We've shown you specific exercises to reduce pain and increase dexterity while playing piano, so now we'll give you our top unconventional practice tips that you probably haven't tried. These methods are intended to simultaneously activate both hemispheres of your brain, as well as stimulate enough neural activity to divert your focus and shift your attention from creating muscle memory to enabling complex rhythmical passages to be performed with ease. One of the toughest obstacles to overcome when first learning how to correctly practice the piano is finger and hand independence, and by using these methods, there's no way you won't improve.
1. Close your eyes
It's amazing the freedom that comes along with the lack of visual distractions. When practicing, frequently close your eyes. Try for just a single measure at first, and then gradually increase the duration as you get more comfortable. This will not only expedite memorization of passages, but it will allow you to rely solely on muscle memory and hand placement. You'll find that your practice hours will be more efficient and much more effective using this method.
2. Use musicians' earplugs
Sometimes it helps to initially be more physical, mechanical, and technical to enable your left brain to take over. Noise-canceling earplugs cancel out the tendency to try and be musical and emotional too early on (allowing your right brain to take precedence). It's the same reason why some musicians object to utilizing metronomes, because they feel robotic. Once you've firmly established flawlessly executed rhythms and technical sequences with earplugs in, you can focus on the sounds you're creating and fine-tuning details like attack to sculpt out the tone you're aiming to convey.
3. Switch hands
When you're struggling with a measure, let one hand rest and practice by reversing clefs. Use your right hand to practice the left hand's notes, and your left hand to practice the right hand's melody. It sounds counterintuitive, but you can actually trick your brain and find that the passages are easier once you switch back. Once you increase neurons by having to think a bit harder for an uncomfortable coordination switch, playing "normally" will feel much more natural.
4. Play lyrical passages staccato
If you feel like you're sensing a trend of utilizing opposites as you read this post, it's no coincidence. Because most people aren't ambidextrous, one hand is usually more dominant than the other. Using tricks like performing more technical passages staccato that are intended to be smooth and connected helps train both hand muscles to relax. You'll be amazing how much freedom and musicality you'll gain access to using this practice tip.
5. Experience finger independence
Work on isolating one clef at a time to gain finger independence. Choose one note of a passage or measure to designate hitting with your opposite hand (i.e., the hand that's intended for the other staff). Play the passage as smoothly as you can with the transitional help of your other hand's isolated note. Switch the note that you initially chose. Repeat the process until you're comfortable interchanging fingers and hands. Voilà! You're a master.
6. Try to never begin with your fingers resting on the keys
Learning a proper attack is crucial for pianists. A lot of younger students often find themselves resting their fingers on the keys over the notes and just pushing down to engage the hammers. This method severely hinders your musical capabilities and limits the tones you’re able to create, as well as your dynamic range. Instead, try not to hover over the keys; start by relaxing your hands on your legs and lift up as you breathe in to prep for your first entrance. Yes, even piano players should inhale before they perform any piece of music. It makes the instrument more of an extension of your body, and the music an intrinsic experience.
7. Conduct with while playing
This challenging exercise will surely take you to the next level. It helps pianists overcome difficult passages and develop advanced techniques like rapid crossover and multi-meter rhythmic understanding. If you choose one hand to conduct the meter you’re playing with the other hand, you’ll be stimulating both hemispheres of your brain. In fact, you might activate neurological pathways that almost no other activity can trigger.
8. Use "sticky fingers"
This unorthodox method of temporarily handicapping isolated fingers has immensely helped me become more of a lyrical player. This won't work for every passage, but depending on the fingering system, choose different notes to get "stuck" on. Keep an isolated finger on one note while continuing the passage as long as possible until you’re forced to lift and "stick" to another note. This initially creates micro-muscle tension, which, when you go back to playing the passages normally, will enable a much smoother motion.
9. Try ghost playing
Ever wonder how pianists perform ppp or triple forté? Try performing excerpts without making a single noise. Touch the keys, and as you become more advanced, even depress the keys without engaging the hammers. This will expand your dynamic range further than you ever imagined!
10. Add variety
Remember the reversed staccato and legato from tip number four? Try to implement some mental gymnastics and play both at the same time, using one hand for each, and then reverse it. Also, experiment with changing up the emphasis (i.e., the rhythmical weight of each respective beat) in each bar. Focus on beat three, then the upbeat of beat four, and back to beat two, etc. The more complex your practice routine, the more simple your performances will become.
Caleb Hsu is an independent vocal producer and freelance recording engineer based in Los Angeles. As a classically trained pianist and composer, he enjoys writing music technology features that combine his psychology background with current industry trends.