There is a rule of piano technique that is sure to do more to advance your piano playing than any other. All amateur pianists I have ever witnessed break this rule every time they play, and doing so costs them their progress and creates frustration and self-doubt.
How many times have we all heard “Think before you speak!” while growing up? This rule holds equally for piano playing: Think before you play. Thinking before playing is about achieving clarity. It means creating mental certainty before so much as moving a finger. It involves anticipating the next notes by hearing them in your mind first. Only then, at the very moment you play them, should you touch the keys, always shaping the hands first.
One of the essentials of ear training is that we should play because we hear, not hear because we play. This means hearing in our mind’s ear first, and only then playing. Our knowledge of right or wrong notes should not come after we’ve already made a mistake—it should be decided with absolute certainty in advance of touching the keys.
Nearly all piano students do the opposite: They play first, without taking the time to think about the next notes. They only know that they hit a wrong note once it’s too late. Then there is an instantaneous panic reaction, in which they fumble around at the keyboard, striking random keys and only exacerbating the problem. This is the worst thing you can possibly do at the piano! We are learning at all times; we are teaching ourselves every movement we make at the piano. We teach ourselves to make mistakes.
The only solution is slow, highly focused practice. The value of slow practice is that it gives us time to think each note in advance of playing it. I find that even when I tell students to play slowly, they still play at nearly performance tempo. I have to insist multiple times that they slow down, and they almost never slow down enough. It is only when they play with the metronome that they realize just how fast they have been playing.
Underlying this tendency is impatience. While every music student understands that learning music is inherently a long-term task, the vast majority only lengthen the time they need to learn a piece through their very effort to reduce it.
At the heart of all learning is concentration. Most music students try to avoid mental exertion at all costs, yet this is precisely what is needed most! I see piano students move their fingers without first thinking of each note, each corresponding key and each hand movement. There are no arbitrary movements in proper piano playing. Every movement is properly the result of a conscious decision made for a musical purpose. The movements need to be thought through like a perfectly choreographed dancer, and practiced slowly, as if watching an instant replay in slow motion. No movement is arbitrary. If you reach for a wrong note and hesitate, correct by removing your hands from the keyboard and starting the passage over with the correct movements. Concentrate fully on each note, each piano key and each hand movement, with each one being the result of conscious decision. This is how to think before you play!
The more we abstract from mere finger movements—muscle memory—and the more we concentrate on the pure music, the better we learn piano music. True, every piece still demands considerable rote repetition during practice, but this should only be to reinforce the underlying notes we have already learned in our minds.