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Piano Practice Tips

“Now go home and practice”. - OK, but how exactly?



Actually, I didn't start learning proper piano practice techniques myself until I started teaching piano. 

Some people have the ability to practice and get great results without having learned much about how to practice, that is true. But most people don’t.

After more than 25 years of teaching piano, I find it is absolutely essential for all piano students to learn about effective practice tools and how to practice as soon as possible.

And still I notice that practicing the piano is somehow assumed to just work by itself, as if every piano student was born with a “how to know how to practice” gene!

So, here are some more tips on how to practice with more efficiency and better results!

I can really recommend: The Musicians Way, it's a book crammed with great tips and plans on how to organize your practice. It has inspired me and my teaching a lot.

How to Practice Piano

How to Practice Piano

I like my students to work on several pieces at once.

Different repertoire, etudes and exercises, scales and chords, some prima vista and chord piano for example.

This can be rather a lot of material to work on, and can lead to confusion unless the material and the practice time is organized.

It is common to start the piano practice session with some form of warm up, scales and chord practice is good for example.

If working on any particular exercises for piano technique, this is good to do first as well.

Next, the study of repertoire. These pieces will be in different levels of completion, so to create a sense of where you are with each piece, and to quickly assess what needs to be done, I have found this plan below to be of big help.

Piano Practice Plan

Each piano piece needs to be taken through 6 different levels.

Level 1: Planning and Preparation

This part of the piano practice is done in your mindaway from the piano.

  • With a crisp copy of the music  (taped together if more than one page) you will listen to the music and follow along in the score. You can use recordings or check out youtube.
  • As you listen, several times, mark out any “Aha!” places, like a dynamic mark you didn’t notice, or something the performer does that you like very much. Also mark out any repeated parts or patterns.
  • Next, divide the piece in parts, for example if the piece is in a ABA- form, mark out where every part begins and ends. Then divide the piece in smaller bits, either 2-4 measures or in phrases that make sense musically. But the harder the music, the smaller the parts.
  • Finally, sit in a comfortable chair with the sheet music in front of you and imagine playing the piece as you read the music. If you need to, listen to the music again, but try to do this without any real sound if you can.

Level 2: Hands Separately, Fingering and Movement

Patience! Even though you now may feel so revved up you’d love to just start playing the piece hands together- DON’T!!

Your goal is to learn each hand separately, slowly then at tempo.

  • Focus on right notes and fingering. Write out fingering, circle awkward places, and work section by section until you can play slowly without mistakes.
  • Make sure to do the correct dynamics and articulation (staccato, legato, portato) as well.
  • Make sure to feel where each phrase leads to, to use the right direction and  arm movement.

Once you can play the whole piece hands separately slowly without mistakes, learn how to use a metronome to gradually increase speed a little every day until you can play the whole piece hands separately in full tempo.

Level 3: Hands Together, Slowly

Finally you are “allowed” to play both hands together. But remember my simple formula?

"The speed which you can play hands separately must now be halved."

This will feel very slow, but will make it possible to play without mistakes.

Work section by section like this:

  • Review each hand separately.
  • Play ½ tempo, or extremely slow motion both together.
  • Repeat several times, and for each repeat focus on something to improve; like articulation, dynamics, direction and expression.

Master, and then combine the small sections like this:

  • Section A (2-4 measures for ex.)
  • Section B
  • Section A +B
  • Section C
  • Section D
  • Section C + D

Continue until you have learned the whole piece. Then combine the larger sections: A+B and C+D, etc. until you have learned the whole piece slowly hands together.

Level 4: Hands Together at Tempo

Again, using the smaller or medium sized sections, with the metronome gradually build up tempo until you can play the whole piece full tempo with both hands.

Congrats! Record or video tape yourself and evaluate what you need to improve.

Level 5: Memorization

Learning how to memorize the piece is something that comes easily for about 50% of people, and harder for the other 50%.

For some of you, you will already have learned the piece by heart by now.

The rest of us, back again to the smaller sections.

Although it will go faster now, you need to patiently go through each section and learn each hand separately by heart, then both, repeat and rinse for each smaller then larger section.

Level 6: Repertoire Maintenance and Performing

Once a piece is memorized, it will only stay that way if you review it occasionally.

  • For newly memorized pieces, play at least once a day for a week.
  • The next week once every two days.
  • The third week once every three days.
  •  After that a few times a week should keep it ready to play whenever you like!

Here are tips on how to deal with performance preparation and how to manage stage fright: 10 tips to overcome stage fright.

Organization

Piano Practice FolderPiano Practice Organization

To keep several pieces organized regarding level of “readiness”, I keep a simple folder with the different levels written out as dividers.

Once a piece “graduates” from one level to the next, I simply move it to the next level.

I try to have at least one piece, repertoire and etudes, on each level.

This keeps the piano practice varied and more fun.

Give it a try and let me know if this piano practice plan worked for you!

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