5 Tips for Effective Practice

Updated: May 15, 2019

Hi Friends! Do you like practising? This is a golden question for all musicians and students. Because I've been playing the piano since I was very young, I've come to accept that it's just something that needs to be done. I wouldn't say that it's particularly enjoyable because it can be a tedious process, but self-discipline kicks in and I don't even attach an emotion to this endless task - that being said, once I sit down and do some solid work, I feel GREAT! We all feel good after putting in some hard work. It's just like a run that you don't want to go for but you feel great once you're out running. If you are going to practise, though, you'd want to make sure that you have an effective approach. It's true that it has become a struggle to find practice time in our modern, fast-paced world. How do we practise efficiently so that we utilise what limited time we have to maximum benefit? Here are five essential tips! 

1. Know WHAT you're practising. Having a clear intention of what you're going to work on helps you be mindful of your approach. After you've decided on the piece you're going to practise, also try to set a GOAL for the practice session. What are you trying to improve today and in this session? Do you want to play more fluently, hands together? If you've just had a lesson with your teacher, try to remember what you worked on in your lesson and what your teacher has asked you to do. Do you have a warm up routine? Scales? Exercises? Studies? Set a clear intention for your practice session. Or are you doing maintenance work on your technique? 

Try not to simply repeat a passage or exercise for the sake of playing 5 times or 10 times. Your goal needs to be specific. Eg: I will pay special attention to my staccatos, or to the balance between the hands, or the shape of my phrases, etc. 2. CREATE a positive learning environment. When you're practising, try to devote all your focus on what you are doing - remember: it's quality over quantity! Pick the right time, too - if your mind keeps wandering, maybe you need to take a break, or maybe it's before a meal and you're too hungry. It also helps to have a quiet environment for you to really focus on your practice. Turn off the TV or music around you, turn your phone on silent mode, take distractions away from the piano, and try to minimise conversation with other people (including texting!) while practising.

3. Break it down - ANALYSE. Is there a particular passage in your piece that you struggle with? Try to pick the exact problem spot - circle it with a pencil (or mark it with a small post-it note!), and try to think about WHY it's difficult. Is there an unexpected leap? A black note? A chord? Are the two hands doing different things at once? Is there a difficult note to read? Is there an ornament? Asking yourself these kind of questions helps you realise what you need to think of when you're approaching that spot as you play. Try to isolate the spot and practise it several times. Often it's enough to know what the challenge is and where it is in the piece, and your mind will trigger correctly if you take note of it mindfully. 

4. RECORD your own practice. Once you have spent some time practising, now it's time to record and listen to your progress! You can use your phone (or ask a family member to do this for you) to record an audio or a video, and make sure to listen back! It's one of the greatest ways to see if you're on the right track. You may find your own playing different to how you think you sounded. This is also a great way to train your ear to listen critically and become your own teacher in the long run.

5. Practice SLOWLY. Practice slowly. This is one of the most important things to do as a musician. Even if you know a piece really well, it is a good idea to practise slowly, and do this frequently (even better with a metronome used effectively!). Listen to the sound you're producing, and make sure that all the details are still in place. The common tip with metronomes is to start very slowly, and increase gradually. Be mindful of how your mind (and hands) react to the metronome speed. If you feel scrambly at any time and not in full control, or it's not possible to play accurately at the chosen speed, the tempo is already too fast for now. Only increase to the tempo you can handle comfortably, and each day this threshold will increase. And of course, you don't have to play the entire piece in one sitting. Pick a small portion (2 phrases, for example) and just get to work! 

BONUS TIP Now to put it altogether ... you need ENDURANCE! Playing the piano is more than just training the fingers to react quickly and produce notes. You also need to train the ability to focus consistently throughout a piece, and pieces also naturally become longer as you become more advanced. Even if you are a fast reader, or you have an efficient practice method that saves you time, endurance is one aspect of playing the piano that can't be achieved in a small amount of time. If you only practise in short bursts, you wouldn't be able to build the stamina to last through a piece with 5 or 10 pages, or even more - just as you wouldn't only train 100m sprints in order to prepare for a full marathon. This stamina won't come overnight, but is one of the most important assets for a musician. This is something that one of my mentors said to me which has stuck, on why it is important to practise correctly: Practice makes PERMANENT. How true this is! I hope this has been helpful - please let me know if you have tips to share in the comments!

Happy practising! Misa


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