How to Relearn the Piano After Not Playing for a Long Time
After a 15+ year break from creating music, I am finally returning to the piano.
It is easy to get discouraged at how much skill, strength and dexterity has been lost during the years of no practice. However, with patience and diligence, you can return to your previous form and beyond!
My old piano had given up the ghost many years ago, stuck keys and wood damage meant the repair cost was much more than a new piano.
After an overseas move, I vowed to get back to the keys, and splurged on a fantastic new Clavinova, an electric piano that sounds and feels just like a real one!
It's too tempting to play for hours on end like you once did. But reign in your enthusiasm for extended practice sessions for a while.
Your hands (and entire body) need time to remember their previous skills, build strength and regain flexibility.
Over-practicing will cause pain and frustration, which can lead to quitting all over again.
Commit to a short practice session every day to restore and maintain the brain-finger connection. Start at 20 minutes, then gradually increase the time and the difficulty of your exercises and music.
Tip: Use a timer to limit your practice session - when it rings, stop for the day, stretch and massage your hands.
Warm up and stretch
Scales and arpeggios are the best warm up for sluggish fingers. Start slowly and allow yourself to remember the correct finger progressions and key signatures. Over time, speed things up, and add interest with staccato, thirds, sixths and octaves.
Keep an eye on hand posture, and ensure each finger performs evenly and smoothly.
Be careful when stretching for octaves or larger spreads - it is easy to overstretch as your fingers remember the music, but haven't yet gained back their strength and flexibility.
After a practice session, massage and stretch your fingers and wrists to reward your hands and release tension.
Correct your posture
With computers now in most workplaces, the posture of many people has become slumped and unhealthy.
Poor piano posture will increase fatigue and put strain on wrists. It will make some techniques difficult to perform, and may cause pain.
Make sure that your stool is at the correct height and distance from the keys, both for your hands on the keyboard, and your feet on the pedals.
If you must use a chair, choose a sturdy one without arms and wheels.
Watch that you are sitting with a straight back, without tension (especially in the neck and shoulders), and that your wrists are loose and relaxed, fingers slightly curved.
Try to keep this posture when you return to work (or play) at your computer too!
Tip: The Alexander technique was developed by and for actors and musicians.
You may find it useful to find an Alexander technique teacher, experienced with pianists. They can watch your playing posture and correct any errors.
Watch out for pain
A little soreness when returning to the keys is normal. If you practiced a piece consistently for a few days using your muscles in ways they haven't previously been used, you will become sore. Take a break, and play something else using different techniques for a few days to recover.
Stronger, lasting, or sharp pain is an indication that something is wrong. You may be moving in poor or incorrect ways. It may be time to have a lesson with an experienced teacher to have your technique corrected, or see a physiotherapist for advice. If you have persistent joint pain, please see your doctor to rule out any underlying illnesses.
You may find strength exercises away from the keyboards useful. For example:
- Using a rubber band for resistance, stretch the fingers apart.
- Squish silly putty or play dough between the fingers (pressing the fingers together against resistance).
- Squish a stress ball for overall hand strength (and stress relief).
Play real music
Play real pieces of music, not just exercises!
You want to avoid becoming bored at all costs!
Some good pieces for rebuilding your skills, include:
- Friedrich Burgmüller: 25 Études, Op. 100
- Béla Bartók: Mikokosmos and For Children studies
- Johann Sebastian Bach: 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias
- Frédéric Chopin: Études
- Carl Humphries: The Piano Handbook
Of course, the more difficult pieces should be played slowly, and put together a section at a time, focusing on correct technique.
Make sure you actually read and follow the music, and don't guess at which note comes next!
It is very encouraging to see these pieces progress in speed, accuracy and fluency as time passes!
Chopin's Étude "Aeolian Harp"
Listening to a range of classical piano music (or the style you are re-learning), and watching live (or recorded) performances can do wonders for motivation.
One of my favorite musical Japanese anime series, Nodame Cantabile, follows the progress of a young and talented pianist. It is full of wonderful classical music, and was made into a live-action series. Listening to the soundtrack, or watching an episode encourages me to fit in a practice session.
I've even started to learn some of the piano music featured in Nodame Cantabile, even though they are technically very difficult! It's very encouraging to see my skills improve over time.
Tip: Follow some blogging musicians for tips and inspiration!
Or you can find out about musical locations in your town and visit them. I'm lucky to live in Leipzig - the home of Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn and the birthplace of Wagner. There's plenty of museums, concert halls and exhibitions along the Notenspur, plus a daily offering of concerts, operas and ballets to go to.
Structure your practice sessions
20 minutes of planned, structured practice, is worth so much more than randomly playing through the pieces that you like, ignoring any errors you make. When you work to a plan, you actively develop your skills.
Priorities in any practice session will change over time.
Perhaps a good starting point would be:
- 20% on scales and arpeggios
- 50% on mastering a moderately challenging piece
- 30% playing the pieces that you love (and which keep your fingers supple)
Keep a practice diary, noting what you have played and your progress. This helps with motivation, setting goals, prioritizing practice sessions, and is a good reminder that you are continuously improving.
Master a piece gradually
Playing with a metronome can force you to slow things down, and increase your accuracy.
You can gradually speed up once your fingers become more familiar.
To improve a difficult passage
- Play the passage one hand at a time, slowly and carefully, using a metronome.
If there are multiple melody/harmony lines within one hand, you can break it down further, but make sure the fingering remains correct.
- Repeat each hand separately multiple times.
- Once both hands are familiar with the passage, play with both hands together. Slowly to begin with, and then gradually increasing in speed.
If you do this over multiple practice sessions, you can master a more difficult pieces, and improve your technique. This approach also works when memorizing a piece of music.
Don't forget to also play pieces you enjoy and that you have previously mastered - this maintains motivation and enthusiasm.
Piano street offers practical and useful advice for learning piano, and has an active forum for pianists and piano teachers.
Topics range from music, teaching, piano recommendations, and also suggestions to deal with pain from practicing - a fantastic resource when you don't have access to a teacher!
Above all, have fun!
You are returning to the piano because you want to.
Enjoy your fingers twinkling over the keys, the music surrounding you.
Reward your progress and diligence with a CD or a new piece of sheet music.
Piano playing can be very relaxing - playing any instrument is a great stress relief method.
Although recovering rusty skills will take time and effort, enjoy the journey! Have fun playing your old favorites and finding new pieces to explore.
What are your tips for picking up an instrument you have not played in a long time?