Master the Keys: 16 Effective Practice Strategies for Piano Players
The goal of practicing is to make what is a new challenge relatively easy by the following week. Teachers are experts at knowing exactly what to introduce next in the student’s musical development. Through focused practice, there can be new concepts learned and mastered each week. This tangible sense of progress is very rewarding. Here are a few ideas and attitudes to adopt as family learning the wonderful art of music:
1. Practicing should be integrated into your families’ daily schedule like brushing teeth. Missing a day brushing your teeth would be pretty gross...
2. Treat practice less like a chore and more like a time to play. Music is inherently enjoyable and kids naturally view instruments as toys that make exciting sounds. Give them permission to explore these sounds by creating their own pieces and improvising as part of their playing time (even if it sounds bad!). As they learn new things in lessons they will naturally incorporate these concepts into their exploration time. The attitude of the parents towards music making can have a big impact.
3. It is very important that the student have a proper, in tune instrument and space in which to practice. Make sure that during practice time electronic devices are away and turned off. Siblings shouldn’t be allowed to interfere. Sometimes changing the location of practice or the time of day can make all the difference.
4. Take every opportunity to experience great music in Toronto with your family by attending concerts at various venues, musicals, ballet, opera and more! Seeing and hearing world class performers in action can really inspire students of any age and level.
5. Parents should be actively involved in both setting the schedule for practice and more importantly overseeing what is being accomplished, especially with very young students. This is true even if parents aren’t musicians or don’t read music – they can still motivate and make sure that their child is staying on task.
6. Students should keep a practice journal to show how often and what they practiced each week. There should be a spot for the teacher to write down the assignment as well as a place for the student to record their progress and any questions they have.
7. Never hesitate to ask more for detailed practice instructions from the teacher. There should be specific goals given as part of the weekly assignment, for example things like “be able to play the g minor scale accurately hands separately at 80 bpm” or “play the A section of the minuet slowly with correct notes, rhythms and articulations.” In other words, it should be easy to measure when a task has been completed. When there are clear goals given and met, it creates a sense of accomplishment and encourages more focused practice time.
8. Practicing should always be more focused on meeting goals rather than filling time. It is very possible for a student to practice 30 minutes every day and accomplish nothing – they could even be reinforcing bad habits and getting worse. Students are much more productive when a goal needs to be met, rather than a time limit. Have you ever heard your boss say, “Please work on your report for 30 minutes a day this week and then hand it in on Friday?” Of course not! Your boss, like your child’s music teacher, wants quality work done regardless of the time it takes.
9. While teachers usually set weekly goals - daily goals are also important. Having the student set their own daily goals can be a powerful step towards musical independence. Students at who are preparing for exams or auditions may also want to make monthly or even yearly goals.
10. There are four basic considerations when practicing: playing effortlessly, playing up to tempo, playing accurately and playing the entire example. The student should always aim to play effortlessly and then choose two other considerations to focus on, sacrificing one consideration from the list. In order to play effortlessly and fast and perfectly, you may not be able to play the entire piece, or even the entire section! To play the entire example effortlessly and accurately, you may not be able to play fast. (This tip comes from the excellent book Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner)
11. MindFUL repetitions are useful, mindLESS repetitions are not. When aiming to correct a mistake, play it correctly more times than you played it incorrectly. For example, if the note is an F# and you’ve played F now 5 times, you need to play F# as least 6 times to counteract your previous attempts. If you stop at one correct play through, you will be more likely to play the incorrect note of F as that is what you practiced more. Not doing leads to the oft uttered “but I got it right at home!”
12. Don’t forget to listen! The student should be always be working towards developing a beautiful tone at their instrument as well as their own unique voice. Encourage them to record their practice sessions so that they can listen to them afterwards with a different perspective.
13. Share practice performances on YouTube and through social media. The internet is chock full of videos of aspiring musicians – students should be encouraged to watch videos of others as well as share their own videos showcasing their best and brightest moments. Having to record a video of a piece will inherently lead to lots of good practice as students aim for the perfect “take.”
14. Parents and teachers should read and implement the ideas found in the book The Practice Revolution by Australian piano teacher and composer Philip Johnston – it is highly entertaining and full of practice “games” to try!
15. Bribing isn’t the best motivator. Student who are often bribed to practice or attend lessons may be more focused on the reward they are getting afterword instead of on what they are playing and the inherent musical rewards. These students try to get away with practicing as little as possible to get their reward which fosters the wrong kind of attitude in the student. If you must bribe, make it goal based and musically relevant. For example, once the student can play an excerpt fluently at a certain tempo, then they can play a music game on a device or watch a YouTube video of their favourite song.
16. If at the end of the week the student has practiced well and completed all the assignments, they deserve praise. Tell your child that you are proud of them for working so hard!
If these kinds of strategies are put into place, students will experience success and enjoy their lessons much more. They will experience the addictive feeling of progress to new challenges and more exciting pieces. They will be much more engaged in the lessons as they will be eager to show off what they did that week as well as listening carefully for instructions for the next week. They will also take ownership of their new skills and want to hone them further. Each week will bring well earned praise from their teacher and parents as well as the pride that comes from having achieved something after working hard. The parents of these students notice that overtime their involvement is less and less necessary - they can sit back and enjoy the beautiful music.