The old saying that “practice makes perfect” is not entirely true as far as learning to play piano, or any other musical instrument, is concerned. What practice actually does is “make permanent.” Only perfect practice makes perfect. How to practice piano well, it turns out, is an art in itself.
Piano Practice Quality Versus Practice Quantity
Practice reinforces the activity being practiced. A music student who repeats the same mistake over and over learns to play a piece with that mistake firmly learned. A student with good practice habits learns to correct mistakes before they become ingrained, which makes practice more effective and less frustrating. And those practice habits, once learned, can be effectively applied to learning other academic subjects, as well as other activities such as sports, drama, or dance.
Therefore, while the amount of time spent practicing is important, it is equally important that the quality of mindful practice be at the highest possible level. Students need to learn to identify mistakes, isolate them, and practice small sections of music until those sections are learned and the mistakes eradicated. Then they can stitch together the pieces and play the work as a whole.
At the early levels, parents can help their children practice by supervising them to make sure they are focusing on goals and following the teacher’s practice instructions. Intermediate and advanced students must learn to practice on their own, and, with their teacher’s guidance, develop ways to identify and correct mistakes before they become habits.
Learning Good Piano Practice Habits
As students become more advanced, they learn to take an active role in structuring their piano practice, and then restructuring it to meet the challenges that come up in each practice session.
Practice sessions should begin with a clear goal: Many students begin with warm-up exercises, scales, and technique drills, followed by repertoire. It’s a good idea to work on pieces in various stages of the learning process, for example: one new piece in which the student is learning notes, one mid-level piece that is being brought up to speed, and an advanced piece that is being polished for possible performance. This means that the student is thinking differently with each piece, which makes practice more interesting, less rote, and more effective.
With each piece, the student needs to note what the problems are and then develop a strategy for working on them. Generally, this involves applying one or more standard practice techniques such as working in small chunks, learning one hand at a time, playing with a metronome, or varying the tempo.
Perhaps the most important admonishment is that the student should not simply repeat a piece, or a large section of a piece, hoping that the next time, the mistakes will magically disappear. Unfortunately, mistakes are more stubborn than that.
Repeating mistakes means learning mistakes. Most musicians are at least occasionally tempted to ignore mistakes and play through them (and indeed, this is what they should do when practicing performing). But when practicing to learn a piece, barging through mistakes simply reinforces errors and delays the inevitable corrections that must take place. It truly is possible for an advanced player to play a short intermediate-level piece badly 50 times in a row, and still not be able to play it. Whereas 15 minutes of targeted practice could yield a well-learned solid performance of the same piece of music.
In the end, quality of practice is as important as quantity, and perhaps more so: No amount of poor practice will teach a pianist to play well, whereas a small amount of high quality practice will yield big improvements.