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!!

Mistake number one: 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?

As a teacher I have perhaps been slow to pick up why beginners struggle, but now I’m onto it and between us, we can make a difference.

If you have read the last few articles you will be only too aware of the need to fuel enthusiasm and encourage commitment and determination. But if you tie them to the piano, lock the door and throw away the key or, joking apart, they are now super keen we will still not see results if they are practising in the wrong way.

Success is achieved by a combination of quality and quantity. A good mix develops expertise. Remember those 10,000 hours if you want to be really good. But hey, quite good results can be got by practising 5-6 days a week in the right way. Watching the clock is not necessarily good as half the mind is on the clock, and practising takes a lot of concentration. Goal-orientated practice is the way to go!

lady playing piano with cat

Even adults need to learn to practise efficiently

Deliberate practice is quality practice. It requires intense thoughtful study and skill building. How long? – as long as it takes to achieve the goal for the day. It can be absorbing, but needs to be done in bite-sized pieces. As children reach the metacognitive stage they learn to identify errors and can start to understand what they might do to put things right. They start to build their own learning strategies. Children who are unable to apply strategies do no make progress.

Can you see now that has practice requires thinking to be successful, just playing through pieces is a total waste of many hours of time (mistake number two!)

Mistake number 3: 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.

For best results:

  1. Check the goals for the week (I write these in a notebook which should be looked at each day). These goals can be broken up if necessary and allotted to different days. PLEASE NOTE: many children will need help reading the goals, even children who can read exciting stories very well. And children up to the age of at least 10 should be helped to practise.
  2. New pieces should be “scouted”. All the features of the piece should be found and ticked off.
  3. The piece 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. Do learn each hand separately before putting together. If done phrase at a time, this should take no time at all. The third step is memorising hands together.
  5. Repetition is an important part of learning, but should only be done when the phrase has been properly learned, hopefully by the above method. Repetition is then very important for training the muscle/brain connections. It need 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.

  6. Nothing about learning the piano should be rushed or done mindlessly. If there is follow-up theory to do, make sure sheets are not done until the facts are grasped. A last minute scribble in the car before the lesson does not really cut it.

So there you have it. Not very difficult really, but to become a good practicer….. well you have to practise. I will leave you with this thought, practice is most effective when it is systematic, structured, goal-orientated and thoughtful. After all, it’s your money!