Top 10 Tips For Better Piano Practice
Practice makes perfect. You’ve heard this time and time again. The saying is completely true, practice really does make perfect.
More time spent practising is not always the answer
Whilst legendary pianists like Beethoven and Chopin practised relentlessly for many, many hours, every single day, the amount of time spent rehearsing the piano is not the most important factor to success.
Some students practice for two hours, or more, a day and get frustrated when they don’t notice any improvements. These students are making the mistake of confusing quantity with quality.
You could rehearse for 10 hours a day if you wanted to. If you’re not implementing quality you’re your practice, you won’t improve. It’s a sad but harsh reality.
Good practice is quality practice
If your practice is high quality, you will learn much faster and become a proficient pianist in no time.
So, what exactly makes quality piano practice? What steps can you take to improve faster? How do you get the most out of your practice time?
“You can’t hire someone to practice for you.” H. Jackson Brown Jr.
Here are some proven tips for better piano practice. Enjoy.
1. Have a goal for each practice session
Each time you practice the piano, have a clear measurable goal in mind of what you want to achieve.
You don’t just go down to the shops because you feel like it, you have the clear goal in mind of buying eggs and milk. A goal is incredibly important for focus and motivation during practice. If you have no target to aim at, you’ll go into practice demotivated and without a purpose.
Do you want to learn a new scale and be able to play it with both hands? Do you want to learn bars 16-24 of an exam piece? Is your goal to work out awkward fingering on a tricky passage? Do you need to recap each arpeggio you’ve learnt so far?
Each practice session goal should contribute to a larger goal
Accomplishments in the practice room should have a wider context, bigger than a single practice session individually. There should always be a big goal in mind, like passing a music exam or performing a piece to an audience.
For example, a practice session spent learning the first few bars in an exam piece will contribute to a much larger goal of playing the finished piece and getting a good exam grade. Thinking about the practice session in relation to the larger goal can encourage you to focus on quality, well-structured practice.
Make sure you have a goal for each practice session.
2. Properly organise your practice space
If your practice space isn’t organised properly, there’s a good chance you won’t practice properly either.
Remove all distractions
Firstly, remove all distractions from immediate access. Leave your mobile phone in another room, turn the TV off and put your laptop away. You don’t want anything to tempt your attention away from practice.
If you live with others like family or friends, politely inform them you’ll be practising the piano for the next hour or so and that you won’t be available. It sounds unnecessary, but many quality practice sessions are interrupted or cut short by someone entering the room and diverting the pianist’s attention.
Have your resources readily available
Make sure everything you need for a decent practice session is within easy reach and in a proper system. Place books on or near the piano in order, so you know how to find each book as you need it.
For example, you could categorise books into exams, exercises, songbooks, warm-ups, scales and arpeggios, and aural books.
When practising a certain phrase in a piece, it’s common to find a certain fingering pattern which works best for you. Ensure you have access to sharp pencils and rubbers to quickly jot down notes during practice.
You don’t want to risk getting distracted by wandering upstairs to try and find a pencil, only to start watching TV or talking to a family member.
Properly organise your practice space. Have all your resources readily available and remove all distractions.
3. Warm up before the main practice begins
Playing the piano is a huge physical workout for the body. You use muscles in the arms, shoulders, wrists, and the fingers. It’s important you warm yourself up before a practice session and don’t throw yourself into a complex piece cold.
Think of athletes. Do you think they rock up to the track, slip their running shoes, and sprint for 200 metres? Of course not! They warm up all body parts they will be using so they perform as best they can and, more important, don’t injure themselves.
Pianists are like athletes. They need to warm up too.
Warming up loosens up the muscles and the joints promote blood circulation and prepare the body for the movement which practice entails.
Start with exercises and stretches, for the fingers, away from the piano. When they feel looser, progress onto the piano and start lightly going through some scales, arpeggios, or a few light exercises.
After 5-10 minutes, you should feel warmed up and ready to get stuck into a quality practice session.
4. When working on a piece, focus on fixing errors. Don’t just play through the music.
A common mistake all pianists have made at some point in their musical lives. When we practice a piece, it’s tempting to just play straight through it and sail past any errors which were made.
Though this might feel like practice, it isn’t. It’s merely playing through a piece. Truly practising a piece means learning each part of the music carefully, working on technical difficulties which crop up, finding the proper fingering that works for you, and so on.
Focus on fixing whatever needs improvement. It may be a slow, painstaking process, but that’s what practice is all about. Making small improvements, honing your technique, perfecting small phrases.
Doing so not only makes the piece sound beautiful, but you’ll also become a much better player.
If you don’t fix errors when they crop up, you will fall into bad habits
Make sure you don’t keep playing a difficult part incorrectly, time and time again. Getting it wrong isn’t fun, but not fixing the error immediately will have negative consequences further on down the line.
Each time you knowingly play the error, you are committing it to your muscle memory. This means it will be extremely hard to unlearn the error in place for the correct way to play the part.
Fix bad habits before they form when practising a piece. It will pay off in the long run.
5. Consistency is key. Practice every day
It’s no good practising for 45 minutes one day then 10 minutes two days later, and then an hour next week because you ‘just felt like it.’ A lack of consistency is not effective, and you will soon become frustrated with slow progress.
Without a set time and duration for practice, it’s tempting to skip it from time to time. Without a set time and duration, there is no consistency and your practice sessions are likely to be fragmented and all over the place.
Consistency is important for pianists. It develops a routine and builds momentum, meaning you’re more likely to practice at the same time every day. Practising on a consistent basis, every day is key to conditioning the brain and body to become accustomed to the piano and progress much quicker.
Remember coming back from school holidays out of practice and unable to write properly? What about having a two-week break in between driving lessons to find you forget a load of stuff?
When you have a break in your learning, you become rusty and forget things. For the best results, piano practice should be a daily activity.
Make practice a consistent part of your daily schedule
When you schedule practice into your daily routine, you’re more likely to remember and stick to it. Allocate a practice session into your day and decide how long you will practice for.
For example, you could practice for one hour at 8:00 PM every day. Alternatively, you could practice 45 minutes at 7:30 AM and 45 minutes at 7:30 PM, and split practice into two sessions. Whatever works for you, make practice a consistent part of your daily schedule. It will pay off in the long run.
6. Create a practice diary
Having somewhere to document your progress can do wonders for your practice.
Set out what your goals are each time you practice, write down the pieces and exercises you’ll work on, and record your progress after the session. Doing so will keep you on track during practice and remind you what it is you’re trying to achieve (learn a segment of a piece, for your grade 5 exam for instance).
If you didn’t hit your goal, take some time to reflect why. Maybe the goal was too large or too difficult, maybe you have some questions for your teacher next lesson.
Whatever your thoughts, use the practice diary to jot them down and explore what’s on your mind.
7. Record yourself playing
Possibly the only time using a phone is encouraged during practice. Record yourself playing a phrase, a technical exercise, or even a section of a piece. Press stop, then listen back to your performance.
Of course, you hear your self-playing throughout practice but listening to a recording of yourself means diverting 100% of your attention to your performance. You’re not worried about playing the right notes or getting fingers into the correct position.
Listening to a recording can alert you to any issues, which might not have seemed obvious before.
Tension, poor use of dynamics, rushing a passage, forgetting notes, are all common mistakes which crop up.
Once you’ve identified the issue, work on fixing it. Once you’re satisfied, record yourself again to make sure the error is fixed.
Humans are said to be 60% water. Water is essential for bodily functions like movement, regulating temperature, transporting nutrients, maintain skin health, allowing you to focus and concentrate, and so on. Simply put, it’s essential for the body to function.
If you’re not properly hydrated, the chances of a decent practice session are low.
Practising dehydrated is a health risk. A dehydrated pianist will feel nauseous, light-headed, dizzy, tired, unable to concentrate, and so on. Not a good place to be for a pianist.
Try drinking a tall glass of water before practice and have access to a drink throughout the session. Though water is best, coffee or tea will do fine. Practising is demanding on the brain and is thirsty work, so having a drink to hand is crucial.
For better piano practice, make sure you’re properly hydrated.
9. Take a moment to check your posture
The first thing most piano teachers teach their students is how to play the piano with correct posture. If it’s not taught and implemented at the beginning, students fall into bad habits and they become harder to break further down the line.
During a heavy practice session, it’s tempting to start slouching and leaning over. Particularly if you’re looking down, focusing on your fingers playing a tricky passage.
Failure to play with correct posture can lead to aches and injury. Ouch. Common injuries who use poor posture include carpal tunnel (numbness, tingling and weakness in the hand) and tendinitis (inflammation and irritation of a tendon).
It’s always worth taking a moment at the start of every session to ensure you’re sitting with correct posture.
When you’re playing you need your arms to be parallel to the floor for maximum movement, sit perched at the end of the stool to be centred and reach the full length of the piano. Ideally, you want to curve your fingers slightly. Like you’re holding a small ball or an egg. Sit up straight, loosen your shoulders and relax. Make sure there’s no tension. Away you go. Let the practice begin.
10. Take breaks during practice
If you’re during a long practice session, it’s a good idea to take a break. Go for a quick walk, make a coffee, stretch, move around your room, anything that temporarily takes the focus off practice.
Studies show taking breaks between practice sessions not only helps with focus and motivation but also improves the rate at which the brain retains information.
You may find yourself struggling to get through a two-bar phrase of a piece, which is really driving you around the bend. A quick break might be what you need. After a 5-minute stroll around the block to clear your head, the phrase is easier than you thought. Looking at a problem with a fresh set of eyes is a great approach to overcoming blocks during piano practice.
Be careful you don’t distract yourself
Whilst breaks are recommended, take care not to distract yourself. Don’t start scrolling through social media, watching a show on Netflix, calling your buddies about plans for the weekend, or reading a novel. It’s likely you won’t return to practice after you start one of these activities.
Make sure the break is quick and not likely to distract you. A 5-minute break to make coffee and stretch out any tension will do just fine.