Mastering the art of practice
An essential part of being a musician is mastering the art of practice. It’s important that we establish effective practice routines to actualize results and make progress, for we spend more of our time alone at the piano than we do with our teacher. Nothing is more discouraging than sitting down to practice and finding ourselves in a stalemate.
So, how do we practice? Accumulate tiresome hours, requiring marathon endurance? Play each piece from start to finish as many times as possible? Wander through assignments and hope to find ‘the secret’?
Effective practice is deliberate and efficient. We can develop a mindset to cut through inefficient patterns and find success sooner than we imagine. Think of it as honest presence with focused intention. To be fully present, we commit to a space (mental and physical) free of distraction and break our practice into realistic and sizable portions. And if we are not careful with our time and approach, we lose focus and purpose.
Let’s run through a few common powerless practice mistakes:
1. You believe practice should be a predetermined length of time: If you don’t practice for at least 30 minutes it won’t mean much, so you decide to play what you can distractedly (answering texts, checking social media alerts, thinking about what’s for dinner).
2. You practice start to finish: You decide to work on an assignment (method book, classical repertoire, jazz lead sheet, pop tune) and simply run through it as many times as possible from start to finish. Every time you play your intro is flawless and your favorite part to play; middle section is difficult containing many pauses; ending is completely foreign with wrong notes to figure out later.
3. You practice too fast: Often without even noticing, you are like a driver’s ed student that accelerates, decelerates, and occasionally slams the brakes when difficult sections come.
4. You practice without a pencil: You assume you will remember or notice everything you need to in any given assignment.
5. You ‘play’ rather than practice: You want to learn so many new pieces but have only two that you work on in lesson. You find yourself running through old, already mastered pieces and/or experimenting with new ones. You feel satisfied because just sitting down and playing is better than nothing.
Now let’s review these common scenarios and turn powerlessness into prowess:
1. Quality not quantity: The good news is that practice sessions don’t have to be long! One can only focus for 15-25 minutes at a time, a mere matter of human physiology and how our brain works. We can sit there for hours but our mind will only be present for some of that time. If committing to a block of time feels like a good motivator, then set a timer for 15-25 directed minutes and take small breaks in between. This will be far more effective than hours of undirected time.
If you only have 20 minutes to practice, that’s fantastic! You don’t have to master everything in one practice session; this is why you have a week in between lessons. Intentionally commit to your focus and leave the distractions for the other side. You will be surprised how much can be accomplished if you are honestly present. Becoming a good pianist is built on small but strong steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day!
2. ‘Start to finish’ is a time waster: Worst of all, playing through mistakes creates more mountains to climb and we don’t have time for that! Again this comes down to physiology and how muscle memory works. Going back to the beginning every time ensures that you continue to make the same mistakes and engrains anxiety in the muscles. Your body will memorize mistakes just as easily as it will memorize how to play a passage correctly which makes the learning process unnecessarily difficult. The goal is to get it right every time, even if that is just a handful of times within a practice session. This creates fluid muscle memory…finding the sweet spot.
The solution: Break music into sections and isolate problematic passages; it’s a waste of time to start with passages already mastered and leave the problems for later (which really means never). You already know your trouble spots so start there. Play these sections without making a mistake at least 5 times SLOWLY. One more time…SLOWLY! This is focused intention. There is nothing more rewarding than playing something well all the way through, and you will have that wonderful experience but not until you’re ready for it.
3. Play at the right tempo (which is almost always SLOWER): It’s human nature to rush everything. Musicians that excel learn and appreciate the art of slow practice. No questions asked. Rachmaninoff, who is known for his fast and very difficult piano compositions, was deliberate about slow practice. Here is a great recollection from Abram Chasins’ book ‘Speaking of Pianists’ as he describes a time he showed up for a lesson with Rachmaninov ……
Rachmaninov was a dedicated and driven perfectionist. He worked incessantly, with infinite patience. Once I had an appointment to spend an afternoon with him in Hollywood. Arriving at the designated hour of twelve, I heard an occasional piano sound as I approached the cottage. I stood outside the door, unable to believe my ears. Rachmaninov was practising Chopin’s etude in thirds, but at such a snail’s pace that it took me a while to recognise it because so much time elapsed between one finger stroke and the next. Fascinated, I clocked this re-markable exhibition: twenty seconds per bar was his pace for almost an hour while I waited riveted to the spot, quite unable to ring the bell. (Chasins, Abram. 1967. Speaking of Pianists. New York: Knopf, 44.)
When you are ready to piece your hard work on a song together, remember that you can only play as fast as your most challenging spot. This is honest presence. If we start too fast, slow down, speed back up, slow back down…we create chaos in the rhythm and can’t settle into our music with confidence. The hardest passage should determine your practice tempo.
4. Write it down: Being goal oriented also requires us to track our progress, otherwise we can slip into retrograde or lose sight of the big picture. Writing down specific measure numbers, sections, metronome markings, etc. keeps things intentional and moving forward. This seems obvious enough but keep a pencil and notebook by the piano! Writing things down ALWAYS promotes faster progress, in any discipline. An unmarked score means you probably haven’t dug deep enough.
5. ‘Play’ and ‘Practice’ are two different things (and equally as important): Just sitting down and playing the piano is wonderful and highly encouraged; we need to be able to play freely and for sheer pleasure. Same with sightreading and revisiting old repertoire; we need to explore in notereading and also maintain the progress we’ve made. But playing is different than practice. Practice has to be deliberate otherwise our minds will wander (again, human nature). For some, starting your session with play and then working your way into a structured session feels best. For others, beginning with focused practice and then transitioning to creative play feels better. Or you can separate them completely into two different sessions. Do what works best for you, but decide first which it is and stay on track!
5 Tips for Helping Your Child Succeed at Piano (and enjoy it too!)
Here are a few simple tips that can help your child truly love music and feel inspired and motivated to practice on their own.
1. BE CONSISTENT
Set aside a time in the day that is “music time” and do everything you can to make it the same time each day. Find a time that works for your family’s schedule (before dinner, after dinner, in the morning before leaving for school, etc.) and try to stick to it. Students respond best to challenging activities when they know what to expect and when to expect them – it helps them transition into the activity more easily because it is part of their daily routine, just like brushing their teeth or doing their homework.
2. ENCOURAGE EXPLORING
A huge part of developing a musician’s ear is time spent at the piano just “messing around” – what may sound like goofing off often leads to a child learning a song by ear or songwriting! Both are very important skills that help raise their musical confidence and their love for music, which will in turn motivate them to play more and practice more. Allow the student to spend part of their practice time with unstructured creative play, balanced with their weekly assignments from their one-on-one lesson. At MMS, we encourage you to reward your child for practicing their lesson assignment by letting them choose a song on their own that they would like to play.Amazon has lots of easy piano, or “big note” songbooks available with music from Star Wars, Adele, Taylor Swift, Disney, and lots more.
3. CULTIVATE INTEREST
Yes, sitting down in front of the keys is key (pun intended), but perhaps something equally important is developing a child’s personal interest in music – allowing their musical tastes and preferences to develop and grow. Help to encourage your child’s love for music by attending concerts – many free music performances happen in our wonderful city (and most cities) on a weekly basis and are great events for the whole family!
Here are just a few ideas:
During the summertime the Stern Grove festival is a great place to see amazing free performances:
Also, SF Weekly regularly updates their concert concert calendar and includes many free shows:
Starting April 19,2016, the great Golden Gate Park Band hosts a free concert in beautiful Golden Gate Park every Sunday.
The San Francisco Opera performs yearly in the Golden Gate Park for free:
You may also enjoy listening to new types of music in the car, or watch live performances of musicians on YouTube, drawing attention to the instruments being performed on stage. Music is such an enormous part of our society that, at first, children may not even be aware of how live performances work. Music just appears magically, right? Not quite! Showing your child music from a new perspective (the performer’s perspective) may help them to realize that it is not just for listening, but for doing, and this will inspire them to be more proactive with their practice.
4. PACING IS KEY
It is tough, even for adults, to sit down and play the same song for 30 minutes straight, especially when it is a particularly challenging song. Avoid frustration by switching between songs/exercises every 10 minutes or so, knowing that when it’s time to switch, the songs may still need some work – it’s ok! We can come back and try some more later. That’s why we recommend five whole days of practice – the first few days often require laying some simple ground work and it may not be until day 3 or 4 that things start coming together. Stick with it and remember – slow and steady!
5) PARENT SUPPORT IS EVERYTHING
We know – parents. are. busy! It’s not realistic to ask parents to sit with students during all their practice sessions. The ultimate goal is that your student will be self sufficient to practice on their own. However, establishing a practice routine takes time before it feels consistent and natural. It will likely require a few months of steady encouragement from parents before a student recognizes that practice is a part of their daily schedule that they can handle completely on their own. Ideally, parents will sit with their young students during their initial practice sessions. Try sitting with your child for 2-3 practices a week during the first month. During their solo practice sessions, be nearby and listen in frequently. Afterward check in with them to see how they feel the session went, what they accomplished, what was hard, what successes they found, and most importantly what was fun. Have them play for you what they worked on, in all stages from just beginning a song/exercise to having it completely mastered. This will help your student to feel supported in their practice but also empowered that they can do it on their own. Keep up the positive support until your child feels confident to practice on their own. And we promise, it will happen. But at first, they will need and crave your support!
Music time IS family time. Find a way to make it fun for everyone. There is nothing more special than sharing music with those you love the most.
And we’re here to support you every step of the way. Happy practicing!
What works for me?
Create a comfortable, relaxing, and organized space to practice. Make it your own. Make a shrine. Say a prayer. Set an intention. Have a ritual for beginning. Let me repeat that. Have a ritual for beginning. We all know that getting started is the hardest part, of any discipline. Once we are there, we are generally ok with being there, and sometimes even thinking “why don’t I do this more often?”. So then prepare to begin. Light your candles, sage your space, remove your technology. Meaning, put. it. in. another. room. Do whatever feels good to you to make the experience of sitting down at your instrument as pleasant as possible.
This is your time to grow. And it’s not always comfortable. So make your intention clear to yourself and everything/one around you. And begin your practice with a clear mind, open heart, and willingness to give it all your focus. Then get to work. I promise, it will give back to you.
Here’s what my inspirational space looks like. for today. What does yours look like? I’d love to hear from you on our Facebook page. Share your thoughts and experiences and we can all learn from each other.