Sometimes I wonder what I have spent more hours on, thinking about practicing or actually practicing. As a seasoned list-maker I have made plenty of mental and written lists organizing all the elements a musician needs to address. There’s a lot to consider. There are broad categories such as fully notated music, reading lead sheets, improvisation, scales chords and arpeggios, and transcription. There are temporary, specific projects like pieces to be learned for other people i.e. as an accompanist. A conscientious musician will also be aware of the specific weaknesses in their playing and practice remedies to smooth out these rough spots. There’s also different feels and genres to master, playing uptempo, transposition, and the weird little bugaboos about your particular instrument that need your attention. Jeez, it’s so hard to not go off on all these things separately. Stay tuned for like a hundred future blog posts on practicing.
I’ve had a lot of great teachers over the past 20 years of studying music and each one has offered something different about how to approach practicing. Now I am into my second decade of teaching and I spend year after year trying to guide my students into good practice habits. The advice I offer my students is a combination of what my teachers told me to do, things I accidentally discovered, research, careful observation of successes, and experiments that worked. I should add, teaching beginners how to practice is a critical, sometimes maddening task and how a beginner practices is completely different than how a self-directed musician practices. But if I do my job right, the solid foundation of good practice habits can take a student from beginner to advanced and then to professional musician if they so desire (and may the lord have mercy on them if that is the case). Here are some of the tips I offer my beginners and their parents:
1. Make sure you have a quiet place to practice where no one will interrupt you.
2. Gather your materials ( practice assignment binder, songbooks, lesson books, metronome, pencil) and have them ready at the piano.
3. Open your piano binder and turn to this week’s assignment sheet that I have written for you.
4. Follow your practice instructions carefully. Ask your parents or teacher for help if you need it.
5. Practice slowly. Go slow enough to keep a steady beat, play the correct notes, and use the correct fingers. If you make mistakes, you are playing too fast. Slow down and try again. The speed of your playing will gradually increase as your fingers become more confident.
6. Be kind to yourself. Learning how to play music takes a lot of effort and there will be many mistakes along the way. Don’t give up! You can do it. You will feel so proud of yourself every time you master a new song. Share the songs you have learned with your family and friends. Sharing music with others can help spread happiness.
7. Build practice time into your family or personal calendar. Set aside at least four 30 minute sessions every week, and make it part of your weekly routine. This eliminates the problem of ‘not enough time’ and procrastination.
8. It is not a waste of time to practice for ‘only’ 5 minutes. Small frequent sessions work very well for many people, especially young children. Do not fall into the trap of avoiding practice because you don’t have 3 uninterrupted hours to devote to that piece that really needs work.
9. Take breaks if necessary. If you are becoming filled with rage or frustration, STEP AWAY FROM THE PIANO. Come back later with a clear head and renewed optimism. It’s just piano. No one is going to die. It’s supposed to be fun and fascinating.
10. Patience, young padawan, patience. There is no way to know how many times it will take before you master it. 99% of the time it will be more than you think it should be. Every repetition takes you closer to your goal. You will get there. And it will be worth it.