What and How to Practise

mother and child at piano

learning to how to practise

Well here it is, the long awaited article of exactly how to practise. This is a biggie!!

We sign our child up for piano lessons and everything is happy ever after. Nope – it doesn’t work that way. Children have no idea how to practise. They may not touch the piano between lessons; or they fiddle about getting disheartened; or, if they are very keen, they will keep playing through their new piece hoping eventually it will sound right. Adult beginners are much the same. Sound familiar?

Did you know:

  • Children love it if you learn along with them and play together with them, duets or just the same notes. And don’t worry. If you are learning this can be very simple, but so much fun!
  • Success is achieved by a combination of quality and quantity. But at the start efforts may not be brilliant, so quantity may have to suffice until quality kicks in. Make sure your child has enough to practise to keep busy. Rote pieces can be great for this – yes, even chop-sticks!


lady playing piano with cat

Even adults need to learn to practise efficiently

  • Some children practise only one or two days for longer time, not realising that this strategy doesn’t work. Piano playing is a skill so half learning one day, forgetting, relearning the next day actually reenforces the process and gets best results. So at least 5 days a week to make good progress please.

For best results:

  1. Make sure your child knows what to practise – keep it simple – enjoy.
  2. Pieces should be practised in the head before playing. This saves children jumping in without thinking and is very successful.
  3. Longer pieces will probably have been broken into phrases by the teacher. Work on ONE phrase at a time. It doesn’t have to be the first phrase. I have been having great success by shutting the keyboard and helping the pupil memorise the piece before playing. This works so well if they really look. A phrase, if the right standard for them can be learned in as little as 5 minutes!!
  4. Repetition is an important part of learning. It needs to be done very deliberately to avoid mistakes creeping in. It should then be happily in long term memory, ready to call on when desired. I love this quote by Stephen Heller, a 19th century teacher and composer:

    The amateur practises until he gets it right. The professional practises until he cannot get it wrong.

To become a good practicer….. well you have to practise!

Why should my child practise?

Boy playing piano

starting to play

Let’s look at why practice is so necessary.

After years of teaching I know that to succeed in mastering the piano, three things are necessary:

  1. The determination to succeed
  2. Daily practice
  3. Good reading skills

If you are saying to your self, but my child doesn’t want to be a professional musician so there is no need to be practising long hours, you are only partly right.

Ponder these thoughts:

  1. How do you know that your child will not become super interested in music and want to take up music in some shape or form?
  2. Any amount of daily practice will give results if done regularly and with interest, but…
  3. Practice is only successful if it is done properly.

Children enjoy a challenge but most children don’t have a clue what they want to achieve or what to do at home.

This year I gave my students next year’s work before Christmas. Most welcomed the new challenges with great enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to get going. This suggests to me that the craving for new is a determining factor in the will to work. More about how to create interest in my next article. Let’s just talk a little about practice here.

  1. Your child should practise because playing the piano is a skill. The fingers and brain have to be trained to work together, just as you need to practise ball skills to succeed in that area. It is important to establish a practice routine right from the start of lessons.
  2. Your child should practise so that practising becomes a part of daily life, like brushing teeth. Even little children can be encouraged to play some pieces through each day in a fun way.
  3. Your child should practise everyday because establishing a routine is also easier for the parent to cope with. It just is – no questions.
  4. Your child should practise everyday because the amount of practice done determines the progress. But try not to watch the clock. Make practice goal-orientated.
  5. Your child should practise because not practising at all usually means an almost total lack of progress. Yes – unfortunately it is one after school activity that won’t happen by just turning up for lessons.
  6. Your child should practise to foster commitment which has a wonderful flow through into all other areas of endeavour.
Piano keys

practise means getting better and better

Parental attitude plays a big part in the progress of the child. Children are little clones of their parents until at least teens, and sometimes life long. You may not realise it but they pick up your attitudes like a sticky ball. Children will not like a piece if a parent doesn’t like it. If you want them to take music lessons but show no interest they will not be interested either.

If parents nag a child to practise but again show no interest, the child will not want to practise. Wild enthusiasm, interest and support give better results than nagging. And of course gently enforcing the practice routine.

The first thing parents should do each week is to check what their child is supposed to be practising. I write the weekly goals in a notebook. These are what should be achieved by the next lesson. But often I find the notebook has not been opened and the child has played old pieces all week. Parents can help a lot by keeping their child focused on what needs to be done.

The goals for the week are carefully chosen by the teacher to address the different aspects of learning the instrument. It might be finger training, looking for patterns in music, theory essential for playing, ear skills or improving reading skills. Challenges faced and overcome become a strength.

Left to their own devices many children will avoid aspects that they find not so interesting, thus causing weaknesses that can grow and become problems.

Practise takes effort and concentration but the results are enormous. Children can become addicted to the sheer success of hard work. Surely that can’t be all that bad! Why should your child practise regularly? Because without practice there will be no progress and they will fail to learn to play the piano. Learning to play is not just for the talented, but a wonderful achievement that anyone prepared to work can do.

Determination to Succeed

teenage girl playing pianoStudies have shown that effort, not talent lead to amazing results. 10,000 hours seems to be the magical number required for mighty achievement but steady, regular practice will lead to success.

To spend years mastering an instrument requires the child to have great determination. Support and encouragement are very necessary. Teacher, student and parent all play vital roles in the learning process.

Our greatest gift is not talent but our ability to learn.
Parents must create the desire, fuel the passion and give children the confidence that they can and will succeed.

“Quantities of quality practice can transform a person of seemingly average aptitude into a much improved and possibly outstanding performer’. Michael Griffin

Parental involvement is the key to the child’s success. To have determination the child must be excited about learning. They should also be encouraged to commit to learning for however long it takes. This is a hard lesson to learn, but a very valuable lesson crucial for achieving anything in life. The only way to learn about commitment is by committing. The piano is a very complex instrument to learn. If the child and parent are not sufficiently committed, as soon as there is the inevitable low point learning will stop. Children are learning about responsibilities in many areas. There is a requirement to complete school homework and do household chores. But parents may need to encourage their child to do these, and so it is with music. If there are family expectations for some things but not music, it gives a clear message that music learning is not important.

Children who make a long term commitment makes the greatest progress.

The parent must encourage but not criticise and look for opportunities for the child to play and perform. Once a child has tasted some success they will be unstoppable. Determination leads to success.

Recommended reading: Learning Strategies for Musical Success by Michael Griffin

Practice and the Beginner

Piano keys

practise means getting better and better

In these free and easy times when we love and respect our children and acknowledge their rights and feelings, it is sometimes hard to enforce the need for self-discipline in order to get homework and piano practice done. In music lessons I see many bright children who make very little progress from week to week. They have not yet realized that they should be practising their set work daily.

The need for daily practice applies to learning an instrument, a sport, a game; in fact any skill that needs to be mastered needs to be practised regularly if it is to be mastered.

Parents make two big mistakes:

1.  They don’t realize the need to practise in order to perfect a skill. Only a few become a professional footballer, or professional musician. Even just to learn an instrument for fun, a child needs to acquire some competence in order to gain much enjoyment.

2.  If the parent realizes the need for practice, they mistakenly think that children will organize their own practice – nothing could be further from the truth.

Your child should practise 20 minutes a day, 30 minutes by the time they have been learning a year. And no buts!! Children thrive on routines, they love to know that life has order, it makes them feel safe. Once a routine has been established it is as easy as brushing their teeth (and lots more fun!) You may need to help plan practice time, especially if your child seems to have finished everything in 5 minutes!

So here are some tips to help establish a practice routine:

1.  Find a set time to suit the child and the child’s age, so piano practice is not competing with a favourite television programme.

2.  Young children, even up to eight and nine will need you to take an active interest in their practice. Older children will still need you to make comments to show that you are interested, and make the whole thing have value for the child.

3.  Very young children, 4-8, will need you to be very enthusiastic and make the whole thing an enjoyable activity that you do together. Be gushy in your enthusiasm!

4.  Tape your child’s lesson so that it an be replayed and remembered later.

5.  Sing as you play together.

6.  Let an older child teach you! This will make them listen to the lesson so that they can teach and not disappoint you.

7.  Be endlessly supportive and encouraging, just how you were when your child was learning to talk.

8. Bribery works well! A sticker chart for good practice – small reward for so many stickers.

young girl excited at playing piano

I love piano!

Commit to giving your child the gift of music for life. Don’t be half-hearted. You invest a lot of money in lessons. Showing interest is the first step. Helping children organize practice is the next.

How to Help Your Child with Piano Practice

lady with girl playing piano

helping with practice

8 Ways to help your Child

  1.  Be enthusiastic! Show them that you think learning piano is very exciting and love everything they do.
  2. Anticipate your child’s ups and downs.  You may have to cajole them through the bad patches.
  3. Know when to help, when to support and encourage, and when to step back.
  4. Make practice a daily routine and make sure your child practises what they should be doing every week.
  5. Stress that they always need to be thinking what they want the piece to sound like.  What does it make them think of?  Make up little stories about the piece based on the sound.
  6. Encourage them to teach you!
  7. Keep your sense of humour when resolving practising issues.
  8. Always make it clear how proud you are of them.

8 Things to Avoid!!

  1. Try not to nag or sound irritated.  It is important to portray music always as a pleasurable activity.

    stressed lady

    stressed mum!

  2. Never belittle your child’s efforts!
  3. Avoid feeding your own ego through your child.
  4. Although it is good for a child to play in front of friends and relations if they wish, don’t push your child if they don’t want to.  This can lead to performance phobia later.
  5. Don’t worry about temporary lapses in practice, but do worry if the lapses are too often. For good progress to be made your child should be practising most days.
  6. Don’t threaten to stop lessons if they don’t practice. Learning piano is a long term goal. Encourage them to practise and ride it out. Otherwise you may have to carry out your threat!
  7. Don’t EVER criticize your child in the presence of others. Never make your child lose face. And don’t criticize your child in front of the teacher. This may undermine the relationship the teacher has been building up. Better to speak to the teacher privately.
  8. Don’t expect gratitude for letting your child take piano lessons. Your child has no idea of your sacrifice and it may be years later that gratitude is voiced.