Every piano student knows that practice is a necessary part of musical development. If you attend regular lessons, you will have had this fact drilled into you week after week. However, what many students (and even many teachers) don’t reflect on enough, is the art of practice itself. It’s easy to tell ourselves that we must practice and put the hours in every week, but it is more difficult to know how we are to practice to get the best results. Whatever amount of time we are practicing for, we need to be sure that we are using the time to our advantage. So much time can be wasted in practice sessions, due to lack of goal setting, a haphazard approach to learning new material, and just playing through music we are already comfortable with. Below I will be offering five clear practice strategies that you can use in your daily practice. If you make these techniques habitual, you will see a huge increase in your progress.
1) Break down your music in to small sections
One of the first things you should do is to break your piece down into small chunks. For example you could break the music up in to four or two bar sections and number then. By thinking of the piece as having musical sentences you could also break it down into individual phrases. The reason for this is to be able to practice the piece in manageable chunks. One of the biggest mistakes musicians can make when practicing is to start a piece at the beginning and play it through to the end, but our brains can only truly process a small amount of new information and retain it at one time. By breaking the piece down into smaller parts, you will learn the piece in a more thorough way and it will give yourself more time to process the new information.
2) Slow practice
Piano teachers will often talk about slow practice, and for very good reasons. At first glance ‘slow practice’ might seem like a strange concept, after all, don’t we want to be improving fast? Surely if we practice slowly aren’t we wasting time? Precisely the opposite is true. Slow practice is a non-negotiable part of learning a piece well. If we are learning a new piece that we really love, sometimes our desire to be able to play it straight away can really hold us back. Slow practice requires patience and restraint, and for some, this is a real struggle. It is quite possible that you can fumble your way through a piece quite quickly, but the problem is your mind and body will not have truly processed the music, and it is most likely you won’t have a deep understanding of the music as well. Slow practice allows the brain to gradually process what is going on.
The first step to getting slow practice right, is to begin by getting an idea of what tempo the piece should be at full speed. Look for any tempo or performance directions on your music, and try and find the appropriate speed with your metronome. If it has a moderate or slow tempo, you might want to reduce it to half the speed. If it is a faster piece, maybe even three quarters. Whatever you are practicing, you need to start at these drastically slower tempos. When you feel like you have mastered the particular passage you are working on and have done your repetitions successfully (more on this later), you can then increase the tempo by 5-10 beats, until you eventually reach the desired tempo. Make sure your slow practice is just as musical as it would be if you were playing it at the original speed. Pay attention to phrasing and dynamics. There is little point in playing a phrase slowly in a mechanical manner and then adding on these musical aspects after the fact. All these elements must be there from the very beginning.
3) Hands separately practice
There is some debate in the piano world about whether pianists should practice with both hands straight away, or to practice with separate hands and then hands together. Even so, the majority of pianists, recommend to make sure you can play the left and right hand parts on their own before bringing them together. The main benefits of this approach are that you don’t have to concentrate on too many notes at once and it gives you opportunity to really shape the individual lines and phrases in both hands. Ultimately it doesn't really matter which hand you choose to begin working on, though I would say that because the left hand is naturally the weaker hand, and often gets neglected, I would recommend beginning with the left hand. Only when you have mastered your left hand parts should you begin to put them together. Separate hand practice allows you to pay closer attention to the sound of each musical thread before joining them together.
There is a saying that goes "Don't practice until you get it right. Practice till you can't get it wrong." This is wise advice for all musicians. It’s easy after all our hard efforts to be satisfied with playing something right once and then moving on to something else. This is a big mistake. If you manage to play something right once that’s great, but you could have just got lucky. Playing a passage right the first time is where the real work begins. This is where repetition comes in. Different teachers may specify a different number of repetitions, but I would recommend three repetitions at minimum or up to six if you’re really patient! The idea is fairly commonsensical: you should try to repeat the short passage you are working on three times in a row without any mistakes. A fun way of doing this is to get three small objects (like a bunch of coins) and place them on one side of the piano. Every time you do a successful repetition you can move one coin to the other side of the piano until all of the objects end up on the opposite side. But if you do a repetition wrong, then you must start back at the beginning and all the coins must go back across. This may seem silly but it’s an active way to physically represent your repetitions. The bottom line is, if you can play something several times in a row consistently right, that is a good sign that you have mastered it.
You should use repetition in your slow practice and hands separately and hands together practice. By that I mean, first you do your repetitions at an appropriately slow tempo with each hand separately (three repetitions of each hand) and then three repetitions with hands together. Again, every repetition should be musical and deliberate. Play each phrase with dynamics, articulation, and phrasing in mind.
5) Addressing tricky passages
The last practice strategy to mention is one on how to deal with tricky passages in a piece. For most of us there is always that small part we consistently get wrong no matter how hard we try. If there is an area that you are struggling with, be quick to identify exactly where it is, and if possible why the mistake is being made. It could be the case that you are playing too fast, or playing with tension. By isolating the problem areas, we are more likely to solve the problem. These problem areas need special attention, and so we need to put some extra practice in to them. One of the best things to do is to circle or bracket this spots with a pencil so they are clearly identified. Every time you sit down and practice, play these tricky passages before launching into the full piece. Use your energy and concentration efficiently by focusing on the hardest parts first. When the tricky passages show improvement, you can then put the passage back into its larger musical context.
In summary, I would strongly encourage you to adopt these five tried and tested practice strategies into your own routines. Don't just use them occasionally. Try to make them part of your musical habits. If you aren't used to some of these methods, it may take a while at first to make these a natural and instinctive part of your practice, but if you persevere, these practice strategies will yield some long lasting results.
You can read more of Joshua's blogs on his website here.