Category Archives: Practice and Skills

Piano Lessons, Life Lessons

I spend a few hours a day fairly predictably: Reminding children with reluctant fingers that finger number 1 is their thumb, and that Middle is C is in the middle of the piano. Like many home-studio teachers in rural areas, my studio is mostly made up of beginning and intermediate players. I rarely have the need to talk abut how  Mozart intended a appoggiatura to be played, or whether a trill should begin on the main note or the upper auxiliary.

What I DO find myself talking about — day after day, week after week — is the learning process. And the more I do, the more it becomes clear to me that learning piano is only partly about learning piano. It is also about learning, period.  And while we all learn in our own unique way, some patterns DO apply to all of us. Not only that, but we can all, always, learn to learn… better.

So, in no particular order, some thoughts on learning.

1) Showing up is important. A study done by psychologist Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music concluded that practice time, not talent, determines success as a musician.  All those myths about Cousin Bob the musical genius with perfect pitch? Perfect pitch, maybe. Talent certainly affects achievement. But in order for it to all come together takes time spent working, pure and simple. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits that Mozart’s prodigial years were spent practicing for hours a day under the watchful eye of Papa Leopold. He also points out that with their non-stop Hamburg performances, the Beatles easily logged 10,000 hours before becoming an “overnight success.” Whether you believe the 10,000 figure or not is up to you…. It could be more, or less, and it undoubtedly depends on talent, the pursuit, and the quality of practice. But the bottom lie is this: Deliberate, consistent practice is a hallmark of achievement in anything, from computers to chess to piano.

2) If a job looks too big, make it smaller. Don’t try to learn 20 pages of a sonata: Learn one page. Or one line. One measure. I’ll often pull out the scariest looking piece of music by a major composer and show beginners that they can identify a note in it, and then another one. As Annie Lamott writes:”Bird by Bird.”   Or how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

3) If at first you don’t succeed…. try something different. Doing the same thing wrong over and over is a really powerful way to learn to do the same thing….. wrong. Having trouble with two hands? Slow down. Or do one hand at a time. Play one hand as fast as you can, really loud. Now play is as beautifully and musically as you can. Fell where your fingers are and how they have to move. Don’t just mindlessly repeat it and “try again.” Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If it’s not working — change it up!

4) Have patience. You need to do YOUR job, which is showing up and trying to create an artistic vision of a piece by learning the notes, the rhythm, the technique.  You do your part, and in between practice sessions, the back of your brain will do the rest: Putting things together, processing information, synthesizing it all. Trust the process. It works. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

5) Be honest. Don’t look at your teacher when you made a mistake to see if she noticed. OF COURSE she noticed. But more important than that — YOU noticed. It should matter to YOU.  Care about what you’re doing. Care about your art.

And then bring that caring to the rest of your life.

It is the most important lesson of all.

How to Practice Piano Effectively

When we teach piano, most of us stress practice time. But time is only part of the practice equation: What, precisely, we do with that time is the other part. And contrary to how most people (kids and adults alike) practice, it shouldn’t be a matter of mindless repetition. Good practice is actually a rewarding, creative — and effective — process.

And here’s a note for piano parents who aren’t necessarily musicians themselves: One sure-fire way to tell if your kid is practicing correctly is to notice whether he or she keeps playing the piece over and over from beginning to end. That’s the WRONG way to practice. I tell my kids they can start with one play-through, during which they should note the problem areas. Then they need to get to work on those by practicing small sections over and over. They  can finish with another run-through. But to just keep repeating a piece, complete with all the same mistakes, is ineffective and pointless.

Every pianist (and every other musician, as well) develops his or her own practice routine, learning a series of possible practice strategies to deal with different types of mistakes and to learn difficult passages so they can be brought up to speed and played fluently. Part of practice is trial and error — seeing what works, and what doesn’t.

Whether just beginning to learn to play the piano or an accomplished virtuoso, pianists should look at these strategies as part of their “toolbox.” If one doesn’t work, try another. Experience tells pianists which strategies are best for which problems, but quite frequently, a pianist will try a number of practice techniques to master a particularly stubborn passage.

Practice Strategies for Mastering Piano Technique

Mechanical strategies are those that teach the players’ hands where to go. They deal with issues such as finding the right notes, using the right fingers, and coordinating the hands. These strategies help develop piano technique.

  • Play with hands apart. Practice one hand at a time if it makes musical sense to do so. Then play with hands together.
  • Play in small sections: Practice the piece in small bits, one phrase at a time. Phrases are the equivalent of sentences in the grammar of music. They are sometimes less than a line of music long, and sometimes more, just like a sentence on this page is sometimes shorter than a line, and sometimes longer. Practicing in phrases makes more musical sense than practicing by the line.
  • Combine all the elements in small phrases: Practice each phrase by playing one hand, then the other, then both together.
  • Study the fingering. Fingering choices should always be deliberate and intentional. Pianists must remember that good fingering involves not only getting to the note in question, but getting to the next note, and the next after that. Issues of how to tackle a series of similar motifs that start on different notes also come into play, as well as issues of musicality, which can justify fingerings that at first may look awkward. Students who have not yet mastered fingering techniques should run any changes past a teacher.
  • Break the music into even smaller chunks: Music can always be broken down into its component parts. If the phrase is too long, break it into two. Or practice a single measure. Identify the weak spots where mistakes are habitual, and practically those spots until the mistakes are eradicated.

Remember, piano mistakes don’t go away by starting at the beginning and trying again!

Rhythmic Strategies for Piano Practice

Rhythmic practice techniques force the player to do all the tasks in strict time, which raises the difficulty, and also makes it very obvious which parts of the piece need more work.

  • Use the metronome: At its most basic, the metronome helps pianists keep a steady tempo. But I use a metronome as a technical aid: It helps a student work out technical elements by forcing the pianist to play in time and gradually raising the tempo. Playing with a metronome reveals any weak spots in the piece. Metronome practice is especially valuable for ensemble players.
  • Vary the rhythm: An effective way to smooth out bumps in long technical runs of very fast notes is change the rhythm. For example, a stream of 16th notes cold be played as alternating dotted 16th and 32nd notes, and then the player can try the reverse and play the section as 32nd notes followed by dotted-16th notes.
  • Add beats. A difficult series of chords can be practiced by by inserting one or more beats of rests in between them, then gradually, getting rid of the extra beats.
  • Change the tempo: Playing very slowly and very fast are also good practice techniques. Playing one hand much faster than the target tempo secures the muscle memory of the passages, which makes the piece easier to play with two hands. Playing slowly helps pianists make fingering and articulation choices that are conscious and deliberate.

Finally, if mistakes persist, change the practice strategy! The worst thing is to keep doing the same thing and making the same mistake. Try to go about the problem in a different way.

Further Resources for Piano Practice

Beginning and intermediate students will find a source of practice suggestions.

The Musician’s Way, by Gerald Klickstein [Oxford, 2009], is a resource for advanced students. It describes how to practice mindfully and artfully.

Piano Practice Quantity and Quality

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.

If You Don’t Have Rhythm, You Don’t Have Music

Rhythm is the heart beat of music, pure and simple. You can make danceable music with a drum and one note, but you can’t make music with notes and no rhythm.

In a classical solo performance, of course, you can speed up and slow down all you want (well, within reason). In an ensemble, the group leader or conductor will lead the group through rhythm changes so you stay together through them. Accelerandos and ritardandos are part of the classical style and the audience and the critics will make their judgment, and that will be that.

But ensemble players in pop and jazz music have to stay steady together, without a conductor (even if there is a group leader, you’re still expected to maintain tempo and rhythm on your own.)  Indeed, pop players  can drive their musical trains right off the tracks if they don’t stay steady. And I’ m not just talking about beginners and kids here.

Here are some reminders… for all of us.

Counting it in: Some people have a knack for this, most don’t. If you’re one of the majority, and you are leading a song, here’s how to count everyone in so they start at the same time at the right tempo:

  • First, get a strong phrase of the song in your head and start singing it in your head at the tempo you want to play it.
  • Add finger snapping to find the beat.
  • THEN — and only then — count in a full measure.  Be sure your vocal tone and counting style leave no doubt as to where people are supposed to come in.

Learn the Arrangement! Don’t use how you think the song goes as the backdrop in your head to lead you through playing it. Not every band plays every song just like “it is on the record.” They may drop weird little rhythmic variations for simplicity’s sake, ditch a solo, or repeat solos to give more people a chance.  You’ve got to listen to the people you are playing with, and to a metronome in your head — not try to copy “the way the song goes.”

Tapping. Keep the rhythm with a body part (depending on your instrument): foot tapping, finger snapping (for singers), nodding your head, whispering the counts.

LIisten  — and that means to each other, not just to yourself. I’ve been in band situations where everyone was nodding and foot tapping and feeling like they were in a groove, and they were — that is, each person was in his own groove. The overall sound was a mushed mess because it was like everyone was playing in a bubble.

Look at each other. Make eye contact, nod, FEEL the beat together so that your counts are the same as your band member’s counts. If everyone is speeding up and you aren’t, you may be right — but YOU are the one who will sound off.

Drummers: DON’T SPEED  UP!!!!

Bass Players: Keep it simple until you’ve got everyone on board.

Follow the Leader. If the groove seems off, someone needs to pull it back in. Drummers can stress the downbeats, keyboard players can stop playing with one hand and start conducting, the bass player can hammer the ones and the fives on the downbeats. Simplify. Drop the complex syncopations. Guitarists and pianists should drop the little in-between-the-beats upstrokes and fills. When everyone is hitting the main beats together, then you can let the music evolve into more complexity. But if you’re off, rein it in.

Count! If you’re playing a song from a lead sheet, you need to know how many beats each chord change is. If the changes are uneven or unusual, or there’s a little half measure in there somewhere, put a little note in your lead sheet.  Not all songs go in even four measure phrases.

Steady as she goes. If you are in a rock/pop/jazz group and the singer or lead soloist is bending the rhythm (holding back or anticipating the bar lines) — YOUR job is to keep the steady beat, even if that means you are not with the soloist. This is the OPPOSITE of what classical musicians do: Classical accompanists, anticipate (or rehearse) the soloist’s ritardandos and stay with the soloist. Pop and jazz rhythm sections stay with the rhythm, giving the soloist a steady place to come back to at the end of the phrase. If you stay with the soloist instead of with the rhythm section, you will drive the train right off the tracks.  The only exceptions are endings (and, very occasionally, transitions to bridges) where ritardandos are rehearsed.

Work at home with a metronome. To practice soloing, count off the measures so you fit your solo into the time allotted for each chord. You can also record (for example, on a keyboard) the backing chords, played in strict rhythm, and practice soloing over them and hitting the changes of your solo at the right time.

Bottom line: You (and your listeners) shouldn’t need a search light to find the beat! By listening to each other and prioritizing rhythm, you can help your bad achieve a tighter sound and a better groove.

Instruments and Practice Space for Piano Students

One student came in saying the reason she couldn’t practice was that her two year old brother kept banging on the keys while she played. Another complained that her father wouldn’t turn off the TV, which was in the same room as the piano. Yet a third told me that the piano didn’t sound good because mice had eaten away all the felts. Another couldn’t hear the wrong notes because the piano was so badly out of tune.

I wish I were making these stories up, but I’m not.

For most children, piano lessons take place once a week for perhaps a half an hour. In between is where the important work comes in. And that takes place at home.

Practicing the piano is as difficult a habit to get into as daily exercise. Having a good instrument and a quiet, distraction-free space to practice are two important factors in establishing good piano practice habits. By providing a good instrument and a quiet space for a piano student, parents can help make their children’s piano lesson experience more enjoyable and productive

Choosing an Appropriate Piano for Students

Buying a new piano can be expensive, and parents may be excused for being reluctant to spend thousands of dollars on an instrument their child may not enjoy. On the other hand, the child is practically guaranteed to not enjoy playing on a poor-quality piano that sounds and feels bad. Before buying an acoustic piano (or even a digital keyboard), talk to the teacher about exactly what is required of a student piano. Some teachers come down heavily on one or the other side of the digital piano versus acoustic piano debate.

Here are a few issues that most piano teachers tend to agree about:

  • Parents who own an old acoustic pianos should make sure it is in working order, which means that all the keys work (with no sticking and no clicking noises), the pedals work, and the instrument can stay in tune for several months (assuming a stable environment, without great fluctuations in temperature or humidity).
  • Tune acoustic pianos twice a year. Instruments subject to great variations in temperature and humidity need to be tuned more often.
  • Buying a used acoustic piano can be a good and economical choice, if the instrument is functional. Ask a piano technician or a teacher to check out the piano. Technicians and teachers may charge for this service. Not all piano teachers feel qualified to evaluate a piano, but any piano teacher should be able to recommend a technician.
  • Digital pianos run the gamut from cheap toys to complex and sophisticated synthesizers. If the piano teachers approves of using a digital piano for classical music, be sure the piano meets the teacher’s requirements, which will usually include that the digital keyboard has 88 weighted keys, at least one pedal, and touch control.
  • Don’t be tempted to skimp on a digital piano that’s on sale if it doesn’t meet the teacher’s specifications. There is a reason teachers recommend weighted keys (They provide resistance, which develops correct hand position and finger strength), touch control (which develops a student’s ability to shape phrases using varying dynamics), and 88 keys (the student’s peripheral vision contributes to a sense of keyboard geography. With a piano with different end points, the student’s spatial perception is affected

Create a Distraction-Free Practice Space

  • Even a child who loves piano is not going to love practicing when there is a rousing game of Wii going on in the next room, or when siblings are giggling at a cartoon is blaring on the T.V.
  • The piano or keyboard should be in a quiet place where the child can practice undisturbed.
  • Acoustic pianos take up a lot of space and must be situated so they are not sitting on heating vents or right next to windows in direct sunlight. So there is often only one place in a home an acoustic piano can reasonably go. In that case, the student’s practice time should take priority over other activities in that room.
  • Small siblings are often curious about music and about an older sibling’s lessons, and show it by trying to participate – usually by banging on the upper or lower notes while the student is trying to practice. Siblings should be otherwise occupied during a student’s practice session.
  • The practice area should be well lit, with room for the child to place notes, music books, and a CD players or iPod, if the teacher asks the student to practice with backing tracks.
  • A bedroom is private and quiet, but may not be the best place for a small child to practice. The ideal spot would be in a parent’s earshot or line of sight, so the parent can supervise or encourage when necessary. A child behind closed doors may not be practicing correctly – or at all.

By setting up a special space with a good instrument for piano practice and making sure the practice session is undisturbed, parents are helping to establish how important practicing the piano is and also making the process as productive and pleasant as possible.

Learning an Instrument: The Importance of a Practice Routine

Learning a musical instrument is unlike almost any other endeavor a young child attempts. Virtually no other activity requires the same kind of weekly private instruction, the intense individual effort that must continue over a period of several years, and, most of all, the daily practice that is so essential to learning to play piano, guitar, violin, or any other instrument.

Quite simply, music education requires practice. And not just sitting down at the instrument for five minutes. Playing a few notes and declaring yourself done doesn’t do it.

Importance of Practice Routine in Learning to Play an Instrument

While music teachers may differ on the specifics depending on the student, the age, the level, the instrument, and the teaching philosophy, teachers almost universally agree that practice should be part of a regular, preferably daily routine. Last-minute cramming works about as well in music education as it does with any other subject, which is to say, not at all. It is better to practice in routine small chunks than in sporadic, intense, long outbursts. The brain simply processes musical information better that way.

In a day and age when every family seems busier than the family next door, finding time to practice in between soccer, homework, and play dates is admittedly difficult. It’s even more difficult if parents don’t have their own personal experience with, or are ambivalent about, music education and the sustained daily effort it requires.

To be effective, practice has to be viewed as a primary activity, like doing homework, eating lunch, or going to school. Parents need to understand that daily practice is not an easy habit. (And any parent who thinks practice is, or should be, easy, should take a hard look at his or her own exercise habits. Practicing every day is just as difficult as keeping New Year’s resolutions to go to the gym).

Children need to be reminded and encouraged to practice their instruments, just as they need to be reminded to brush their teeth or do their homework. One effective solution that works for some families (but certainly not for everyone) is for the child to practice in the morning before school. Just as with exercise, this gets the job done and out of the way. If there is time for more practice later in the day, great. If not, at least the minimum practice requirements have been met.


How Much Practice Should a Music Student Do?

The amount of practice required to progress depends on three things: the level and age of the student, the student’s ambitions, and the instrument.

The level and age of the student are the first issues. Often teachers will suggest a time of 15 to 20 minutes of daily practice for very young beginners, 30 minutes for school-age elementary students, 45 minutes for middle-school intermediates, and an hour or more for advancing students.

The student’s ambition is another factor. Is the student planning to major in music? Where? If a student’s ambitions soar toward institutions such as Juilliard, then several hours of daily practice will be required at the high-school level simply to prepare music for the audition. If the student is thinking about majoring in music education at “Typical University,” competence is required, but not virtuosity; the practice required to get in will be commensurately less. Teachers should ensure that any stated goals are in line with actual practice time. Students often have no idea of how high the bar is for professional performance or advanced study. Watching a few YouTube videos of talented students of similar ages to your students may be a hard dose of reality, but it’s important for an ambitious student to know that the competition is not lazy Larry down the street; it’s a focused student who is playing concert music at age 11.

Finally, each instrument is different. For example, piano practice times tend to be longer than practice times for other instruments, in part because the repertoire and demands of the instrument are so vast. Also, it is physically possible for pianists to play for longer than it is for trumpet players (whose embouchures cannot survive a six-hour practice session) or vocalists (who can damage their voices). Still, any instrument can be over-practiced to the point of injury. Regardless of the instrument, at the first sign of muscle strain, tremors, aches, or stabbing pain, talk to a teacher.

In addition to time and routine, two other elements contribute to successful practice: A comfortable practice space that encourages practice and a mindful approach to practice that effectively and reliably solves technical and musical problems.

Guidelines for Piano Practice

No surprise here: Inadequate practice is the number one complaint piano teachers (and other music teachers) have about students.

Lack of practice is one of the key reasons children don’t move ahead in their music education. Lack of success leads to frustration. And frustration, coupled with arguments about and resistance to practice lead to children quitting music lessons.

But how much practice is enough? Each instrument has different practice requirements because of the physical demands of playing it. Practice recommendations also depend on age, level, and ambition. The following recommendations are for students learning to play piano.

How Much Should a Child Practice Piano?

Many piano teachers suggest that the student’s lesson length be a preliminary rule of thumb for a daily practice goal. For example, a common recommendation is that a piano student taking half-hour lessons should practice half an hour a day; a student taking hour lessons should practice an hour a day.

This rule of thumb is most appropriate for the intermediate levels. At the very beginning, there may not be enough material to keep a small child fully engaged for a whole half hour, and at more advanced levels, piano practice requirements can be much higher, depending on the student’s ambitions. For instance, an advanced high school student who intends to major in music at the college level might take an hour lesson a week, but may well practice two or three hours a day, or even more, depending on the level of commitment and the school to which the student is applying.

But these students are exceptional, and well into the self-motivated stage. For average students, matching the lesson time five days a week will give consistent and rewarding progress.

Piano Practice Times Based on Level and Age

Other piano teachers base practice recommendations on age, on level, on motivation, or a combination of those three factors.

For four-and- five year old beginners, 10 minutes of practice time is a common recommendation, unless the child is a prodigy or unusually self-motivated. The important goal for these very young piano students is to establish practice as a routine, daily responsibility and to make it fun. If these ideas can be intertwined, the child is less likely to resist practice later, when the time requirements are greater.

For seven-to- ten year old beginners, a half an hour a day is a good starting point. More motivated and talented children may practice more, but in general, a half an hour of daily mindful practice will yield good results.

Once students reach the intermediate level, satisfying progress requires closer to 45 minutes a day, because the material is more complex and more difficult to master. Without that commitment, intermediate-level piano pieces may take weeks to learn, students may get frustrated, and forward progress will be minimal. At this stage, piano students also need to make time in their practice schedules for more technical drills, including etudes, scales, and arpeggios, which at the intermediate level might require 15 minutes or so a day.

More advanced students’ progress will very much depend on their goals. With 45 minutes of daily practice, an advanced student can continue to learn new repertoire, although not at a fast rate. An hour a day will yield more satisfying results. Recreational high-school and adult pianists who have achieved an intermediate-to-advanced fluency in playing classical music, popular songs, and hymns, will find that a practice routine of 45 minutes to an hour a day is more than enough to maintain technique, learn new material, and develop skills.

More ambitious high-school students who enroll in adjudications and competitions often find themselves practicing two or more hours a day. Those planning to audition for elite musical college programs may practice three hours a day.

Advanced Piano Students and Practice

At the college performance level, where students are majoring in music and practicing to be professional musicians, many piano majors practice between three and six hours a day, depending on the school.

Pianists practicing more than two or three hours a day should divide their practice time into smaller units, perhaps an hour or two in the morning, at mid-day, and in the evening. Or they should take frequent breaks. Breaking up practice helps prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis, which are repetitive stress injuries that can occur with over-use or incorrect technique. Discuss any cramping, stiffness, or hand tremors with a teacher, who should be able to recommend relaxation techniques and other ways of preventing the problem.

For all students, from beginners to virtuosi, it’s also important to note that a smaller amount of mindful, attentive, and creative piano practice is far more effective than many hours of repetitive, mindless drills that simply reinforce bad habits and mistakes. Small children may need the help of their parents to practice effectively and correctly.