Piano Practice can seem daunting at first, and it’s no surprise that “I didn’t practice enough” is the reason why many people gave up learning an instrument at a young age. It’s a shame, because giving up means missing out on the daily pleasure and satisfaction that practicing can become. It is a happy coincidence that practice is also critical for you to progress.
The good news is that with high-quality practice this improvement will come much faster. In fact, educational research has proven that when it comes to practice it’s not how much; it’s how. The better news is that if you develop good habits from the start, then you will learn to love practicing. What is there to dislike about time spent playing your favorite music?
In this chapter we cover how to structure your practice routine, prepare yourself for each session, and structure each session to get the maximum benefit.
Structuring your practice routine
20 minutes is a great place to start. In general, limit your sessions to 40 minutes as this is the limit of productive human attention span. Even professional concert pianists who practice for hours every day (it is their job after all) won’t sit at the keyboard for more than 40 minutes at a time. Of course, if you find yourself entering a flow of productive playing, then keep going! Stop as soon as your concentration drops and be happy with what you achieved.
Practice daily to turn it into a habit. If this seems like a lot, remember that it’s only 20 minutes. That’s less than a sixth of the average time we spend on social media every day. The practice itself will get easier as your technique improves, and as you form positive associations you grow to look forward to it as part of your routine. You will even start to miss it when you're away from the piano for more than a few days. Don’t be too hard on yourself, if you end up playing five days a week, that’s great.
You choose. The best time to practice is a time that suits you. If you have a flexible schedule, try out a few different times and work out what feels right. We are all totally different. Mozart played very early or very late, Strauss mid-morning. Consider the schedules of those around you too. An electric keyboard with headphones is fine anytime, but if you have a grand piano, then playing during everyone’s favorite TV show - or at 4 a.m. - could make you unpopular.
Make sure your piano is easily accessible and visible. Very few of us have unlimited room to place a piano or keyboard, so it depends on size and how much space you have available. Do what you can to make it easy to simply sit down and play with proper posture and technique. So no hunching over in a cramped attic. If you are using a keyboard, try to keep it set up. If you are hiring a rehearsal space or going to a friend’s home to practice on their piano, try to find somewhere as close as possible. Remember, the goal is to be there every day.
Before each practice session
Think of your practice time as sacred, and treat it with a little respect. Continuous concentration is a more efficient use of your time and drastically improves the quality of your practice. In an ideal world we would each have a room containing nothing but a piano. But for most of us, we need to take steps to remove distractions.
Ask whoever you live with not to talk to you you when you are practicing, even if you look like you want to be disturbed. They will understand. Turn off the TV. Even if you can’t hear it, the images will grab some of your attention. Put your phone out of sight. Even better, leave it in another room to avoid taking it out. Facebook can wait 20 minutes. So can Instagram.
If you’re using correct technique, then playing piano becomes a whole-body exercise, translating energy through your body to your fingertips. So before you get going, loosen up your arms, wrists, and hands. Then warm up with scales, arpeggios or something more structured like the Hanon exercises that can be found for free in various places online. The rule of thumb is to start with something slow and easy before moving on to anything demanding. So you could also start by playing a song that you already know, just go slow.
The Hanon exercises
These 60 exercises by Charles-Louis Hanon back in 1873 have been widely used to improve flexibility, speed, agility, and strength for the fingers and wrists. The first 20 are simple repeated sequences of notes for both hands, moving up and down the keyboard. You can find them for free in various places online.
Hanon exercises can help improve your technique, but they are often criticized for not being very musical. It is important to keep the right balance between practicing mere technique and developing your musicianship in the context of a song.
Structuring each session
Choosing the right music
Playing the music you love, or at least music you know, can dramatically improve learning and motivation. Choosing the right music is more difficult than it seems, so take time to experiment until you get it right. Too easy and you get bored, too hard and you get frustrated.
Start with an easy transcription of a song or piece of classical music that you love. This might mean asking your teacher, finding a compilation of easy piano songs in a music store, an online video tutorial, or browsing an app like flowkey. flowkey has a full range of difficulty levels, and any song marked with a green corner in the app is suitable for beginners.
In general, as a beginner look for songs that have:
- Very few notes in the left hand
- No chords with more than three notes
- Very few hand jumps or quick finger movements
You need to know how the song (or piece) is supposed to sound before you play it. Eventually, when your ability to read music is good enough, you will be able to tell how it will sound just by reading the score. But for now, it’s important to listen to the song. It also helps immensely if you can see how it is played on a piano. For example, a section may seem tricky until you see it played and realise that crossing over your fingers at a specific point will make it easier.
Repetition, repetition, repetition
Once you've chosen a song and you are familiar with it, break it down into sections of 4-10 seconds. Studies have shown that this is just the right length for your brain to focus while memorizing new and complex hand movements.
Don’t try to learn the whole song. Learn one new section a day. Repeat it. Your daily learning routine could look something like this:
- Monday: Learn the first section
- Tuesday: Learn the second section and play both sections together
- Wednesday: Learn the third section and play all three sections together
- Thursday:Learn the fourth section and play all four sections together and so on...
When you start connecting the sections it can feel strange and disjointed because you’ve practiced them only separately before. Avoid this by including a few notes from the previous section, and a few after. The more notes you add either side, the more it will feel like a continuous piece of music rather than a series of disconnected sections.
Always starting over from the beginning
It feels natural to start at the beginning, so many of us play from here, try adding a few new notes, make a mistake, then start again from the beginning. You waste a lot of time playing this first section over and over, while you could be learning new sections or correcting mistakes. Instead, focus on a new part and practice it alone. Only combine it with the previous sections when you get it right, then move on.
Playing different parts with both hands can seem terrifying at first. By jumping straight into playing both, you are overwhelming your brain, forcing it to:
- Learn and memorize what the right hand has to do
- Learn and memorize what the left hand has to do
- Coordinate both hands at once
Be good to your brain. Think of left hand, right hand, and coordinating both as different tasks. Work on each of the three separately. If we assume you are practicing for the 20 minutes a day we recommended, your weekly routine might look a little like this:
- Monday: Learn the first section. 5 mins right hand, 5 mins left hand, 10 mins both hands
- Tuesday: 5 mins right hand, 5 mins left hand, 5 mins both hands. Then, spend another 5 mins playing both sections together.
- Wednesday: Learn the third section. 5 mins right hand, 5 mins left hand, 5 mins both hands. Then, spend another 5 mins playing all three sections together.
Improvement is all about playing something today that you couldn’t play yesterday, or last week. You do this by identifying the problem sections in everything you play and fixing them before they become issues. Whether this section is a series of notes that jumbles your fingers or a jump that you miss, fight the instinct to skip it because it doesn’t sound as good.
Use the hand-separating technique above to break it down into something simpler. Repeat it slowly, including a few notes before and after for continuity. Try again the next day, following the practice schedule above. Add more complexity when you can play each part seamlessly. It will be perfect before you know it.
Not focusing on difficult passages
It feels good to play sections that you know well. But if you spend your precious practice time playing these and neglecting those that need improvement, progress will stall even with hours of playing daily. The solution is to find the passages that still feel difficult and concentrate on them with laser-focus. Play the hands separately, slowly, then together, even slower, then continually increase the speed.
This is how you really improve, and it may help to clearly differentiate between practicing like this, which may feel like hard work, and playing for pure pleasure. So after you work at a problem section and get it right, treat yourself by playing something you love that you already know.