All posts by ryandurfeemusic

husband, father, worship leader, musician, pianist, keyboardist, snowboarder

Favorite Tools at the Piano

Whether practicing or teaching, I’ve come to love the following tools at the piano:


Palomino Blackwing Pencils – Having a great pencil to mark up scores is a must and the Palomino Blackwing is the gold-standard by my book.  These pencils have been used by artists and musicians for decades (composer Stephen Sondheim uses them exclusively, and Bugs Bunny and many other Looney Tunes characters were created using these magical sticks!)  I also recommend the Kum Pencil Sharpener as it sharpens to a long point using a two step process.

Frixion Pens

PILOT FriXion Color Sticks Erasable Gel Pens – sometimes you need to mark your music in color and these pens are the best erasable pens I’ve ever tried – smooth writing and the best erasing I’ve seen. I used to use red erasable pencils when marking scores, but these Pilot pens actually erase better leaving no trace of color behind!  Love ’em!!

Post Its

Post-It Notes 2 in. by 2 in. – As a teacher I encourage my students to “spot practice” all the time.  Working on 4 measures, 2 measures or even just a couple beats of music at a time is crucial for gaining traction in learning difficult passages.  The post-its act like “blinders” and can be easily moved.  I personally use them in every serious practice session because they keep me focused and moving faster.  Here’s a great article on the power of the post it!


Metronome or metronome app – 90% of my practicing is done with a metronome.  Being able to play music in time, to a groove, and with rhythmic integrity is a must.  Ultimately it gives me the freedom to be even more expressive because I work out any hesitations and difficulties from slow to performance tempo.


Countdown timer – This relates back to a previous post about deliberate and focussed practice.  I typically set my timer to 45 minutes and be sure to turn off all distractions (phone on airplane mode, no interruptions or bathroom breaks, or instagram checks!).  Seeing the timer countdown gives me motivation to see how much I can get done in the time I have left.  After 45 minutes, I take a brief stretch break and grab another cup of coffee!


Yeti 10oz rambler – I love coffee and having a hot cup is crucial to longevity at the piano!  This thing keeps my drink nice and hot for a full practice session!


The Productive Pianist (Deliberate Practice)


Becoming exceptional or even outstanding in any field requires a consistent and relentless pursuit of developing and refining your skills.  Becoming an exceptional pianist is no different.  In my “glory days” of college, working towards a degree in Piano Performance, I would frequently spend 6 hours a day or more in the practice room preparing for recitals and concerts.  Now I feel like a rock star if I’ve gotten half of that time in (confession – it doesn’t happen every day!)  What I’ve realized, and what a growing body of research points to, is that it’s not necessarily about how much time we put in, it’s more about what we put into the time that generates high level performance.   Studies from Anders Ericsson, Tony Schwartz and others reveal that we are most productive when we move between periods of high focus and intermittent rest.

“Anyone can become good at anything with the right kind of deliberate practice” – Tony Schwartz

Therein lies a secret:  deliberate practice!

What does deliberate practice look like for me now?

  • free from distractions (cell phone off or on airplane mode, no interruptions from family unless an emergency, etc)
  • complete attention / deep concentration on task at hand with observation of what I’m doing, what is working, what isn’t, and why.
  • set and limited amount of time (no more than 90 minutes per practice session – and up to 3 of these a day)*

After about 90 minutes of concentrated practice I take a break, do something to re-energize myself like talk a walk, run, or simply sit and have a cup of coffee.

“Human beings are designed to pulse or oscillate between spending energy and renewing energy.”  – Schwarz

Whether your practice time is 20 minutes or 5 hours a day, the key is focus and consistency.  When you practice – devote your full attention to it.  Rather than setting a new, massive amount of practice time per day, work on being consistent with a small amount of time each day.  To help you do this, and to make your progress visual, I’ve created a “Weekly Piano Practice Register”.  Numerous studies have shown that when we observe or track an activity, we are more likely to be successful at accomplishing our goals.

Happy Practicing!

*Ericsson, Schwartz and others cite that the total daily practice time of elite performers rarely exceeds five hours a day — and this only if naps are taken and the individual sleeps longer (a study of elite violinists revealed that they slept an average of 8.6 hours out of every 24.  The average person in the US sleeps 6 to 6.5 hours a day)

For the super-achiever, here are some books that I highly recommend:
The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
The Compound Effect, by Darren Hardy
The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, by Tony Schwartz

Pianists, produce 3x more with these tips!


I was recently involved in 6 shows (musicals, major concerts) that overlapped production schedules.  In each case the directors/producers were kind and flexible enough with my part of the show to make it work— awesome — now to manage my own sanity!  While my role for each of these shows varied – Music Director, Accompanist, Orchestrator…, the amount of musical material to learn was vast (over 250 songs to perform) .  I was determined not only to have the correct music on my stand come show time (ha ha!), but to produce the highest level of musical performance with each group possible.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned that have helped me produce more in less time, with greater confidence:

1) Have consistent predetermined times where you can be uninterrupted by distractions, phone calls, email, Facebook, etc… (seems obvious, right?) —my best and most productive time is first thing in the morning.  My new routine is to wake up at 5am, have coffee and read until 5:30.  Then I go to work with intense focus on one priority or musical endeavor for 90 minutes (this could be a set of songs from one musical, say Act 1, or it could be a smaller set of songs or even 1 difficult song).  I learned this tip from productivity expert, Darren Hardy.  He recommends using a count-down timer, setting it for 45 minutes, work like a mad dog, take a stretch break when the timer goes off, set it again and work another 45.  I have found this to be extremely helpful, and I’m confident that I’ve accomplished more in a shorter amount of time by using the countdown timer found here.

2) Actively listen to the music you’re working on.  I listen to recordings in my car, sure, but I know that the most productive listening comes when I actually have the music in front of me with a pencil in hand and a notebook to capture ideas that pop up, or reminders of things to practice.  Repeat the listening process at least 5-6 times for each show to let the songs settle into your head.

3)  Use a metronome!  The biggest benefit of using a metronome for me is not that it keeps me honest with my timing (although that certainly is a great benefit).  I love being able to track my progress with a particular song and a metronome helps me do that by running (working) difficult musical passages through a process of repetition from slow sight-readability to performance tempo.

4)  Have a written list of songs that you’re practicing for a particular show/event.  Check off the ones that are easy enough to sight-read or that need minimum practice.  Make notes on the ones that need more work (specific measures to spot practice, areas to clean, review, repeat).  The benefit of having this written list in front of you is that it’s visual, rather than simply in your mind.  You can easily glance at the entire list, see what needs most attention, and get to work at it quickly.

Happy practicing!

Lessons from Jim Brickman

Ryan and Jim BrickmanI recently attended a master class workshop with “America’s Romantic Piano Sensation”, Jim Brickman.  I’ve been a fan of Jim’s ever since I bought his first CD, No Words from a Blockbuster Music store (remember those?!) back in the mid-90’s.  I’ve also played his hit song, Angel Eyes, for countless weddings and am still not tired of it!  Jim has a great sensibility in composing songs with memorable melodies and surprising harmonic twists.

The workshop centered around composing, improvising, and creating.  Here are a few take-aways that I intended to implement in my own practice time and composing:

1. There’s great benefit in sitting down at the piano and ‘noodling’.  Let your hands wander as you play chord progressions – not necessarily thinking about how something sounds, but rather about something that inspires you – a person, a place, a feeling.

2. For inspiration in creating ‘new’ chord progressions, try taking a classical piece (Rachmaninoff? yes!) and reducing it to the harmonic changes.  Then improvise over those changes.

3. Talent doesn’t mean lot’s of notes – simple is actually harder.  As you create songs, be willing to ‘peel away the activity’ — find the heart of the song!