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I have been playing piano for approx. 30 years but consider myself still quite fair (and this is not false humility). I have come to the realization that some people have an innate ability at the piano that allows them to excel.

I’ve played songs like Schumann’s "Aufschwung", "Clair de Lune", Moszkowski's Etude in G Minor, Debussy's "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum", etc, but they take maybe 6 months to learn and memorize. I practice about 30mins per day (sometimes and hour, sometimes less), in which I work on repertoire for about 20 mins and sight read for about 10 mins (usually from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier (mind you, I play this slowly and with a fair amount of mistakes) or some other Baroque pieces (this has actually helped quite a bit in sight reading).

I had lessons from 2nd grade through college (non musical major), and piano playing is one of my main hobbies. But at times I get frustrated for where I think I could be.

Does anyone have any tips or recollections on any breakthrough moments in practice techniques or other things that have really accelerated their piano playing?

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    My experience with both guitar and piano suggest that 30 minutes a day isn’t even maintenance practice past a certain point. Finding the right teacher and ramping your practice time up to two or more hours a day, perhaps in separate morning and evening sessions would almost certainly change everything for you. – Todd Wilcox Jan 26 at 14:55
  • I agree that more intensive practice sessions are far more beneficial, but also in my experience they don't need to be as frequent. Of course all other things being equal "the more the better" but motivation is very important and should not be overlooked. I've found after practising intensely for a few days consectively and then not playing for a few days I notice conspicuous improvements next time I play – Judy N. Jan 26 at 15:50
  • Looking at the playlist, maybe not. But for me, playing with others made me play a lot better. Merely suggesting 'play more, a lot more' isn't particularly productive. 'Play with specific goals in mind' makes more sense. – Tim Jan 26 at 17:25
  • I think it comes with time. At someone earlier at someone faster and from comprehension of the instrument or music in general. But your term of 30 years is 3 times longer than I'm trying to make music. So I don't know. And if you need to learn how to play an instrument, you should probably hire a teacher. – Lyuba Ivanova Jan 26 at 19:38
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My most significant breakthrough moments were unpredictable and highly personal, in the sense of being very specific to a particular time in my overall learning process. Here they are, in roughly chronological order (as best I remember).

The last item is the one most important for me, and which I unreservedly recommend. You could read that and skip the rest. However, it happened after all the other things listed, so I must allow that at least for me, it depended on them.

Moving from an upright to a grand piano

After practicing for some years on an upright piano, I took a lesson with a teacher whose first question after I played was about the instrument I practiced on. He told me I'd maxed out the capabilities of my piano and that I needed a grand.

He was absolutely right. The difference in sensitivity to touch, the greater range of volume and tone color, had a near immediate effect on my playing, because I could better hear and imagine nuances to the music I was studying.

Taking two-years of college-level music theory -- twice

The first time through the curriculum, I learned quite a bit, but it was the second time around that the theory and ear-training really came together. The effect on reading, learning, and playing music was immense. I was able to better recognize, both at sight and by ear, musical phrases and how they related to each other. It also increased my ability to conceptualize the music in ways that made memorization much easier.

Artur Rubenstein's recording of Schubert's Impromptu in Ab Major (Op. 142 No. 2)

I had been playing this piece for some time -- fairly well, I thought -- and performed it for a friend. When I got to the middle section, the friend started yelling at me to "Go!" I was "going", so I really didn't understand him until I stumbled onto Rubinstein's recording. At the B section, Rubenstein speeds up suddenly and dramatically. I was so startled I started laughing. That was my introduction into how much room for interpretation and expressive breadth music could accommodate.

Dalcroze Eurythmics

I spent quite a few years looking for ways to promote relaxation in my playing: a teacher who specialized in it, yoga, massage (several different types), physical therapy, meditation, perhaps others now forgotten. All of that came to a head when I participated in a week-long (or two weeks) Dalcroze workshop. It was in that workshop that I realized I was restricting my movements, and it helped me greatly expand my understanding of the relationship between how one moves (at the piano) and what one expresses. It gave me a much greater appreciation for the breadth of physical movement that is possible.

Playing easy music -- a lot of it

When playing Debussy, Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Bach, ... whomever, there are a huge number of things to keep track of: notes, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, voicing, fingering, phrasing, etc., etc., etc.

The absolute best way I've found to improve in any area of my playing -- reading in particular -- is to play the easiest music I can find. I've read and practiced my way through several "Book One"s several times each, and continue to do so.

The benefits are too numerous to list, but it boils down to the fact that by playing such simple material, I can focus in a detailed way on all of the musical aspects simultaneously. When I read, I can read all of the instructions at once while simultaneously building an interpretation. When I practice a particular moment, it's obvious what the essential elements requiring practice are, so I can focus on them without struggling with additional complications.

I use a three-step approach:

  1. Read through to get a feel for the piece/exercise.
  2. Step 2: Practice until I can play with fluidity and expression.
  3. Step 3: Make it really sound like music.

This is harder than one might think. The musical material is so limited that making music out of it is exceptionally difficult. In that respect, Chopin, for example, plays itself as long as you just follow the instructions. But try to make a two-finger exercise using only middle C and treble G sound like Chopin.... To that end, I try to envision playing for an audience of pre-schooler's, and I have to get them engaged in whatever music I'm playing.

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  • Thanks for your thoughtful response. I'm going to try your last recommendation. – Michael Hamann Jan 26 at 17:59
  • Thanks for the tips. – Lyuba Ivanova Jan 27 at 15:24

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