Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, and composer, who has authored best-selling books on many aspects of piano performance and pedagogy. Her Play It Again series for the returning pianist has proved to be hugely popular, and here she gives 5 top tips for returning pianists.
Whether you are young or old, if you have played the piano before and are considering revisiting this enjoyable hobby or pastime, you may be wondering how and where to begin. Here are a few suggestions:
If you are a ‘returning’ pianist, you will have probably reached a certain standard or level. It can be a good idea to ‘revisit’ this level, perhaps by looking at your old piano books, or, if you don’t have any, perhaps try to remember a few pieces that you played – ones that you really had fun learning. When you look at the music in those pieces (or any similar pieces), how much can you still remember? Can you read the notes fluently? If so, can you locate them all on the keyboard? Can you recall the note values and what they mean? Can you remember key signatures and time signatures? This is a good indicator of how much you remember, and it will determine how ‘far back’ you need to go, that is, how much below your previous standard you need to start.
Most returners remember something but will often need to restart at least two or three grades (or levels set by music examinations boards) below their previous standard. Some prefer to go right back, almost to the beginning. This can be useful, too, as it ensures a thorough grounding in all the basics.
If you decide to return to a level significantly below your previous standard, there are many ways to quickly come back up to speed with note learning, and the theoretical side of piano playing. The most useful method is to learn to recall where the notes are; noting where they sit on the stave (or score) and naming them, followed by locating them swiftly on the keyboard.
You can test yourself easily here and many find a daily five-minute reminder, useful. However, in Book 1 of my course designed for piano returners, Play it again: Piano (Schott), there are helpful exercises in the ‘Theory’ section at the back of the book, enabling the student to ‘test’ themselves every day. There is also plenty of information about basic rhythms, as well as exercises to help keep the pulse. Play it again: Piano Book 2 contains theoretical information as well (also in a chapter at the back of the book), such as the circle of fifths, for key-signature revision, more complex rhythmic exercises, intervals and scales, ornamentation, and chord structures.
Once you have revisited and grasped the basics, it’s a good idea to start with simple piano pieces. This doesn’t mean that you are relegated to playing dull pieces – there are many delightful works for those who are of elementary or intermediate level. Play it again: Piano Books 1 and 2 contain 49 pieces between them, taking students from Grade 1 right through to Grade 8; the repertoire is arranged and graded throughout both books (Book 1 is around Grade 1 – 4, and Book 2, Grade 5 – 8), offering a complete variety of styles from Baroque through to Contemporary music, including Jazz, Latin, Blues, and some improvisation, by a whole host of composers.
Perhaps you may like to begin with complimentary piece offered with this article: Maple Leaf Rag (and the practice notes) from Play it again: Piano Book 1. This piece, written by Scott Joplin, has been arranged by myself and is around Grade 3 – 4 level.
‘Practising can be a challenge when restarting. Ensure you have a suitable instrument and can devote a certain amount of time to it every day, or every other day.’
It’s always advisable to seek out a good teacher – one who can teach you ‘how’ to play or how to move around the instrument, that is, one who can teach technique properly. This is vital in order to make sure that your body, and particularly the arms, wrists and hands, remains flexible and relaxed as you learn to develop finger power and rhythmic fluency.
Play it again: Piano can also be beneficial here, as all three books contain substantial information about developing technique at the beginning of each book; Book 3 also has technical guidance, and this book is intended for advanced players from Grade 8 through to diploma. This advanced volume contains eleven pieces featuring a variety of styles and composers. For even more practice suggestions, check out my accompanying videos, which can be viewed for free on Schott Music’s YouTube channel.
‘As you begin learning a selection of simpler pieces, aim to practice separate hands whilst employing a very slow tempo; try to count aloud to your own playing, being sure to instigate a regular pulse.’
When you practice both hands together, keep the tempo really slow for a while, so that you can play from the beginning to end of the piece without stumbling or halting. When more confident, you can start raising the speed.
One of the most useful aspects about Play it again: Piano is that it contains at least two pages of detailed practice notes for every single piece, carefully guiding you through the score, so that you don’t feel alone during the learning process.
Finally, enjoy yourself! Playing the piano is both fun and demanding; it might feel taxing at first, but with practice and determination, you will make progress and will regain your piano mojo. Good luck!