By Gillian Perkins
Practice Policy | Private students are expected to practice daily on a well-maintained instrument. The practice area should be located in a quiet area away from distractions.
The most important time for the student to practice is immediately following the lesson – or at least on the same day as the lesson, after the student has received instruction. Research indicates that retention rate is as high as 90% on the first day, whereas it drops to almost 60% if the student waits just 24-hours. At SSM, we say aim for six and expect five days of practice. If a student has 30 minute lessons, a good daily practice session would last 15 minutes each day. If a student has a 45 minute lesson, a good daily practice session would last 30 minutes each day. Students with hour long lessons should practice about 40 minutes each day. You get out of it what you put into it – what we require is consistency. The results speak for themselves.
Ten Tips to Make Your Practicing More Productive:
1. Don’t over-schedule. I have heard so many students talk about their unbelievably busy schedules. Taking piano lessons is not merely a half-hour a week commitment. It needs to be a daily commitment. If a student is too busy to practice then there is no need for them to be taking piano lessons.
2. Have a set time to practice every day. If practicing is part of a daily routine, it is much more likely to happen. If students are putting practicing at the bottom of their list of things to do it will never get done. Parents are responsible for setting their child’s schedule and making sure family members or friends are not interrupting the practice session. Don’t expect a child to have the discipline to practice on their own. They will need daily reminders and guidance.
3. Do it right from the very beginning. Once you have practiced something incorrectly, it is very difficult to correct it later on. According to psychologists: A stimulus enters long-term memory (that is, it is “learned”) after it has been attentively observed 7 times. But if an “incorrect” stimulus is first learned, it then takes an average of 35 repetitions to learn the “corrected” stimulus. So in other words if you are practicing a piece and you are playing an A key instead of B key, it will take you 35 more times to re-learn it with the correct key. Why waste all that time when you can just start off with slow, attentive practice right from the beginning?
4. Be your own teacher. When a student plays a piece for me, I often will ask, “Does that sound right to you?” Their answer is usually no. If you know it does not sound right, do something about it! Check for wrong notes, sharps or flats, incorrect hand positions, etc. Trust your ear to let you know when something isn’t right, and take the initiative to correct it instead of waiting for your teacher to make the correction.
5. Divide your piece into sections. Divide your piece into small sections and practice each section until it is correct. Then combine two small sections to make larger sections. Avoid practicing the entire piece repeatedly until you are sure you are able to play the entire piece without mistakes. Parents will often tell their child, “Play your piece 3 times and then you’ll be done practicing.” This gives students the wrong impression that practicing is simply running through the entire piece. Students should be working on all of the fine details of the piece in small sections. Playing the piece repeatedly is called “playing” not “practicing.”
6. Analyze the little things. There are so many notations made in music. Notice the tempo marking at the top of the piece (the recommended speed), the dynamic markings (how loud or soft to play), the finger numbers, the accidentals (sharps, flats and natural signs), the extra markings such as ritardando (gradually slowing down), first and second endings, D.C. al Fine and a whole list of other possible markings. Make sure you know the meaning of all the symbols and words in your pieces before leaving your lesson. I recommend owning a music dictionary to look up any terms that you don’t know.
7. Warm-up with technical exercises. Just like athletes, pianists need to warm up before playing. You can do something simple like a five finger exercise, or something more complex such as scales and arpeggios. Always start out slow and allow yourself time to get warmed up.
8. Limited Hands-alone practice. I think it is good to start out learning a piece by practicing hands alone. But once you have gone through the piece a couple times with hands alone, it is important to put the hands together in small sections. Your brain needs to work on coordinating the two hands together. Take it slow and steady. Do not try to rush this process. It will take time and a lot of concentration but eventually it will happen.
9. Spend time learning theory. It’s important to learn theory so that you understand how music comes together. If you look at a key signature and understand why certain notes need to be sharped or flatted, that will make it much easier to learn the piece. Students should spend time each day on some type of written work. Whether it’s identifying notes for beginning students, or analyzing chord structures for the more advanced students, studying theory will give the students a much better understanding of how music fits together.
10. Count aloud or use a metronome. When a person is playing the piano, it is so easy to cheat the rhythm. In the players head it sounds perfectly fine, but to the audience it often sounds like a jumbled, out-of-control mess. So that is why it’s important to be held accountable for all of the beats in the piece by counting aloud or using a metronome. I know it is very difficult to do, and most musicians view the metronome as their enemy. But it is so important that the pianist feels every beat to provide a much needed foundation for the piece. Start the metronome at a speed much lower than you are capable of playing the piece at. Then slowly increase the tempo until you are able to play the piece at the desired tempo with the metronome.
While practicing the piano can get tedious at times, try to look at it as a puzzle just waiting to be solved. Come up with creative ways to make the piece more colorful with contrasting dynamics and exciting mood changes. Imagine what type of scene the composer had in mind when they composed the piece. With the right mindset, practicing can actually be an enjoyable experience!