Seven-time Grammy-winning pianist Emanuel Ax still practices his instrument four hours a day – when you play Carnegie Hall, you don’t just wing it. And sometimes, he admits, “it’s kind of a slog,” especially to practice a new piece: Something written specifically for him, or something he’s never heard. “You get the music, and you try to learn it note by note.” In an interview with Lifehacker, Ax recommends several ways to make practising an instrument more fun and productive.
Photo: AP Photo/Keystone/Urs Flueeler
Listen to great performances
When you can listen to existing interpretations of a piece, you don’t have to depend on the page to tell you what to do. It isn’t cheating to follow along with a great performer.
Ax finds it easier to learn pieces that he’s heard before, even if he hasn’t played them, because he can borrow from existing performances. He’s been going to shows at Carnegie Hall since his childhood, but he’s impressed by options like Spotify and YouTube, which give anyone “the ability to call up great performances of the past, almost at will”.
Get a partner
Ax frequently performs with Yo-Yo Ma, so the two often practice together. It’s “very liberating and very helpful,” says Ax. “We’re exchanging ideas. Yo-Yo can say to me, maybe you should try doing less on the left hand, more on the right, or do this faster, or do this slower. It’s a conversation.”
It’s also more fun; the two like to talk and joke around. “If you’re practising by yourself, you can’t tell yourself too many jokes.”
It’s also a way to get familiar with another instrument and another musician’s process, which is very useful for performing in an ensemble. From working with Ma, he says, “I like to think I know something about string playing.”
Try another instrument
When Ax works with an orchestra, most of his collaboration is funnelled through the conductor. But he learns how to support soloists and their interpretation of the work. “There are many places where it’s, say, you and the clarinet, or you and a solo cello or the flute. You kind of have an unspoken connection.”
Ax doesn’t regularly play any other instruments, but he says that playing the timpani is “a kind of a fantasy for me”. Whenever he works with an orchestra, he says, “I always make friends with the timpani player.” He recently even performed timpani onstage in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
If one of the world’s most famous living pianists can get excited about kettle drums, then maybe you can cleanse your palate by picking up another instrument for a day.
Practice never becomes 100 per cent fun, says Ax. You’ll inevitably have to repeat some things over and over. “But a lot of time is spent discovering new ways to do things. So the slog becomes an interesting creative process.”
Sometimes Ax might be working on a piece that he’s been playing for 20 years, then stop at a certain part that’s always given him trouble. What if he used his fourth finger instead of his fifth? “Then it becomes very exciting! Then you don’t mind practising that over and over to get it into your head.”
Try to practice more than one thing at a time. This week Ax is practising for one performance this weekend and another in October. This, he says, is because he’s “quite slow”, but it also seems like a protection against grinding away at the same piece all day. If you have the freedom to choose what to practice, you can find two contrasting pieces, or something easy to balance with something hard.
Come back to old pieces
“One of the difficulties in a new piece is you don’t know what’s going to be a problem for you,” says Ax. Even an old familiar piece requires practice before a performance, but he has a head start, which gives him time to make new choices and hone his performance, to play certain parts louder or softer, or to bring out a different voice, or emphasise the other hand.
It’s easier to tackle the tougher parts when they don’t catch you unaware. Ax compares returning to an old piece like playing tennis against a familiar opponent: You know they have a strong forehand, so you force them to backhand. “Not that Brahms is my enemy!”
Use an app
At 69, Ax says, he’s “terrified of playing Bach from memory. It’s getting too hard.” So he uses Tonara, a practice and performance app for Android and iOS. (Tonara representatives arranged our interview with Ax.) Ax uses the app onstage and in practice sessions to read music without relying on a page-turner. The app can hear Ax and follow along, so it knows when to turn the page. “Until this year, I’d have to get someone to take a chair and turn pages for me.”
The app, of course, is not mainly designed for celebrity pianists but for regular people practicing any instrument. “Even if you play the wrong notes, it seems to know where you are,” says Ax. It tracks your performance, records your wrong notes and gives you feedback; teachers can even assign work in the app, and it can track students’ practice time and grade their performance.
Ax teaches at Juilliard, usually one-on-one. He tries to get his students to play a lot of Bach, because Bach is “really hard”, and Ax wants his students to get more early Bach practice in than he did.
“Every voice in a Bach piece is an individual voice,” he says. “So you don’t really have a situation where there’s a tune on top and everybody else accompanies. Everybody has a different thing to do. If you can play Bach well, then you’re really good.” He’s excited for the current generation of music students. “They are going to be so much better than us.”