How to Practice the Piano
“How long should I practice?” This is a question piano teachers are often asked. It is also a question I try not to answer, since I believe it is the wrong question. A better question would be, “How should I practice?” Here’s why. When you have learned a piece well enough to be able to play it for your own enjoyment or for others, what difference does it make how long it took you to learn it? No one is going to say, “Now that’s a great 6 hour piece,” or “Why are you only playing a 30 minute song?” No, people will like it, or not, based on how well you play it, not on how long you practiced it.
Besides, it is possible for a piece to get worse by practicing, not better. “How’s that?” you ask? If you start practicing a piece, but don’t take care to learn the notes, first, it is possible for you to spend a long time practicing with some notes wrong. Then, when you finally discover the mistake, it may take more practice time to unlearn the mistakes. If you had simply taken time to make sure of the notes at the beginning you would have saved yourself a lot of time in the end. Would you like to take less time?
One of my highest goals for is for my students to learn to practice efficiently. After all, they will spend much more time practicing on their own at home than they will in the lesson (I hope!). Just because I don’t require them to practice a certain amount of time or to keep track of how long they practice, doesn’t mean I don’t want them to practice. I hope they practice lots! I hope they practice because they are having fun, because they know what to do, and because they enjoy getting better. At each lesson, I help them to set goals for the week and show them some ways to get there. I want them to be able to use their time well, so they can get more accomplished in the same time or finish sooner so that you can go do something else.
To get an idea about the importance of practicing efficiently, I recommend that you read 4 Essential Hints, a story of Sally Smart and Isabelle Inefficient, written by Philip Johnston at PracticeSpot.com. Philip is Australian, by the way, so if some of the words seem funny or they are spelled differently, that’s why.
In order to practice efficiently, you need three things. First, you need to have a piece (or section of a piece) small enough that you can practice it efficiently. Second, you need to have an overall plan for how to improve a piece, from the time when you just see it for the first time to the level where you can perform it without fear anytime you want. Third, you need some specific tools to use for each.
When you have decided to learn a new piece, or your teacher has assigned you a new piece, the first thing you want to do is to divide it into sections. Now if the piece is really short, you won’t need to divide it up, but anything more than about two lines of music will need to be divided into sections. Make each section about two lines of music long. After you have divided it into sections, you need to name each section. You can name them by colors, by alphabet letters, or you can make up descriptive titles. Mark the divisions in your book with a line through the music and write in the names. Its OK to write in your book. You’re allowed.
Once you have divided a piece into sections, you can begin improving it. As you work on your music, it is important to know what task you are trying to accomplish right now. The chart below shows the various tasks that you might need to accomplish with your piece. Some of these tasks you may not need to do for your piece. If you are not planning to perform this piece, for example, you will not need to prepare for performance. If you are not planning to memorize, you wont need to complete that task. If the tempo is easy for you, you will not need to speed it up. Many pieces, however, will require specific strategies to accomplish each of these tasks. There are a variety of tools that you can choose from for each task. Feel free to choose the tools that you find most useful to you and most beneficial in the piece you are working on.
How to Practice the Piano
Choosing the right tool for the task at hand
|Learning a new piece
Listen to recordings
Nightmares First (or last)
Shooting the movie
Table Top Challenge
|Fixing problem passages
|Dot marks the spot
|Making a piece reliable
|Beat the dealer
The great Race
The 20-minute consequence
X times in a row
Full speed and hold on
|Parade of small pieces
The migrating book
The sketch artist
The script writer
Listen to recordings
The script writer
|Preparing for performance
Slow motion replays (in advance)
The Blitz week
Learning a new piece. Your first task is to learn the notes and rhythms accurately. In your early lessons, this may seem easy enough, but as you progress, this first goal becomes more challenging.
Fixing problem passages. As you practice, you may find that some places are particularly tricky. You have already figured out what the right notes are, but you don’t always want to have to play slowly, or pause between notes. When you find places where you have to slow down or pause, it is time to figure out why, and find a fix. You will find that many tricky places share common reasons why they are tricky in the first place. Your job is to find the reason and then fix it. For example, lots of places are tricky at first, because you haven’t decided which fingers to use. Once you have worked out the fingering, you can tame these little beasts.
Making a piece reliable. Often you will find sections where you can play it beautifully sometimes, then other time–not so much. You need some techniques to learn to play it correctly every time. We know this is going to take repeating it several times, but there are ways to make it fun. Most of the tools for this task take the form of games designed to add pressure. If you can play it under pressure, then you are confident to play it under normal conditions. This is a good way to prepare for your lesson, as well, since most students feel more pressure in their lessons.
Speeding up. Sometimes the composer tells you how fast to play with a metronome marking For example, 100 mm. means 100 beats per minute (The “mm” refers to Maelzel’s Metronome–he was the inventor of the metronome and a friend of Beethoven). At other times the person who wrote the piece will give you a general sense of how fast to play with an Italian musical term (allegro,for example, means “running,” or very fast). At other times there will not be an indication of the speed, but you think it should be faster, or your teacher tells you it should be faster, or you have heard someone else play it and you liked it when they played it faster. In any case, you need some techniques for speeding things up.
Memorizing. Not every piece will need to be memorized, or is important enough to memorize. But for those you want to play by heart, you will find that basically there are three ways to memorize. Sometimes you can see the musical page in your mind, even when it is not there. This is called visual memory, and some find it easier than others. There also is physical memory, when your fingers remember the way to go, because they have gone this way so often. Almost everyone uses this kind of memory somewhat. This is also the kind of memory that will let you down most easily. If you happen to play a wrong note, then moving to the next note feels weird. This can lead to a total breakdown of a piece. The last kind of memory is theoretical memory, which allows you to think your way through a piece. “I know the first section begins with a C in the left hand and the right hand begins on E. From there it walks up step by step to A,” and so on. This is the type of memory which is most secure, and allows you to figure out what to do next, even if you do mess up in performance.
Interpreting. You don’t just want to play the right notes, and play them at the right tempo. You want to play beautifully. This means playing some parts louder or softer than others, adding a crescendo or diminuendo, pausing slightly (because it sounds nice that way, not because you have to), and so on. Some of these interpretive ideas will be indicated by the composer in the music. Your teacher will help you to know what the normal practice is for pieces in that style, or pieces written at that time, but many items of interpretation are up to you. This is the fun part, when you get to make it beautiful in your own way.
Preparing for performance. This final task brings your piece to completion. You will be able to play this piece for a special occasion, such as a recital or a concert, or any time you are asked, like when grandma comes to visit. This final step helps you to be able to know that you will play well, and know what to do if things should not turn out as well as you had hoped.
Note: I will be adding descriptions of these tools on this blog from time to time, and updating this post with links to the new articles. You may wish to check back here frequently.