The Art & Science of Practicing Piano

Practice is a skill in itself that has to be learnt, developed and worked upon throughout your entire life as a musician. While numerous resources are available talking about the technical aspects of playing the piano, not many talk about how to practice which is an equally important aspect especially when it comes to learning an instrument like the piano. In this article, we will comprehensively cover three important elements of practicing the piano or any musical instrument, which are Quality, Frequency and Quantity.

 

Quality of Practice

“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.” – Vladimir Horowitz, Pianist

Regardless of how much time you spend practicing, the quality of your practice session is the most important factor in determining how much you actually benefit from the session. Let us look at various strategies to improve the quality of your practice:

  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is all about being fully focused and present mentally during the practice session. If you are practicing the instrument in auto-pilot mode and your mind is wandering off somewhere else, you’re not really getting the best out of the session. Keep all mobile gadgets/screens away during the practice session as these devices are the number one culprits that steal your attention. Studies have shown that just the presence of a phone in the room, even in silent-mode, can unconsciously disrupt your focus as we’ve become so dependent on these devices these days. Mindfulness is also having a clear goal of what you want to achieve out of the practice session. Ask yourself these questions – “What are the specific challenges I’m facing in the piece?”, “What am I going to work on today?”, “Did I address the concern I had in the piece in today’s session?”, “If not, what else do I need to do?”, etc. Having a goal-oriented practice session will make your sessions much more effective than practicing the instrument without a specific purpose.
 
  • Structure: A practice session needs to have a healthy mix of different elements just like a balanced diet has the right amount of proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins, etc. Ensure that you’re also working on your technique, theory and musicianship along with your lessons/repertoire as these are crucial skills that need to be developed along with your playing. We would recommend the practice session to be structured in a similar format to which our classes are structured, where you have 10-15 min of technical work, 30-35 min of lessons/repertoire, and 10-15 on theory and musicianship (aural, sight reading, etc.).
 
  • Chunking: A lot of the time when I ask students what they did during practice, they tell me they played the lesson/piece from start to finish “x” number of times. While playing the lesson/piece from start to finish is required, this shouldn’t be the major part of the practice. Practice is breaking up the lesson/piece into small chunks, identifying challenge points and spending time working on each of these till the time you can confidently play it in its entirety. Depending on the difficulty of the piece, a chuck can be a single staff, a phrase or a single measure. I always tell students that I’d rather have them practice and play one or two staves well rather than a rocky performance of the entire lesson/piece.
 
  • Slow Practice: Slow practice is all about practicing at a very slow tempo by paying attention to all the musical and technical aspects of the piece. This can apply to an entire piece, section, staff or even a single measure. Slow practice makes it easier for you to actually listen to the finer aspects of your playing and it also serves as a tool for you to learn something thoroughly to the point where you can play it well at performance tempo. As the popular saying goes – if you can play it slowly, you can play it quickly!
 
  • Managing Fatigue: If you feel you’re mentally or physically tired then ask yourself if the practice session is actually going to be fruitful. Sometimes rescheduling the practice session to a better time or taking a small break (preferably away from screens) in between the practice session can make a significant difference. If you’re in any kind of physical pain due to your playing then stop immediately as you should never play through pain. Physical pain can only be caused by either incorrect playing technique or an underlying physical health condition. Please talk to your teacher if you experience any kind of pain while playing the instrument.
 
  • External Factors: External factors can also affect how well a practice session goes. Make sure you are in a properly lit, well-ventilated, noise-free room while you practice. Keep outside disturbances to the minimum – inform your family members not to disturb you during practice sessions and keep your phone in silent mode, preferably outside the practice room. Try to schedule practice sessions when your mental and physical energies are high rather than after a long day of work/school when you’re completely drained. Having good sleep, enough physical exercise, and a healthy diet can positively affect your sessions.
 

The below practice strategies are useful especially for intermediate/advanced students, however, beginners might also benefit from these:

  • Analysis & Score Study: Having a strong theoretical understanding and a background of the pieces you’re performing can significantly improve your communication and interpretation while performing. You should be aware of the basic form, tonality, underlying harmonic language, modulations, resolutions, musical period, details about the composer, his/her style, etc., to fully understand a piece and deliver a convincing performance. 
 
  • Interleaving: Interleaving is the process of mixing up different parts/sections during your practice. Studies have shown that interleaving is more effective than a blocked practice where you spend a finite amount of time working on a single part/section. During an interleaved practice session, you would break up the piece into different chunks, work on each chunk for very short intervals, and immediately move to the next chunk before you fully master the first chunk. After spending a short interval of time with the second chunk you can move to the third chunk or cycle back to the first chunk (depending on how many chunks you are working with). This cycling forces the brain to recall the chunk every time you cycle back to it, which in turn helps in faster learning and memorisation. Interleaved practice takes up a high cognitive load so be sure to give yourself breaks to recharge.
 
  • Sing & Play: This strategy is useful, especially while learning contrapuntal works and works where a single hand handles more than one voice. Singing one voice while playing the other helps you have a mental awareness of each individual voice and that can help you to decide how you’d like to voice them when you actually play the piece/section in its entirety.
 
  • Mental Practice: Mental practice is practicing away from your instrument using the mind’s power of visualisation. This strategy has been used by many great pianists like Rubinstein and Horowitz. Close your eyes, calm your mind, and imagine sitting in front of the piano. Warm up like you usually do and imagine playing through a section/piece. Feel your fingers on the keys of the piano, the different motions involved, and hear the sound it would make in your mind’s ear. If you lose focus or feel you made a mistake, try starting again. The idea is to be fully present mentally during this activity. Once you do this successfully, try out the section on the actual piano and see the difference!
 
  • Listening: Listening to performances of great pianists playing the piece that you’re working on can teach and help you to gain insight into the interpretation. Music is rarely performed exactly how it is printed on the score. Every pianist interprets the piece in a different way and that is the reason why people still attend concerts despite the fact that most pieces have already been played countless times by numerous pianists. Listening to your own recordings can bring to your attention a number of things that you would have missed while you were playing and listening at the same time. Active listening is the process of listening to your own performance recordings in a highly critical manner so that you can identify problems and places for improvement. Sometimes we can get overly critical of our own performances by constantly comparing them to performances by world-class pianists, to the point that it can have a rather negative impact on our confidence. This is where passive listening helps. Passive listening is listening to your performance recordings while you’re doing other mundane tasks like household chores, driving, etc. so that you are not critically analysing the music that you’re playing every second. This is a more natural way of listening to music, similar to how most people would consume music. Passive listening helps to maintain a balance between being overly critical and completely not paying attention to how your performances actually sound.
 
  • Journaling: Maintaining a practice journal/record highlighting practice goals, achievements, practice time, frequency, areas for improvement, etc., can help you to be more consistent with your practice, keep you motivated, and also serve as a useful tool to gain insights about your practice and help you to optimise how you practice. 
 
 
Frequency of Practice

“If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. If I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it.” – Louis Armstrong, Trumpeter & Vocalist

How often you practice (frequency) is the second most important factor. I often tell my students that I’d rather have them practice 30 mins per day, four days a week rather than spend 2 hours on a Sunday (if 2 hours is all they can spare for practice in a week). This is due to the fact that repetition of activity forces the brain to retrieve information that was stored earlier and this process creates a feedback loop causing the brain to make these associations stronger every time it is forced to retrieve information when a particular activity is repeated. This is the same principle behind the idea of interleaving practice which was discussed earlier. 

In an ideal world, all piano students should be practicing every day and this would be the dream come true for any piano teacher! However, considering all things, students need to strive for at least 5-6 days of practice to see good progress. This is especially important once they are past the basic levels as the difficulty of lessons progresses in an exponential and not a linear manner. Regardless of whether you are a beginner or a professional pianist, regular practice is something which you cannot escape as long as you want to be proficient at playing the instrument. For those students who are very religious with their practice schedules, be sure to take some time off the piano as well to recharge as this break would help you to avoid burnout and come back to the piano refreshed.

 

Quantity of Practice 

“Don’t practice till you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” – Unknown

While frequency describes how often you practice, quantity describes how much you practice. The quantity of practice matters only if the quality and frequency of practice are secured. A focused 60 min practice session would be much more effective than a 90-120 min session where you’re constantly distracted or fatigued. The quantity of practice required would vary depending on your current level, your individual learning speed, the difficulty of the piece you’re attempting to learn, your attention span, the reason for practice (upcoming recital/exam vs personal progress), etc. 

However, one thing that can be agreed upon is that as you progress higher, you would be required to put in more time as the pieces that you will be learning will get more demanding. While the quantity of practice is going to be a personal number for you based on the various factors mentioned above, I have provided an indication of what is ideally required depending on your level in the below table. Again, the quantity of practice matters only if the quality and frequency are also working. For those students aiming to clock in long practice hours, be sure to take breaks in between, ensure you’re not straining any part of your body and you also make time for rest.

 

Level Grade Practice Duration Per Day Frequency
Foundation & Beginner Initial, 1 20-45 mins 5-6 days/week
Advanced Beginner 2,3 45-60 mins 5-6 days/week
Early Intermediate 4,5 1 hr 6-7 days/week
Intermediate 6,7 1-1½ hrs 6-7 days/week
Late Intermediate 8 1½-2 hrs 6-7 days/week
Early Advanced Pre-Uni 2-4 hrs 6-7 days/week

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