Adult playing the piano

11 Steps to Get the Most From Practicing the Piano

You’ve finally decided to begin piano lessons. Maybe you’re brand new to piano lessons, or maybe you’re returning after many years. Whatever your circumstances, you should be congratulated.

When you start piano lessons, your teacher will tell you what to practice but may or may not tell you how to practice. I won’t tell you what to practice, but I will give you several tips on how to get the most out of practicing the piano.

1. Go easy on yourself.
Remember, playing the piano is supposed to be fun. (Why do you think they call it “playing” the piano?) And practicing the piano should be fun as well. Feeling pressured to improve your skills on a self-imposed timetable only creates frustration and eventually you may stop playing altogether. Don’t expect your playing skills to improve in a linear way – they will improve more like the Dow Jones average.

2. Recognize your accomplishments.
We tend to compare ourselves to other pianists who are more advanced. That’s fine if it keeps you motivated to practice. But, frequently compare yourself to where you were last month, or last year, or even last week, and bask in your improvements.

3. 5-minute rule.
The 1-minute rule is an agreement you make with yourself when you don’t have enough time for a full practice session. Maybe you’re too busy to practice, or too tired, or stressed, etc. So, tell yourself that you’ll only practice for 5 minutes. Run through a quick warm-up, practice a song, a passage, a finger drill, or chord progression. Now you’ve met your agreement. You may continue practicing if you choose or not.

4. Always warm up first.
Even if you only have a few minutes to play the piano, always begin your practice session by playing 5-finger drills, one or two Hanon’s, and/or a scale, arpeggios, or inversions, etc.

5.Practice each hand separately.
Practice each hand separately until you can play the section at the required tempo. Then put your hands together. Occasionally practice your hands separately again.

6. Practice alone, if possible.
Occasionally you may want to play for family or friends, but “playing” and “practicing” are two different things. If you have an electronic piano or keyboard, use headphones so that you can still practice when others are around. Then you can repeat a passage as times as you want, work through a section or measure, or play drills without anyone becoming annoyed or making comments that annoy you!

7. Practice two different ways:
Read the Music. When playing written pieces, practice reading the music and don’t look at your hands. Over time, you’ll have an excellent sense of the keyboard “geography” and your hands will seem to know exactly what keys to play without your having to look at the keyboard. You won’t lose your place in the music either since your eyes stay on the page.

Don’t Read the Music. Now play while looking at your hands. (Liberace watched his hands all the time, but who wouldn’t? I’d be looking at those rings!) It’s important that you spend time playing without reading the music, especially when practicing chords, chord drills and  progressions.

I tell my students, “If you “read” it, you can’t “hear” it, and so you can’t “play” it musically. In other words, when reading a piece, we are usually so intent on playing the correct notes, fingering, rhythm, etc. that we don’t hear what we’re playing. This makes for very mechanical sounding music. By playing without reading the music, you’ll find that you play written songs more easily, get better at playing by ear, and you’ll enjoy it immensely.

8. Practice songs in sections.
Divide a song in halves or quarters, or the verse and chorus, or isolate difficult parts. Repeat them several times – even if it’s only two notes that your fingers can’t seem to coordinate. Concentrate on playing these sections until you thoroughly master them.

9. Start at a different place in the music.

We always start learning a song by focusing on the first part till it gets easy and then begin working on the next part. Then, at our next practice we start at the beginning again. Thus, the first part continues to improve. Then we tend to slide through a later, more challenging section because it’s harder than the first section we’ve mastered. We end up with many songs we can never can play well all the way through. So instead, start your practice at the difficult section first. Continue working on it before going back to the beginning.

10. Play as fast as you can.
You may have been told to practice a piece slowly until you can play smoothly before speeding up. Yes, a certain amount of slow practice is absolutely necessary. And you should never perform a song faster than you can play the most difficult part—in other words, don’t slow down in difficult sections and speed up in easier sections. The whole song should be the same tempo. However, spending some time practicing the song faster than the suggested tempo helps to develop fluidity involving shading, dynamics, phrasing differences in touch and rhythmic vitality.

Take a section of a song, even just one or two measures. Play it slowly at first, then speed up the next time. Do this until you can play it at the suggested tempo, or at least close to it. If you stumble, go back to the slower tempo and start speeding up again. You can play a short section 20 times in a few minutes and even memorize it.

This is much more effective than learning the whole song slowly first, then gradually speeding up. When you become proficient at playing a song faster, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to play it at the correct, slower tempo.

11. Memorize a piece as you learn it.
A mistake many students make is to think, “I’ll memorize the song after I learn to play it completely.” But to memorize a song after you can play it will require almost as much time as it took to learn it in the first place. You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to memorize a song that you can already play well.

To memorize a song, work on one section at a time. Play it while reading the notes, then try playing it while looking at your hands instead of the music. At first, you may have to look at the music over and over just to remember 3 or 4 notes. After doing this for a few sessions, you will have it memorized. Continue memorizing sections till you can play the whole song without the music.

You’ll never play as well as you want without practicing the piano. Now that you know how to practice, isn’t time to get to work??

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