I just finished reading an interesting book called Practice Like This: 35 Effective Ways To Get Better Faster by Jonathan Harnum, PhD. It’s a book about practicing in general– sports, games, painting, music, cooking, etc.– but the author is a trumpet player, so his practice strategies are all applicable to the musician. In the coming weeks I will share what I think are the most valuable practice tips for us piano players.
As a passionate foodie, I was immediately attracted to Harnum’s use of the chef’s term, Mise en place. Mise en place is a French culinary phrase which means “everything in its place.” It refers to the set up required before preparing a meal as well as the organizing of a kitchen.
My daughter runs an amazingly delicious Mediterranean restaurant in the Hamptons area of New York called Calissa that features an open kitchen (see photos!) I find it fascinating to watch the chefs as they create their gorgeous meals. Though they are feeding as many as 250 people at any given time, everything they need seems to be at their fingertips. As Harnum writes: “When things get hot and heavy in a busy kitchen, there’s no time to hunt for your cracked pepper or your sharpened paring knife.”
A good chef, baker or cook knows that in order to be efficient and focused, they must assemble all of the tools and ingredients they need before preparing a tasty dish.
A kitchen must be clean, and well organized so that the chef knows where everything is and feels inspired to work her culinary magic.
Likewise, says Harnum, for a musician: “If you adopt the mise-en-place approach in your practice, you can toss off a quick practice session with no setup time.”
As pianists, we don’t always have a lot of choice as to where we can put our pianos, but they should ideally be kept in a place where we can readily sit down and play for 5 or 10 minutes. It’s best to keep your instrument in an area where you will constantly see it; people whose pianos or keyboards are in basements or converted garages tend to practice less, because they simply forget about it! On the other hand, if a piano is in the same room as a television or another popular family entertainment feature, our playing might be prevented or interrupted, and the practice opportunity is lost. If your piano is in a living room or den, you might want to consider purchasing a small keyboard with headphones that you can keep in your bedroom and play anytime.
I keep antibacterial wipes and a microfiber cloth nearby to clean germs and dust off my keys regularly. Never spray anything on your keys, just use a damp microfiber cloth to remove dust, and a non-toxic non-bleaching disinfecting wipe such as Seventh Generation to remove germs (see links at the bottom of this post for my recommendations).
Most importantly, we must put our mobile phones away.
We can’t focus when we are hearing the bells of incoming messages and seeing the flash of our latest instagram LIKES. A good strategy is to put the phone in another room with the sound off. If you know that you only have a certain amount of time to practice, set the timer to ring in 20 or 30 minutes and forget about it, just as you might do while meditating.
Using natural light or a piano lamp with a full spectrum or soft light bulb instead of harsh LED light also creates a more inviting learning environment. A vase of flowers or herbs (mint is easy to grow and makes a refreshingly fragrant bouquet), and candles (beeswax aren’t smoky) make your playing space feel special. I love playing the piano at night by candle-light. Music-themed or other pleasing artwork on the walls can also be inspiring.
One important element in creating the feeling of a sanctuary or sacred space is to clear our piano area of clutter; when I moved music books and sheet music to a file box next to the piano instead on top of it, the piano area looked much more appealing. Clearing clutter from our pianos, helps to de-clutter our minds.
Before you start playing, you might fill a spill-proof flask (I love Kinto’s) with water (with cucumber slices?) or a hot drink such as Teeccino (an herbal coffee substitute) or other herb tea near (not on!) the piano to stay hydrated in between pieces (not coffee- it’s not great for hydration!) And if you might get hungry, put a small bowl of raw almonds, walnuts or carrots close by so that you can have a quick snack without needing to wash your hands.
Likewise, we piano teachers need to take stock of our studio space, with the goal of providing a clutter-free, quiet, and calming environment, conducive to the joyful expression and creation of music.
Students walk in with all of their worries and pressures, and I hope that at least for the duration of our lesson, they are able to put their concerns aside, and connect to their music. New studies are showing that listening to “happy” music, in particular “promotes more divergent thinking.” I hope that when students leave their lesson, their mind feels a little freer. And through the brain enhancing magic of music, maybe even a few new creative solutions to their problems might pop up on their ride home.
Take a look at your piano and see if it feels welcoming. Think about what you might do to create a Mise en place practice space. Please leave a comment sharing your ideas and observations!
With love and music, Gaili