Practice Smart, Not Hard!
10 Practice strategies for piano students from beginner to advanced.
There’s so much more to practicing than repetition. While repetition is the cornerstone of mastering any skill, it is not the only technique for practicing piano. Following are my best suggestions for making your practice efficient and saving you time and energy while mastering your music.
Okay, repetition is the first technique on the list. It has to be. Without repetition, our fingers and our brains won’t have the skills to play fluently. Research shows that we learn most efficiently with short, frequent practice sessions. This is the most commonly used technique for learning a piece of music but it is only the beginning.
2. HANDS SEPARATELY, THEN HANDS TOGETHER
This is another very familiar practice technique that breaks down the piece by right hand and left hand and makes it more accessible. It is a foundational practice technique that provides scaffolding for students who are overwhelmed or getting too frustrated with their piece.
Chunking is when you practice “chunks” of the music one section at a time. This is a good technique to use when first learning a new piece, especially a challenging piece. Begin with just the first section, typically 16-32 measures and play only that section until it feels comfortable. Then go to the next section. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can learn a piano piece using this technique.
4. WORKING BACKWARDS
Most of the time, the first section of the piece is the best because we always start at the beginning and we tend to play the first section more. In addition, much of our music returns to the A section in the end giving us even more practice on it. Sometimes, the best way to master a piece is to begin with the most difficult section and work our way backwards to the beginning of the piece. This gives our brains and our fingers the time they need on the less familiar parts of the piece.
5. SLOW PRACTICE
This is a common technique where the tempo of the piece is slowed so that all of the notes and rhythms can be played accurately and comfortably in time. This technique takes a lot of patience because it often means playing an entire section or piece under tempo for just a few measures that are tricky. Your patience will be well rewarded if you utilize slow practice because it perfects note accuracy and rhythm.
6. SPOT PRACTICE
SO much time can be wasted if students do not use this technique. Spot practice is my name for isolating the notes or measures that always have mistakes. Often times, it is in the middle of the piece when the B section begins. Young students, especially, resist doing spot practice because they like playing the entire sequence of notes. But when you return to the beginning of the piece every time you make a mistake, you are NOT practicing the part of the piece that needs practice the most. Think carefully about the exact notes or measures that are giving you trouble and go straight to those parts of the score. SKIP the familiar passages until you have done “spot practice”. You don’t really need to practice the measures that are already smooth. Practice efficiently by focusing on only the trouble spots.
This technique is similar to spot practice. When “looping”, the player repeats one or more measures in a “ sound loop” until those measures are smooth. I often use looping right after spot practice because it allows me to incorporate the trouble spots into a bigger section of the piece. A key piece of looping is not to stop. This will make your trouble spots melt away.
This is something few young pianists do. Take a few minutes to analyze the theory behind your piece. Notice what scales and chords the composer has used to build the piece. Find places where the rules of theory don’t apply. Accidentals, for instance, don’t fit into the given key but add color and interest to the piece. After analyzing your piece, not only will you understand the piece on a deeper level, you will master it more quickly because you recognize the building blocks of the piece. This reduces the amount of work and thought you put into reading the notes. You will also find it much easier to memorize your piece!
Outlining is a word that I use for playing only specific parts of the measure. For example, playing only the “together” notes and leaving out everything else. Or, playing only the first beat of the measure. This is a great way to strengthen note reading because it forces the student to scan everything quickly and figure out what to leave out. It is also helpful for maintaining a steady beat and keeping the rhythm of the piece moving forward. Using this technique can be quite a challenge, but if you think of it as a game it can also be very fun.
I learned the “splashing” technique from my piano professor in college, and he got it from his piano professor. So, I don’t claim the name for myself. The idea behind splashing is rhythmic flow. Don’t even try to get the notes correct, only the rhythm. This is another way to scaffold the learning by eliminating the note accuracy and focusing only on the rhythms in the hands and coordinating between left, right, and together. When you try this technique, you’ll find out how freeing it is to not have to get stuck on perfect note reading. Once the rhythms are flowing, go back and check for note accuracy.
The more advanced you become as a pianist, the more of these techniques will be useful to you. As you explore them in your practice you will find that they really do save you time and energy. And that allows you all the more time and energy for sharing your music with others.