How Emanuel Ax Makes Piano Practice Less of a Drag

Emanuel Ax is a Grammy-winning American classical pianist. He is a teacher on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He’s also been the main duo recital partner of cellist Yo-Yo Ma since 1973.

You would think Ax, 68, would have more than just a few tidbits of advice for aspiring pianists. Lifehacker took a break from their seething journalism to look in on this modern music master and how he plies his trade. No surprise–he still practices four hours a day. But he has a few tricks up his sleeve as you’ll read in this article, “How Emanuel Ax Makes Piano Practice Less of a Slog”.

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 practicing an instrument more fun and productive.

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’s not 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 practicing 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 funneled 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.

Experiment

Practice never becomes 100 percent 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 twenty 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 practicing that over and over to get it into your head.”