9 Essential Tips For Smart Piano Practice
Sidney Harrison, author of The Young Person’s Guide To Playing The Piano, once asked an infant prodigy “how much do you practice?” The answer came back, “as much as I need”. An admirable sentiment, but while piano professionals can spend as long as it takes to get a piece up scratch, some of us don’t have endless hours in the day to practice, so how can we make the most out of the limited time we have to spend?
1. Schedule your piano practice
It may sound a bit obvious, but it’s important whenever possible to schedule regular slots for piano practice. Randomly fitting practice sessions around your other daily activities won’t always work, especially when time is in short supply. Having a regular time that you know is dedicated to piano practice will help you focus on the work in hand and it will also become known by your family, flatmates etc not to make demands on you at this special time. Many people find the morning to be the best time, as the mind and body are fresh, but if this isn’t possible, choose a time when you’re not absolutely exhausted from a long day, or when the brain & fingers aren’t being slowed down by after-work drinks!
2. Planning practice sessions
Many musicians like to write a plan for their practice sessions. It certainly helps to identify goals and have a series of practice routines to help you reach them. If writing lists helps to do this better for you, then it might be a good idea, right? You could even tick off each task as it’s completed, increasing your feeling of satisfaction as the list is worked through.
3. Mental preparation
Even 10 minutes of fully concentrated practicing is better than hours of twiddling about aimlessly on the keyboard. Again the key word here is ‘focus’. Once you’ve planned your goals for this practice session, switch off the phone, TV, radio etc, maybe close the door or make sure that the space you’re in is otherwise clear of distractions, then give full attention to your practice. Avoid ‘mechanical practicing’ – repetition of the same material in exactly the same way without paying full attention, changing things that don’t work, or not even noticing if you’re reaching your goals or not.
4. Warming up and other physical aspects of piano practice
There is some thought that using yoga or sports related stretching exercises prior to piano practice is beneficial. I’ve even read that dipping the forearms in warm water will help to literally ‘warm up’ the arms. Others use the term simply to mean finger exercises such as scales and arpeggios leading up to the main practice session. My own take is that it’s no bad thing to prepare your body for intensive muscular work, paying further attention during your session to maintaining good posture, relaxation of the shoulders, good breathing, correct arm and hand placement etc. Although I have no affiliation to the author of it, I’ve found this video containing exercises for piano players quite informative. I personally also perform some specialised light strengthening exercises with 1kg and 2kg weights regularly at the gym, which I shall make the subject of another post.
5. One at a time please!
Now we’re down to the nitty gritty and actually working through our practice session, it’s good to approach the task methodically. Flitting indecisively from your Keith Jarrett transcription to your Chopin will only end up in neither piece receiving the attention it deserves. Much better to decide on a short passage from one of the pieces for that day and work on that portion slowly until it’s completed. If your practice list includes some scales, Hanon exercises AND the Jarrett, then include these if you’ve got the time.
6. Accuracy over speed
Yes of COURSE you want to learn the piece as quickly as possible, but even if you can KIND OF play it all the way through with just a couple of stops (to get the fingering right, or to tackle that tricky passage), it’s going to save you time in the long run to just concentrate on a short section and really nail it. Why not start with the most difficult sections first? Run each one slowly and deliberately and don’t move on until you’ve got it. Sometimes I choose just a bar, or even a fraction of a bar to work on (sometimes even one note), so don’t feel that it’s wrong to work in small sections. Play slightly over the beginning & ends of each section, so you can practice joining it up with the rest of the piece.
7. Mistakes are never ‘OK’
While I allow the freedom to make ‘mistakes’ during improvisation practice (although arguably in this context there is no such thing), when preparing a pre-written piece for performance, it’s never cool to just ‘let things slide’. By practicing mistakes into your piece, you’re setting up a long hard task for yourself later on when they need to be ironed out. They also create uncertainty, which it is your job to get rid of as part of your practice routine. Remember, by playing slowly and accurately, focusing hard on the passage, you’ll build a strong foundation that will be hard to shake, even when you’re nervous during a live performance.
8. Keeping a record/practice diary
Recording your sessions is always a good idea. I use a dictation app on my iPhone, which I can then load into iTunes at the end of my practice to listen to myself. It’s surprising how some important stuff can slip past our radar, even if we’re concentrating hard. By recording practice sessions, you can monitor your progress and be more aware of the work that still needs doing. Some people keep a diary with strict times allocated for each part of the practice session, the idea being that sticking to this schedule can help you to focus harder on each section.
9. Mental practice
I’ve lost count of the number of times I mentally run a difficult passage I’m wrestling with while sitting on the bus, or going about one of the mundane chores of the day. When I’ve come back to that passage next day, it’s as if there had been a whole other practice session that I didn’t know about – everything seems to come much more easily to me and very often this process has completely solved the problem! It’s totally possible to practice even when you’re not in front of the piano, once you’ve worked out your solutions to difficult passages, you can run the process through in your mind.
Gyorgy Sandor in his excellent book ‘On Piano Playing‘ likens a piano performance to the tip of an iceberg and the practice leading up to it as the “immense and invisible bulk” of the iceberg underneath the surface. There’s nothing quite so satisfying (well, not much anyway) as finishing a piece and performing it to an enthusiastic audience. Practicing is a real craft, working to minimise effort, maximise efficiency and digging deep inside for inspiration to produce the best performance. Hopefully you’ve picked up some useful tips from this article, do feel free to leave a comment below and let me know how you’ve got on.