Everybody is under intense time pressure these days, and musicians are no exception. In reply to the many requests about efficient piano practice, here are some of my tips that can help you make the most of your practice time.
1. Don’t Practice For Too Long
Everyone is different and we all have limitations when it comes to concentration. Some can concentrate for longer periods than others, and you should be able to find out your own limit, and realize when your concentration is dipping. That is the time to stop, have a break, go for a walk, etc.
The best practice is highly concentrated, where you are constantly thinking about everything you are doing, and there is no daydreaming whatsoever. Personally, I find 45-60 minutes to be an ideal length of time for each session and I will do 4 – 5 sessions a day depending on my workload of pieces. Another strategy to focus your practice sessions is to use what is called the “Pomodoro technique” where you focus and practice for 25 minutes on one thing then take a 3-5 minute break. You can use this break to walk around and analyze if you need another 25 minutes on what you previously practiced or if you’re ready to move on.
2. Get Organized
Practicing the piano efficiently is really about how to organize oneself to get the best results from the effort expended. It’s essential to be very clear about our daily practice objectives. Many students find that writing a daily practice plan helps them to focus on their most important practice tasks and gives them a feeling of accomplishment as they complete each one. Teachers can write plans for beginning students so that they know exactly what to focus on at home.
3. Don’t Allow Yourself the ‘Luxury’ of Mistakes
Mistakes cost far too much time to repair and only create uncertainty, whereas your practice ought to build security. Remember, your performance is a direct result of how you practice, and efficient piano practice means playing correctly. If you start making mistakes, it means either that you’re going too fast to learn the music or that your brain is tired. If that’s the case, it’s best to take a break and do something – anything else. Go back to where you heard mistakes or stop when you know you’ve made one and circle that spot. Repeat that area (or loop as I call it) until it is fixed and then incorporate it into the other measures.
4. Variety is the Spice of Life
When practicing scales, play each hand with a different touch (e.g. in a Bach 2-Part Invention, play one hand staccato, the other legato etc). Try emphasizing the third beat of every bar when it would be normally on the second, change the shape of your phrases, try playing it at double speed – play musical games with yourself. Play in contrary motion starting on the same note.
In unison, fast semiquaver passages – try crossed hands both ways. This forces the left hand to stop being a passenger, and become a leader, therefore becoming stronger and more independent. This is where playing scales in this way comes in handy!
5. Without Pedal
Try practicing at half-speed without the pedal. While you are trying to make it sound less lumpy and more linear, you will be constantly forced to think of the next note and you will achieve a smoother legato. Say the notes to yourself as you play them — whether out loud or just in your head — obviously easier when you are playing it slower.
6. Practice What You CAN’T Play
This may seem like a no brainer, but most students end up practicing what they can already play, which is just a waste of time. They do this because it’s enjoyable to play something you’re confident in and get the gratification from it instead of doing the hard thing. Circle the parts that you can’t get through and LOOP those measures over and over and over again until it’s smooth. Do not move on to the next until that one is fixed. Eventually, one by one, you will fix the whole page and the whole song. Remember, there’s a difference between playing and practicing.
7. Adhere to What is Written
Firstly, try to use the written fingering, as someone has taken the trouble to work it out for you, but this is a one-size-fits-all approach and might not suit everyone, so don’t be afraid to change it if it really doesn’t work for your hand size. Look at all the information on the page: if the phrasing, dynamics, etc are the composer’s, then this should be adhered to – it is punctuation and gives the music meaning.
8. Start Slowly and Analyze Everything
I have come to realize that the slower, more pragmatic the approach to learning a piece results in learning it better and ultimately faster. Treat yourself as an idiot and do not take anything for granted. I often work out where unexpected notes are first, and circle them in pencil on the score. I will write in the names of very high or low notes, rather than count the ledger lines each time. To familiarize yourself with broken chords and arpeggios, write in the names of the harmonies. If you recognize any scales, write them in. Analyze the harmonic structure of the music. Find patterns, matching bars and phrases – this will also help you to memorize the piece later on.
Once you start to learn the piece, practice under tempo until you are familiar with all the notes. Do not be tempted to play through the piece a tempo straight away. You could end up practicing playing the piece incorrectly, and bear in mind it is very difficult and time consuming to unlearn mistakes.