Mix It Up! practice suggestions for the short attention span

Instant gratification......is this helpful or harmful? We lament that our attentions spans are shot from the pace of social media. (Over-stimulus, anyone?) And we know we live in a culture of instant gratification: anything we want is just a tap or a swipe away.

I believe that shorter attention span works in our favor, if we can harness it properly. 

If we focus or fixate on the same thing for too long, our mind wanders. Piano requires so many different facets happening simultaneously: reading/translating symbols, listening, physical gestures, internal audiation (hearing the sound in your head), planning ahead while playing in the present....the list goes on. Suffice to say, while playing the piano, you CAN'T afford to fixate on any one thing for too long.

Accessing the "flow state" is our ultimate goal. In this state, playing unfolds around a central awareness and everything happens automatically. What I'd like to suggest is that we OUGHT to be looking for ways to mix up our practice so that we CAN achieve this state. To never stay with one set of repetitions too long. To practice shifting our attention without losing concentration. To address on all dimensions of the passage instead of playing the same thing through over and over and over.

Some suggestions include:

  • the right hand alone

  • the left hand alone

  • playing the harmonies (and singing the root of each chord)

  • drilling technical components

  • reinforcing/reviewing the rhythm

  • singing the passage

  • walk in time while speaking the rhythm

  • play only the peaks of phrases

  • practice starting in uncomfortable/awkward places

  • memorize small chunks

  • play gestures backwards, or expand them up and down the piano. And the ultimate fun:

  • Play with one hand while conducting with the other, tapping both feet and singing the part of the conducting hand. (That's my favorite).

For those who find security in repetition, you can still mix it up. I had a beloved (very patient) teacher who told me never to play the same way twice. You can play the same group of notes, but vary:

  • the speed

  • the articulation (or touch)

  • the dynamics

  • the color (or emotion)

  • the octave or range.

Practicing only works if the steps support the performance. Practicing shifting our focus without losing concentration  prepares us for the hyper-aware state necessary to succeed in performance. Plus, the process is more fun.