Looking for a sure-fire method to boost your keyboard practice? No problem! Read on…
Along with teaching piano, I have several pupils learning to play keyboard. By ‘keyboard’ I mean electronic or ‘chord’ keyboard: the type where you play a melody in the right hand, chord shapes in the left and the keyboard takes care of the rest with drums, accompaniment parts, multiple instrument voices, extra harmonies, etc. Most of my pupils use Yamaha keyboards such as the PSR-E343 which I strongly recommend for beginners on a budget.
When you play the piano, you can vary your tempo (speed) as you go along. Although a consistent tempo is generally good for a polished performance, you can change it bar by bar as you practise if you need to. Playing keyboard is different: although you can choose faster or slower accompaniment to play along to, once you’ve started playing, the pressure is on to keep up!
This is where many keyboard pupils can come unstuck. The pressure of getting the correct notes in the right hand, play the correct chord shapes in the left hand and keep in time can be difficult to cope with, particularly when starting out on a new piece.
The answer lies in four vital steps. Follow these for every new keyboard piece you learn and you will give your brain time and space to catch up:
Step 1) Right hand melody only
Forget the tempo. Forget the rhythm style. Forget the left hand altogether. Concentrate totally on the right hand, going as slowly as you need. Take time to play the correct notes and work out the best fingers to use for each one. Slow down, speed up, stop and start as much as you like at this stage. Don’t go on to Step 2 until you are confident you can play the whole melody through smoothly at a reasonable tempo with the correct fingering, without pausing.
Step 2) Right hand melody and rhythm
Put that left hand away! It’s not time yet. Choose an appropriate rhythm style and tempo (the music will often suggest these for you) and set the drums going. Don’t turn on any auto-accompaniment and don’t play any chords. Work on playing the melody you have just learnt in precise time with the drums. Make sure you pay attention to all the note lengths and land on the first beat of each bar where you are supposed to. At this stage, tempo is your friend, so if you can’t keep up, take the tempo down 10 beats per minute. Still too fast? Do it again. It doesn’t matter how slow you go – the important thing is to fit the melody to the rhythm. Once you start to master it, ease the tempo back up in stages until you’re at performance speed. Don’t move onto Step 3 until you can play the whole melody with the correct fingering at the required tempo without mistakes.
Step 3) Right hand melody with left hand chords, no rhythm
Now it’s time to turn OFF the rhythm. Until you can synchronise the left hand chords with the right hand melody, it’s too early to try to keep up with a steady rhythm. As you did at Step 1, take time to play the correct right hand notes, this time together with the correct left hand chords. At Step 4 you will be able to release the chords as soon as you have played them (the keyboard will keep them going) but at this stage you should hold each chord down continuously until it’s time to play the next one. This will give you a better idea of how the melody sounds against the chords and it will also help to concentrate your mind on the chord changes as they occur. As in Step 2 you should slow down, speed up, stop and start as much as you need to. The aim here is to get your brain to connect the two hands effectively and it will thank you for doing this slowly and steadily. Don’t move onto Step 4 until you can play the whole piece in both hands smoothly at a reasonable tempo without mistakes in the melody or chord shapes.
Step 4) Right hand melody with left hand chords and rhythm
Finally it’s time to put everything together. Remember: tempo is your friend. Dial down that style speed to well below the performance tempo and try to play the piece with both hands. If need be, slow down even further, until you find a tempo (however ridiculously slow it may sound) that you can play at. As you practise, speed up the rhythm gradually (5 to 10 beats per minute at a time) until you can play at your chosen performance tempo. Once this is done, you can add any extra ‘bells and whistles’ such as voice changes, drum fills, auto-harmonies etc.
These vital steps will work for you whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or even advanced player. I still use them myself when approaching a new keyboard piece. To maximise the benefits of these steps, remember:
- Despite your desire to hear your song at full tilt with all the fancy accompaniments and drums, you will progress more quickly if you avoid the temptation to move onto a step until you have mastered the previous one. Keyboard geeks will find this particularly tricky! (They love those programmable patterns.)
- If things start to go wrong and you don’t seem to be able to progress, simply move back to the previous step and spend more time on it. When you return, it will be easier.
- Three things that help: tempo, tempo and tempo! Tempo is your friend! Can’t keep up? Dial it back again. And again. Your brain wants to learn at walk at 60bpm before it can sprint at 158bpm!
I continue to teach this 4-step method to all my keyboard pupils and insist on using it in my lessons. All my pupils agree it helps them to master their pieces effectively. So if you’ve been struggling, give it a try!
Are you a keyboard player or teacher? Have you found these techniques useful? Leave a comment below and share your experience!