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!

Memorisation

happy girl reading book

memorising away from piano

One of my teaching resolutions this year is to put more emphasis on memorization.  This skill is too easily dismissed as a talent.  Either you can or you can’t.  To be honest that rather sums up my pupils at the moment.  Some are frightened to take their heads out of the book, while others seem to memorize everything effortlessly.  Unfortunately this memorization is not always secure, so there is a danger of spending many hours relearning the seemingly easily-memorized piece.

Memorizing is one of those aspects of teaching that I used to teach, but over the years it has been squeezed out because of the pressure of time. And memorising is achievable by all, and is able to be taught.

I was reminded of this special skill  when one of my post-exam students was given the task of memorizing the first section of Beethoven’s Op13 last movement.  We talked about the how and she then came back the next week with the section memorized.  This was not too unusual, as she is one who fits into the category of a quick memoriser.  What was pleasing was that she volunteered the information that she really felt she knew the section so well and was looking forward to applying the same method to the next section. Wow!

The trick is to be able to visualise the music, as well as using the physical memory of  the passage.  Too often good memorisers rely too much on the physical memory but quickly forget a piece when it is not played for a while.

Here’s how I teach memorization.  Although it sounds very long-winded, it shows results in a remarkably short time and, with practice, pieces can be memorized effortlessly and in a very short time.  It is all about “chunking”, the short-term to long-term memory process. As experience and knowledge increase, the brain is able to take into short term memory more information at a time, thus speeding up the learning process.  Once absorbed and processed, information is then sent to the more permanent long-term memory, so can be recalled easily and without thought.  (I know that is very simplified so please forgive!)

These are the steps I use.  This is not the only way, but it works very well for me.

  1. Take a short part of the piece, it maybe a section, or one or two phrases and should not be more than a page.
  2. Learn RH slowly and thoroughly noting the correct notes, rhythm and fingering, dynamics and phrasing.  I like to get my pupils to do this away from the piano as they look more thoroughly when the fingers are not itching to play!  Once all is correct, play until secure, This can take as little as 5 minutes!
  3. Learn LH in the same way.
  4. Once both hands are securely memorised, the same should be done hands together.  This will involve different problems but, as both hands are thoroughly known, the look and feel of the complete piece is more easily learned.
  5. Put music away and play!
  6. Rinse and repeat with each phrase, not necessarily in any order.

This whole process can be achieved remarkably quickly and with practice can be done very quickly.  The advantages of learning this way are huge.  The mind is freed to express the meaning of the piece, explore universal and individual feelings and meanings.