
symphonies, five works for chamber orchestra, four string quartets, two sets of piano
variations, one oboe sonata, compositions for various other chamber ensembles, songs, and
jazz compositions. His commercial works include a one-hour suite for synthesizer, music
for ten films and videos, and television commercials. His recordings include a commercial
compact disc and two cassette tape releases. He has completed four commissioned works for
the Louisiana Sinfonietta, and was the 1999 Louisiana recipient of the MTNA commission for
composition. He is also a writer with many published articles on music and other subjects,
and one book in print. He is the Director of Music and Education Programs for the
Louisiana Division of the Arts.
For more information and to hear samples of his music, visit the website: http://www.e-universe.com/lmfhome/mwillis.htm
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Updated: January 26, 2006 (KB)
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