Practice. Do it regularly, preferably every day, and you can be great. You already know this.
What you might not know is that the quality of your practice is far more important than the amount of practice. It's proven by medical and educational research that if you get it right, you learn much faster.
So how do you get it right? Here are some tips to help you get the most out of practice.
1. Set a specific goal for every session
Decide what you want to achieve and make it something you can measure. By focusing on the outcome you get there quicker and it's far more satisfying. If you want to improve a technical or physical ability like finger span or speed, then aim to nail down five specific arpeggios and scales. Courses make it far easier to identify specific, measurable goals.
Alternatively, if you're dying to crack a tough section, your goal might be to play it through ten times without mistakes. Make sure you play in and out of the section, so when you put the piece together it flows properly and see tip 7 for what to do when you get it right.
2. Remove distractions
Distractions come from everywhere. It's unavoidable, but you can do something about it. Ask family or friends not to speak to you for the next half hour. If you can only practice in the lounge, then make sure you practice when you're alone and even if you can't hear the TV, turn it off. You may think that the moving images aren't distracting, but they attract enough attention from your subconscious to reduce the quality of your practice.
The worst culprit is your phone. A notification distracts you for a moment and before you know it you're reading an article on painting garden furniture. You don't even have a garden. Put your phone out of sight, on silent. Even better, leave it in another room. It will fight the automatic reaction we all have to take it out whenever the mind wanders.
The power of unbroken practice isn't just that you get more done. It maximizes the chances of getting into a groove, falling into a "flow" state where you are totally immersed in what you are doing. The psychological benefits of this state while practicing are incredible, but the best part is that you improve a lot faster.
3. Structure practice like a workout
You wouldn't put on your running shoes and immediately start sprinting, or walk into a gym and pick up the heaviest weights. Piano is no different. Not only does it drastically improve brain function, it's also a physical workout for the 34 muscles and 123 ligaments used to move the fingers in each hand. You need to treat practice with the same mindset.
Loosen up your wrists and warm up your fingers with stretches and hand exercises. Then warm up your coordination with scales, improvising or whatever works best for you. Only start tricky new concepts or fixing problem sections when you're warm and ready.
Then, just like a workout, don't go for too long. Even world-famous concert pianists split up their practicing regimes, so stop when you've achieved your goal before practice quality starts to suffer. Finish with a warm-down, improvising or playing something you've already mastered so you walk away happy and looking forward to the next session.
4. Fight bad habits before they form
Nobody gets it right the first time, but it's still annoying when we come across a difficult part. Resist the urge to move onto the next section, fix it immediately before bad habits can form. The best (scientifically tested) method involves listening to the voice in your head warning you about a problem area and stop before you hit it. Work it out, practice it, and only move on when you get it right.
The same goes for fixing bad technical habits like posture and fingering. It might take a little time to get these right at the start, but it is far easier and quicker than fixing bad habits at a later stage. In bad cases, the only cure is to start again from scratch...
5. Vary your practice techniques
If you practice the same way every time your progress will slow down and piano becomes a chore. You can fight this and avoid hitting a plateau by alternating practice techniques.
This can be as simple as deciding not to play problem sections over and over. Slow them down. Speed them up. If you usually start on the easiest section, start with the hardest. If you always play with both hands, then try each hand separately.
It doesn't matter what you change as long as you change something. Each new technique might be difficult at the start, but they keep it fresh and you will see rapid improvement.
6. Consistent feedback
One problem faced by many students is that they practice without feedback to tell them whether they are playing correctly. It's hard enough when people can hear you practice in the background, but even worse if you have to ask a friend to listen intently and stop you at every mistake. That would drive anybody crazy, and they wouldn't be your friend very long.
App learning does it for you. You can loop sections and the app will stop when you make a mistake. You can keep repeating it until you've got it down, without losing any friendships.
7. Reward yourself
Remember that goal you set at the start? Hit it, then reward yourself. Psychological research tells us that this "positive reinforcement" is far better for learning and developing good habits than punishing mistakes ("negative reinforcement"). So when a session isn't going well, don't be hard on yourself. Keep calm and carry on until you achieve your goal.
It doesn't matter what reward you choose. An episode of your favorite show, or something as simple as a cookie. However small, it will help to form stronger neural pathways and reinforce the feeling of achievement from every small improvement.
Savor that cookie. You earned it.
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