Top Tips for Successful Piano Practice
Invaluable Insights for Aspiring Pianists
The question piano teachers are most frequently asked about practising is how much should be done per day. While this is important (and I’ll come to it later), the more fundamental question is about the quality of the practice. More progress can be made in 15 well-directed minutes than in a listless hour. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your practice time.
Always have a clear aim
If you eavesdrop on the practice of a top pianist, you might be surprised how much silence there is between the notes you hear, especially if the passage being practised and repeated is relatively short. Successful practising is often preceded by a few moments of clear thought (what am I aiming for?) and followed by an evaluation of the passage just played (how close did I come to that aim?).
Conversely, mindless repetition without a second’s pause of the same short passage, if the result is not improving, is worse than useless, as it reinforces an imperfect or inconsistent outcome.
So the trick is to pause between each attempt, assess how you have just played and have a defined goal for the next repetition (to maximise progress you may need to concentrate on a very small unit within the phrase – more of this below). The crucial thing is that the mind must be fully engaged to achieve the best results in the shortest time.
Isolate the specific challenge
As most teachers will confirm, many students have a tendency, when they stumble over a difficult corner in a piece, to go back too far (even back to the beginning) and try again, hoping the problem will be solved second time through. It almost invariably won’t be! Instead, for the quickest results we need to focus on the difficulty in a very localised way.
This principle applies even from our earliest steps on the piano. A short piece in a tutor book might move mainly in crotchets, but contain one bar of quavers. If you set a tempo suitable to the crotchets, but then struggle with the quavers, it’s necessary to work on the quavers first, initially at a reduced tempo. Once you can play the quavers securely and without hesitation, gradually return to the full tempo. Then start from the preceding bar (crotchets) and join it to the bar of quavers. Hopefully you can now make the transition to quavers smoothly and without slowing down. In case you can’t, be patient and go through the process again.
Focus on the smallest unit, then build outwards
In a more advanced piece, the challenge may be to achieve evenness of rhythm and/or tone in a rapid passage. In this case, pinpoint the uneven links (by listening very closely) and practise these many times at the full tempo with crisp finger strokes (always keeping mentally fully focussed!) in the smallest cells of 3, 4 or 5 notes, ensuring absolute evenness. Then add the one or two notes from immediately before and after, and continue to add small groups of notes until you re-establish the full context. If the difficult few notes become uneven again at any point, isolate them once more and build up again.
Incidentally, if the unevenness problem arises because of a weaker finger (normally the 4th) it is a good gymnastic exercise to finish the group of 3, 4 or 5 notes being practised on a firm and bouncy staccato on the 4th finger (imagine the key is hot so that your finger wants to spring off as quickly as possible). Repeating this many times might drive your family mad, but it is an effective way to activate and strengthen a weaker finger. This is of course best instigated under the supervision of a teacher, to make sure that the attack on the last note is made in a physically appropriate way (effortless power rather than powerless effort). In any case, stop immediately if you feel any tension or strain in your hand.
Always pay attention to your hand position too; it could be that slight adjustments of the angle of your hand, or its position with regard to the junction of white and black keys, can be very helpful. Again, it’s difficult to convey this adequately outside a proper lesson, but it’s something you can experiment with.
Alter the rhythm in fast passage work
Once you have worked on the most obvious difficult moments in a fast passage, as described in the previous section, this next practice method helps you to establish continuity. If the music moves in semiquavers, lengthen the first note of each group of 4 semiquavers, making it into a dotted quaver, then play the rest of the notes in the group at full speed, leading into the first note of the next group, where you pause again, and carry on throughout in this manner. So in effect the rhythm becomes a dotted quaver followed by 3 semiquavers throughout. It is also worth doing the same procedure starting from the third note of each group.
These exercises make your fingers work at the required tempo, but by prolonging one note in each group, this enables you to get your bearings, and listen more carefully for evenness. Once you can play the whole passage fluently in this way, you should be ready to join it all together as the composer wrote.
Increase the challenge, overcome it, then integrate it with ease
Let’s say, for example, that the problem is to execute a leap accurately and without rhythmic delay. The tempo is fast and the last two notes (or chords) before the leap are quavers. A good practice technique is to change the rhythm of the two preceding notes into a dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver, so that we have to make the leap even more quickly (again, imagine the ‘semiquaver’ piano key is hot, and use it as a springboard to kickstart the leap). Just practise these three notes many times in this rhythm, with a supple hand and wrist, to increase your agility and accuracy on the leap itself. Once it is secure, gradually add the preceding notes, keeping the amended rhythm at first and then reverting to the original. By this stage it is likely you have mastered the difficult leap. If not, just repeat the routine until you do succeed.
This concept of artificially increasing a localised challenge and focusing on it very specifically, before re-integrating it, is very useful in helping us conquer many of the physical scenarios we face in piano music.
Practising with a metronome
Using a metronome to build up speed gradually in a fast passage is an time-honoured practice technique, and the many repetitions you will do are helpful in embedding the musical text firmly in the muscular memory. However, make sure there is no unevenness or awkwardness. If there is, practise first in the smaller units, as outlined above.
A paradoxical discipline
If we think of ‘discipline’ in terms of music practice, or indeed any other educational activity, we usually assume it’s about being diligent in doing enough practice before we can stop or relax. However, sometimes the opposite can be true, especially for more advanced and aspirational players. As practising the piano is (or should be) a highly concentrated mental and physical activity, not many people can regularly sustain constructive practice for more than an hour. For the serious pianist, it can be very tempting to keep obsessing over a difficulty, extending the practice session to well over an hour, especially if progress seems to be slow or non-existent. But in fact this is exactly the right time to summon the discipline to walk away for a few minutes. Eat a snack, do a little stretching. When we return to the piano, refreshed after the break, we are more lucid and so progress is usually much more rapid.
So … how much practice?
As promised, I now come back to this theme. The most important tenet is regularity of practice. Half an hour per day is much better than cramming 3 hours’ practice into only one day of the week. If you are sufficiently enthusiastic and have the opportunity to practise every day, that’s great. However, taking a day (or even two) off from practising each week is not normally a disadvantage; indeed it can help us focus the next day with renewed vigour. So ideally I would recommend practising five or six days per week.
As for how much practice to do each day, it’s only possible to give rough guidelines, as there are so many variables: e.g. age and aptitude, how regular and imminent the targets are (exams, concerts etc).
If we relate practice time to a graded exam syllabus (Associated Board or Trinity), and assume one grade to be taken every year, a good average would be 20 minutes per day for grade one, rising to about an hour for grade five, and to perhaps two hours for grade eight. For students of high attainment, the exams can be taken more quickly (e.g. three exams in two years), with broadly the same practice regime. In all cases, however, it is optimal to incorporate a decent amount of non-exam material to give a healthy variety to the musical menu. Viewing the exams as mere educational trophies to be charged through at breakneck speed can be artistically misguided.
If your ambition is to become a concert pianist, in effect the practice becomes a full-time job, so it would not be unusual to be doing six or more hours per day if you go on to study piano at a conservatoire. Although Artur Rubinstein quipped that he did most of his practising on stage, the reality is that to reach the artistic heights requires immense amounts of work. Even at this level, though, it’s important to take regular breaks. If you have been practising for an hour, and it’s still productive, that’s fine. If not, walk away for a few minutes.
To come full circle, and at the risk of repeating myself, the best practising is about setting specific objectives, and concentrating fully on achieving them, rather than watching the clock. If you are able to work consistently in this purposeful way, you are likely to amaze yourself with the rapidity of your progress … and still have time to spare!
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