Practice Points for Piano (some applicable to other instruments)

Point 1: What you want is to be able to play exactly how you want to play and feel exactly how you want to feel when you are playing.
*E.g. You choose a piece of music you like, sit down, play it, and never feel "tense, bad, tired" etc. - it feels like a walk in a park.

Point 2: A number of things get in the way of this utopia:
*Body - lack of precise finger control, strength, posture, etc.
*Understanding of Music you are playing - in other words, can you hear it in your head without playing it (and understand why it is the way it is)? 

In practicing, you use Point 1 as a "goal", and Point 2 as a focus for making the journey to that goal

You make the journey through:
a) an understanding of the details of each problem, as it presents itself to your mind
b) an intense focus* in working through that problem

*Intense focus:
There is a difference between being focused and being unnecessarily tense (see below).

"Body" in playing the piano

Traditional way of playing piano is with fingers and feet - we will start here.

All other parts of the body will be supportive of those appendages. (The quality of this support is essential to maximizing your potential.)

1. Posture when you sit - the starting point

You sit in the center of the keyboard (Middle E) so as to reach both sides of the keyboard with equal efficiency.
The height of your seat is adjusted to where you are able to maintain the vertical (neutral) posture of your spine and neck.
If you are finding this difficult to do, you should consider exercises for strengthening the back and abdominal muscles.

During performance you will shift sideways and you will lean in and out as necessary, but think of this as your "default" body position.

2. Positioning of hands/fingers over the keys

Hands and fingers are supported by the forearm, which is connected to and supported by the upper arm, which is connected to and supported by the shoulder girdle.

The trick is to work on lifting your arms without disturbing your posture.
Holding the arms steadily over some keys on the keyboard (hovering an 1/8th of an inch above without touching) for 20 seconds should give you a sense of whether your upper arm muscles are capable of giving the necessary support.
*Are you relaxed - can you smile, like nothing bothers you (like you are walking in the above-mentioned park)?
*Are the upper arms extending and pulling themselves "out of the shoulder" or are your shoulders giving them good support?
*Is the elbow "too bent" or "too extended" - meaning that you have to adjust the seat-to-keyboard distance?

All this things are important, if you ultimately want to have the greatest strength in your fingers and avoid developing all kinds of arm issues like tendinitis, etc.

Understanding the Music to be played

The common way of making music is by taking a musical score and interpreting the musical symbols on the page through a live performance .

Taking any piece of your choosing, you'll immediately confront a variety of problems that need to be addressed.
*Which notes am I playing? What hand and finger?
*How fast/slow and how loudly/softly do I play the notes?
*Do I understand, in general, what the music feels and sounds like, just by looking at the score?

When you make an assessment of where you are with each of those questions, the next step could be just trying to read the music - also known as "sight-reading".


If you choose to sight-read a piece that you have never played before, two points:
*You choose the tempo for the music that makes sense (the closer to the original, the better) and you'll stick to it regardless of how many wrong notes you play while reading.
*You do not stop and "practice" bits - the point is to get the overall sense of the piece; expect this sight-reading to not be your "best playing" - it's not meant to be.
*As much as possible, maintain the "walk in a park attitude" regardless of what is happening. Remember your "default" body position.

(N.B. Once you are done, if you were able to feel all of Point 1 (at the top), you, obviously, do not need to practice this piece :)).

Actual practicing of a piece

When you are ready to start working towards "Point 1" on your chosen piece of music, do it thoroughly, so that your mind is clear on what it is you are doing.

You want to do the following things:

A. Determine the fingering/"hand-ing"
1) It's not enough to know what finger plays what note, but also what the other fingers are doing in the same time (especially those that are about to play!); this is known as "hand position"
2) Where on the key the finger will press - ask Anatoly about finger-key position symbols
3) At what point will this hand position change, and how will I make the change "jump"

*This is, typically, what I first do in my practice of any new piece. I work through the score with the pencil ready, putting my hand/fingers in different ways on the same keys, "zooming in" on the ideal position and writing in the finger/position symbols into the score (NB: tomorrow, I can easily change my mind). I notate the position with a horizontal square bracket and the finger numbers above the Right Hand notes/below the Left Hand notes. This can take a long time, especially if the piece is long. Have patience, as you will get further the slower you go at the beginning.

B. Working through the passages
1) Understand the music you are playing.

It is possible that you "understand" or "feel" the  sound of the music just by looking at it (like you are reading a book and you "hear" the words you are reading). If you "don't hear it in your head", still read on. 

First select a short passage of your choosing - the shorter the unit, the better - a single musical word. It could be two consecutive notes/chords. 
As vividly as you can, hear them in your head (can't hear them? sound out the first one gently, then stop and try to hear it going to the next one? Can't hear the next one? Sound out the next  one and practice memorizing those sounds. Then say the top notes (without playing) to get the "feel" of the music. Do it at the right tempo, with the right intention. Eventually, you have to make sure that you are aware of every sound of every note  as clearly as you are able. 
Again, be clear on your desired tempo....Then execute on the keyboard.

If the passage is simple and short enough, you might actually be able to play it just fine (after all the mental preparation above).
If it's a little more complex:
2) Practice with stops.

When you practice anything substantial, it requires learning a new coordination skill, where your hands/feet move to the right position at the right time.
Since you can't execute a difficult long passage all at once, do the following:
*Get your hands ready above the first notes/chords (microevent)
*Think about where they will have to move (if they have to move) after executing that (microevent)
*Execute the microevent AND immediately perform the move AND 
*stop before going further. You now have to analyze whether you played the chord the microevent you wanted to play it AND if you moved to the correct position
**If you did everything properly, do it again, to make sure
**If  you did not, do it  again after taking a deliberate pause of 2-3 seconds to re-focus
***Best approach is to limit the number of "re-attempts" while practicing. Try 3-4 times at most, analyze the problem as best as you can, then come back to it the following day. Do not tire yourself out on one passage.