Sometimes, practicing for a half hour straight (or longer for post-intermediate grades) feels like running a marathon. We watch the clock and count down the minutes rather than thinking about the quality of our playing. This kind of practice is hard work, takes some of the fun out of music, and is pretty much unproductive for all the effort. Here are some ways of practicing that achieve far more, and can seem so much easier it almost feels like cheating.
It is very easy to pass 5 or even ten minutes at a time. Get out a stopwatch and see how long it takes you to make a sandwich or have a shower. Short periods of time can go by without us even noticing. You can use this approach to make practice time seem shorter and to give more quality of attention.
Try dividing your time into 5 or 10 minute segments. (Don’t start your clock until you are ready to play, or you will lose a lot of your time just getting your books ready.) Practice for 3 ten-minute periods a day and you will have done 30 minutes. Do this for 7 days and you will practices for 3 ½ hours that week.
Sometimes we are faced with notes or patterns that just seem hard to get. We are tempted to play a piece all the way through several times, but each time we stumble over the same section. Stop! It is much more effective to focus on those few notes.
If your practice goal is to correct or learn one part of your piece, keep your goal in mind. A long time can be spent playing a piece through ten times. If a piece takes two minutes to play from beginning to end, we will play a problem section ten times in about half an hour (given time to breathe between repeats). However, if you know the rest of the piece, you can focus on the one section. Two bars played carefully ten times will take about 3 minutes. Big differences in time and you have achieved the same goal.
It can become tedious playing the same piece repeatedly the same way. Divide your practice time into different tasks. Give time to scales, exercises and studies, sight-reading your pieces played in different orders each time. Give time to new pieces and to pieces you have already learnt. You are sure to find you wish the clock hadn’t marked that time yet, because you want time to finish what you are doing.
Try playing your scales and pieces in different ways. Try a different tempo (speed), change loud for soft, try legato instead of staccato, for scales you can try different rhythm patterns (groups of 2, 3 or 4; alternate note values, etc), even play your pieces backwards. How many different things can you try? What works, or doesn’t? Have fun and experiment.
Instead of focusing on the clock, work out what you want to achieve. What do you think you need to do to improve a piece? Use the Practice Hats. Talk your goals through during lessons. Be particular. Decide what the goal is and don’t finish your work until you have achieved your goal, or a particular part of it. Sometimes, you will work longer than your set practice time – sometimes it won’t take long at all. At the end, though, you will know what you have accomplished for your effort.
To give your practice time greater variety, work out different types of goals for each piece that day. Maybe work on a rhythm sequence with one piece and articulation technique for another, while getting all the notes correct on a third piece.
There are times when it is more effective to work on particular tasks. It is easy to leave your books open and play that problem section several times while you are waiting to leave for school. The best time to learn a new section is just before bed – add this to the list of procrastination tricks! If you practice a section very carefully and slowly, only once or twice, just before bedtime, your brain spends the night practicing while you sleep. Play again in the morning, and you’ll discover how much practice you have done without even knowing it.
There are many aspects to learning a piece and the essential technical, aural and rhythmic skills. Some things count as valuable practice and they can be done away from the piano, even while watching TV, or driving in the car. With the music in front of you, read every mark you can find on the page. Did you see anything you hadn’t noticed before? What about the fingering you always forget? Practice it while you are sitting at the table… The rhythm patterns? Tap them on your knees while traveling or just sitting around relaxing. Spend time listening to recordings of pieces you are learning (you can bring a recorder to lessons and I will try to play the pieces you are learning, when a copy is not available some other way). All these activities can be counted in your practice time – just remember to keep a balance. Time at the piano is important.