/

Piano Tips: Practicing During a Pandemic

Practice can keep us sharp while waiting for live music to return. Anthony Carone of Canada's Arkells shares piano tips to maximize downtime. Header Photo by Nathan Nash

7 mins read
Start

What happens when your practice is live performance? As a touring musician, there’s no substitute for playing live. You can run scales all day long. Still, if you don’t step out of the woodshed and play with other musicians, you’re doing yourself a disservice. This is particularly tough right now. We’re not able to attend social gatherings, night clubs, or concerts. That should leave enough hours in the day to run through the entire Hannon exercise book, right?

There are no shows happening—maybe the odd drive-in concert. As a result, musicians have extra time on their hands. For those of us who rely on multiple gigs a week, what is the best way to maintain and improve our skills? Here are a few piano tips I’ve found helpful in these strange times.

Lift and Learn

What better way to learn than from the masters themselves?

There’s no real right or wrong way of doing this, either. It makes no difference whether you want to crib Charlie Parker’s solo on “Donna Lee” or learn “Somebody Like You” by Adele. It all serves as a means to equip yourself with a particular language. You’re not listening to notes on a page; you hear the ebbs and flows of a particular performance.

You’re not listening to notes on a page; you hear the ebbs and flows of a particular performance.

There are many great tools to help facilitate this as well. Drop the track into your DAW and loop the more complicated sections. You can also time stretch and slow your track down. This makes it easy to master challenging lines.

Jam Along

Similarly, once you’ve learned what you want from the track, I’ve gotten lost jamming along to Billy Joel or Elton John records. Heck, the other day I pulled out my guitar and played along to Americana by the Offspring. (Insert shrug emoji.) Get yourself a solid pair of headphones or speakers, mix yourself in, and it sounds like you’re playing on the record. It’s just too fun.

"Get yourself a solid pair of headphones or speakers, mix yourself in, and it sounds like you’re playing on the record."

Brush Up Your Technique.

Maybe this should have been piano tip #1. To be completely honest, I probably sound like a hypocrite mentioning technique. I stand hunched over the piano, play with my feet, and mash the keys with my fists. Still, there’s something lockdown reminded me about when it comes to technique: if you don’t use it, you lose it. This has become evident when I sit down and try to play some of the more technical pieces I used to know.

For pianists, there are the traditional scales, arpeggios, broken/solid chord inversions. While I joked earlier about Hannon’s exercise book, The Virtuoso Pianist is a great book for dexterity and finger control.

Step Outside the Box

OK, time to get uncomfortable. A big part of practicing and learning is to be uncomfortable. No pain, no gain. The same applies to your music. That is, of course, unless you’re practicing with poor technique and developing an ailment. In this case, go back to piano tip #2.

"A big part of practicing and learning is to be uncomfortable. No pain, no gain. The same applies to your music."

Try something new. Get that Roland Cloud account and get into virtual synthesizers. Buy that drum machine. Get into hardware. Learn how to use recording software. Whatever it may be, it’s all going to benefit you in the end. It’s an investment in your career.

Immerse Yourself 

Right now is the perfect moment to dive into a new musical discipline. Arkells usually play between one hundred, and one hundred fifty shows a year. What’s awesome about being at home is the opportunity to immerse myself in Pro Tools and work with plug-ins/VSTs. Having what feels like an unlimited amount of time to focus is a great chance to break out of your comfort zone.

"Having time to focus is a great chance to break out of your comfort zone."

Do it Your Way

In the end, there’s no right or wrong way to practice. It makes no difference whether you are a professional or a straight-up hobbyist. If you’re putting in the work, you’re doing yourself and your music a great service.

Happy woodshedding, folks. And stay strong. We’ll all get back out there one day.

Anthony Carone

Anthony is a self-proclaimed "Keyboard-Masher" from Toronto, Ontario. He is a member of the Juno Award-winning group the Arkells.