How to FORCE Students into Section by Section Practice

I can tell my students to practice only section by section until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t control what really happens when they get home.

Practicing piano in sections

Section by section piano practice

They will still invariably waste endless practice hours playing the whole piece over and over from start to finish…slowly progressing. Two steps backward and three steps forward.

They engrain the mistakes. Learn the beginning better than any other part. And then get frustrated when a month later they are still playing wrong notes.

Ok, rant over. Time to take action.

Last month, I had a few students ready to start their pieces for their exams in May, and I decided to take an interesting (perhaps slightly zany) approach.

This is a great solution for intermediate students, but if you need something for beginners – you should try these practice step stickers. Perfect to get students off on the right foot with their piano practice.

Step 1: Lay the groundwork

Split up the piece into manageable sections. (Bach’s Prelude in F minor from WPC Book II is used as an example here). Try to start each section at a place that’s easy to play from. Phrase endings are the best choice if possible.

bach section by section

Step 2: Put down the foundation

Black out everything but the first and last sections and assign them for the student to practice. You could do this with post-its, cover the areas and photocopy, or use software on your computer.

bach section by section blocked

Step 3: Build it up brick by brick

Once you are satisfied that the first sections are learnt well, assign the next two sections, and so on. Make sure to continue to review previous sections as you go.

bach section by section blocked2 bach section by section blocked3

bach section by section blocked4 bach section by section blocked5

bach section by section blocked6

I prefer going from the start and end towards the middle. This way you know the start and finish of a performance will be the most secure and convincing.

Eventually the sections meet in the middle which can be very satisfying after all that hard work.

What do you think? Too controlling?

For me the proof is in the pudding. This strategy is extremely effective for tackling a challenging piece (at whatever level). I don’t mind being the “bad guy” once in a while if it teaches my students to practice smarter!

If you’re looking for more ways to get your students practicing smarter, not longer, check out Playful Practice and Pensive Practice, the cards that inspire creative practice time!

9 thoughts on “How to FORCE Students into Section by Section Practice”

    • Thanks Julie! I actually use design software as that’s what I’m comfortable with, but you could equally do this in a free program like microsoft paint. You could also use powerpoint if you have that, just draw rectangles over the sections you want to cover.

  1. I recently discovered the Philip Johnston “Bootcamp Editions” of various classic pieces. They not only force the student to work in sections like this but also give them Quests (practical and effective practice tools) to achieve with each one before they can level-up to the next section. The kids feel like they are winning a video game when they beat the section and move on! I LOVE these editions! One of my good students (who also happens to be a bit addicted to playing computer games) was having a nightmare time with Bach’s “La Caroline” so we went back to square one and started with the Bootcamp Edition. So far so good. I have another who wants to play Heller’s “L’Avalanche” for Festival this year and we are just about to get started with the Bootcamp Edition; I have high hopes for a big breakthrough.

  2. This is a great idea, thank you. Any tips on how to deal with students who are good at memorising an just play from the beginning regardless – or do you find that’s not an issue when they are presented with just the section in question as you suggest?

    • You mean they can play by ear the whole way through? Or that they’re just memorising? Because if they’re memorising and you use this section idea they won’t be able to memorise the whole thing, only the bits they’re working on. So it shouldn’t be an issue.


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