Sunday, 19 February 2017

How I practice piano (warning - uber-geeky in every aspect)

Here's something I don't share with my students because it's just so technical that it would alienate them - the way I organise my practice is based entirely on a flashcard-based language learning program and ipad app called Anki, using the following:
  • Setting up custom flashcards (including some basic copying and pasting of html code)
  • Tweaking its algorithms to suit skill development as opposed to pure memorisation as it's designed for.
  • Downloading sheet music from IMSLP and cutting it up using screenshot software. I have also scanned in some scores that are unavailable elsewhere, which probably contravenes the copyright but I would argue is a fair use as there is no other way of me experimenting with the practice technique.
A practice session will go something like this:
  • Sit at piano, put ipad on music stand, load up Anki, it shows me a snippet of music that I need to either practice if it's new, or check that I can still play accurately and musically.
  • It shows me a few options: 
    • If the snippet needs more practice I'll work on it for a while and then choose the red button. The snippet will come up again later that session. 
    • If the snippet is secure I choose green and it will come up again after a certain number of days. This number increases every consecutive time that option is chosen.
    • If the snippet feels very easy there's another option which delays it coming back up for even longer 
  • Having chosen one of these options, a different snippet shows up. Rinse and repeat!
  • Some cards I have labelled as 'Daily', such as scales and exercises. Some of these use html code to randomise their contents, e.g. I have a chord card that randomises an enormous list of chords which I play through until I'm bored or mentally exhausted from playing 3rd Inversions of double sharp 9th/aug 5th chords!
  • Each snippet appears 3 times - one for normal practice, once to practice linking to the next snippet, and once to memorise what comes after it. These never appear on the same day.
Here are what I feel the benefits are:
  • Only small snippets of music are presented at a time, focusing the mind entirely on the problems in that small passage
  • Easier sections of pieces are quickly deprioritised, meaning I spend longer focusing on challenging sections
  • There is something addictive about using the app
  • The whole practice process is automated
  • I don't need to carry round loads of books
Things that don't work:
  • The spacing algorithm still isn't quite right for all the snippets of pieces I have in my collection. I'm also dubious about the soundness of the research behind the original algorithm. However in practice this doesn't seem to matter too much.
  • It doesn't help with large-scale practice of a piece - that requires good old fashioned books for playing through and pencils for analysing form.
  • You can't write in fingerings, so have to memorise them. Turns out there is an extension to the desktop app that lets your edit images in Anki files, which could be very useful for all sorts of scribblings including fingering reminders. I'll have to take a while to experiment with this new feature.
The app also provides stats, so I can see that since working in this way:
  • On days when I used Anki to practice, I have averaged 70 minutes a day
  • I have worked through 1400 cards. The snippets probably average 3 bars of music, but each snippet appears 3 times, so this works out at roughly 1400 bars of music learnt and memorised. 
The repertoire has covered Beethoven, Chopin, Prokofiev, Debussy, some Clementi studies, some Bebop standards, music from Super Mario, carols, an entire show (not included in the total card count as I deleted it once I'd finished the show), a bunch of accompaniments, score-reading exercises (alto and tenor clef... fun!?) and many more random bits and pieces. At a guess it's probably around 2 hours of music, plus an extra hour unmemorised from the show. It has been a lot of fun and I'm certainly going to continue using this method for developing my keyboard skills and repertoire.

This is a very brief teaser, I would like to expand on some of the bullet points when I have the time and will update this post as and when that happens.

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