Let’s start by figuring out what “practice” really means. Practicing the piano is not just playing the piano. There is a difference, and understanding that difference is essential to making great progress.
Let’s imagine you’re part of a basketball team. Your team meets once a week for two hours of “practice”. You might begin each session with a warm-up lap, followed by stretching. Then you begin the various drills to cover different elements of the game, lay-ups, footwork, dribbling, passing…that’s pretty much the extent of my basketball knowledge but you get the idea!
At the end of the training session, you would probably play a short game within your team, and try to put all the new skills you have learnt in to context. This is similar to what your piano practice should look like.
When you have a league match however, that’s a different story. You try your best to implement the various tactics and techniques you have practiced, but you need to be in the moment. You can’t go back and fix that lay-up you started on the wrong foot.
You need to have your head in the game and power through. This is like playing the piano, or performing. It’s a completely different frame of mind and you need to recognise that.
Let’s take a look at that training session in more detail, and how we can apply this to piano practice time. The “warm-up” could be technical exercises, or scales. Stretches could literally be stretches such as those covered on the Busted Piano String blog, it’s just as important for a pianist to look after their small hand and finger muscles as it is for a basketball player to look after their large muscle groups.
Your drills will involve breaking down elements of a piece you are working on, to fix errors and analyse the techniques needed to play that section. After your drills, you should run through your piece, or a larger section of your piece, to put these newly acquired skills into context.
So while you’re going through all these stages, what are you really doing? Just going through the motions is a waste of time. These are the five things you should be doing when you are really practicing:
Don’t think about other things! Don’t plan your dinner for the evening, don’t worry about whether the traffic will make you late tomorrow, don’t wonder what will happen in the next series of House of Cards, just think about what you are doing right now.
Key to this is mixing up what you practice and how you practice. If you have a set routine that you stick to, if you simply repeat the bit you are working on lots of times, your mind is very likely to drift. So be inventive! Start in the middle, work backwards, play as fast as you can, play as slowly as you can; do anything that makes you consciously think about the task at hand.
Decide on a real and defined problem that you want to fix. This absolutely is not “I want to get better” or even “I want to be able to play the fourth bar up to tempo”. You need to get to the root of the problem. What is really happening in bar 4? Is the problem the fingering you’re using, a note you’re unsure of, or a leap that you haven’t mastered?
Figure out what the actual issue is, and then come up with a way to solve it. It can be useful to write down the problem once you know what it is, so you can hold yourself accountable and not allow yourself to play through it. Elissa Milne’s post ’13 mistakes pianists make’ may help you to diagnose the exact mistake you’re making.
Obviously you can’t get everything right the first time, but your focus should be on accuracy from the start. This includes all aspects of your playing, not just the right notes. You should be practicing in small enough sections, and at slow enough tempi that you can play it with the correct notes, rhythm, fingering, dynamics, and anything else notated.
If you concentrate on only notes in the beginning you are practicing and reinforcing incorrect rhythms that you will have to fix later. If you use a different fingering every time you play a passage, you are wasting precious practice time.
Active listening is so important. Listen to recordings of your piece by great performers and note what made it beautiful. Listen to amateurs and note what pitfalls they fell in to. Listen to the music you want to create in your mind, before you attempt to play it. Listen as you play for where the differences between your intending sound and the sound you are creating lie.
Finally, and potentially most importantly, practicing should be an inquisitive pursuit. Try out different techniques you could apply, test new styles you could use. Find your own personality in the music. Use the music to delve into new stories and convey emotions. Think about the tale behind the piece and how you can get that across in your playing.
My two new resources Playful Practice and Pensive Practice help you to experiment and stay in the moment while you’re practicing. Use these cards during your own practice time, or with your piano students to achieve great results, and ensure piano practice is a creative, enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Looking for more practice resources?
For more ideas about teaching practice a piece try these posts:
- Piano Practice Tips – In this post I share the top insights that I wish I understood 12 years ago, so that maybe you can avoid the mistakes I made.
- Piano Practice Kits – This is one of the most popular posts on Colourful Keys, with step by step instructions for creating your own practice kits for your students.
- Effective Piano Practice Series – This series of five blog posts explores strategies for tackling common practice issues such as metronome work, score study and memorisation.
- Summer Practice Quest – If you want to keep practice going during the summer break check out this free printable.
- The Challenge Board – My wall of fame keeps piano practice going year round in my studio (even with technical work)