Points for Productive Practice

I once had a piano student who assured me each lesson that she practiced a full hour every day.  I was mystified.  How could such a bright little girl practice for hours a week and make zero progress?  I asked her mother what was going on, and she assured me that her daughter went into the piano room at the same time every day after school and played for an hour.  How can it be, I thought, that such diligence produces such meager results?  Maybe this child isn’t as bright as she seems.  However, when I pressed my little pupil for the details of her daily practice sessions, what she said told me that, although she was pressing hundreds of keys in great earnest during her “practice times”, she was certainly not doing anything like practicing.  She was merely going through the motions, hacking her way through her assignments and never correcting her mistakes, and playing many things that I had never assigned her.  The result was no progress.

If you want to be good at any skill, you have to practice that skill; but once you begin to practice, you soon realize that practicing itself is a skill that you must acquire.  You either learn how to practice smart, or you waste huge amounts of time “practicing” and getting nowhere, like my little scholar.   Let me share some things that will help any piano student (or cello student, or violin student, or student of any instrument for that matter) make practice more profitable.

Schedule A Regular Time.  The same time each day is ideal.  If you keep your scheduled time consistently, it will become almost second nature for you to think, “Practice,” when that time rolls around.  Other people will get to know when you practice, and they will be less inclined to ask you to do something that would interrupt that time.  I heard someone say once that “If you don’t plan your time, someone else will do it for you.” When you have no time-plan, you will drift in and out of things like a leaf blowing in the wind.  You will often be at the whim of other people who may not be trying to take advantage of you, but who, because you seem to be without direction most of the time, don’t understand that you really do have important things to do.  You will get little done this way except what others have planned for you; and they would, no doubt, be mortified if they discovered that they had put you to such an imposition.  Be kind to yourself, and to your family, and to your friends.  Get a schedule.  That way you can honestly say, “Well, I practice from three to four, but could we do your thing at 4:05 instead of at three-thirty?”

One more thing.  Do keep your practice schedule, but don’t be absolutely rigid and selfish about it.  There will always be times when the need of a friend is far more important than your schedule.

Have A Plan.  Avoid going into your practice time like a man driving from Kalamazoo to Mayberry without a roadmap.  Have in mind two or three goals that you want to accomplish that day.    Remember that when you set a goal, you are planning not only what you want to accomplish, but how you want to accomplish it.  Let’s say that you are just beginning to learn Bach’s “Two-Part Invention Number One.”  You might think, I’m going to get an overview of this composition by playing it through very slowly.  Then I want to learn the last four measures by playing each hand separately and then playing them together.  You have just set two goals that will, if you stick with them, keep you from wandering hither and yon in your practice and lead to real accomplishment.

Mark Your Music. This would include things like fingerings, interpretive markings that are not already in the music, cue markings, analysis markings (form, scales, chords and arpeggios, themes), and questions you want to ask your teacher at your next lesson.  It is a frustrating waste of time to have a flash of interpretive inspiration, or to come up with a solution to a difficult fingering problem, and then forget it because you didn’t write it in your music.`

Practice Slowly. This is an ancient bit of wisdom.  It has been around at least as long as I have, and probably much longer.  I learned it from Golde Gollup, my piano professor at Chicago Musical College.  (I hope I am spelling her name correctly.)  Some students referred to her as “Crippled Fingers” because of her rigid expectations, but I learned more from her than from any other piano teacher I ever had.  Her insistence on meticulous, slow practice resulted in progress that I had never thought possible.

Here is how it works.  Take a piece that you are learning and, using your metronome, find a tempo at which you can play the entire composition with no mistakes, with correct fingering, dynamics, articulations, and everything else you want encrypted into your playing of that piece.  Then move your metronome dial up one notch and learn to play the piece perfectly at that new tempo.  Repeat this process until you arrive at the tempo you want to master.  It takes a little patience, but if you persevere, you will find your progress gratifying.

Do the Hated Things First.  I am thinking of scales, chords, arpeggios, theory, a piece of music you don’t like or that you find very difficult, and studies like Hanon and Grieg.  Most of my students say, “Blugh,” to these things, but if you will follow my rule and practice hated things first, your enjoyment of practice times will increase, and your progress will too.  As you move through a practice session this way, you will be playing more and more of what you enjoy.  You may even find yourself practicing longer than usual because you don’t have the morbid prospect of playing scales after you are finished with the beautiful piece that you love.  You have already done the hated stuff, and you don’t need do it again until the next time.  But there is another even better benefit.  By doing the hated things first, you will actually be practicing things that will make you a better piano player instead of avoiding them, and you will perform the things that you love to play better than you ever thought you could, and you will enjoy them all the more!

Finally, Learn from the End to the Beginning.  Do you remember that under the heading, “Have a Plan,” you set a goal for learning the last four measures of the Bach first?  Well, do that on all your pieces.  It will have the same psychological benefit that doing “the hated thing first” does.  I have seen students get so bogged down in a piece they are studying that they never get around to mastering the end of it.  At recital time they begin their selection with a confident bluster, only to conclude with an embarrassed whimper.

There is just something about learning a piece from the beginning to the end that makes the ending seem so far away, and as you play it each day, you just play worse and worse as you go farther and farther into the composition.  But if you learn your piece from the ending, when you play it each day, you play it better as you go.  You may even finish with a flourish, which makes learning the next four measures closer the beginning seem really possible.

I hope these pointers that I have learned over the years help you, but please don’t stop here.  Go online.  Search “How to Practice Piano.”  Some of what you’ll discover will repeat what I have said, but I am sure that you will find someone who will show you something that has never occurred to me.  Keep learning.