In part one of this article I wrote about the principles behind effective learning and good practice habits. In this part I want to discuss some of the more practical aspects of learning and practising the piano. It is important to remember, however, that whatever I recommend here should by no means be taken as gospel. I will simply outline what are, in my opinion, the most effective approaches to practicing the piano. Take to heart what is said below, then decide for yourself or with your piano teacher what will work best for you.
How Much to Practise
The first thing you will need to do is decide how much time you can devote to practice. This is a very important step and you need to be realistic about how much time you can afford. You will also need to establish where in your list of priorities learning the piano lies. Obviously, the more practice you do the better, but setting your goals too high then establishing a habit of reducing your practice time can be a recipe for disaster. It is much better to have a modest goal then gradually aim higher, increasing the amount of time you dedicate to practice.
When to Practise
Once you have established how much you would like to practise, you then need to decide when you are going to practise. Hopefully you will have some time to practise each day but what ever time you set aside for practise, the important thing is that you stick to it. If you decide to practise for half an hour before going to bed make sure you do just that. If for some reason you can’t manage to make a practice session, make a firm decision to make up for it some other time – ideally as soon as possible after the missed session.
How to Practise
Imagine what you’re going to play before playing it
Now that you have decided when and how much to practise, we need to consider exactly how to practise. Apart from anything else you should always strive to play exactly what you intend. This means that you should have a definite idea in your mind of what you are going to do before you attempt to do it. This can apply to playing certain notes or chords, playing at a certain dynamic level, or playing with a certain articulation. Any or all of these things should be decided upon before you attempt to play. Once you have decided exactly what you are going to do you should then pay close attention to whether or not your attempt was successful. If it wasn’t, you should continue to practise until you get it right, or at least make some improvement. Once you achieve the sound you are after, you should continue to practise until you can do so consistently. When you are playing consistently what you intend then your work is done – but to make sure it stays that way, keep practicing!
Practise small sections
Often it is very tempting when learning a new piece of music to simply play from beginning to end over and over in the hope that eventually you will be able to play the whole piece correctly. Well, this may work eventually but it is hardly the most effective approach. If you practise through a piece of music from beginning to the end, by the time you get to the end of the second phrase you may have completely forgotten what was in the first. If, on the other hand, you repeat one bar or one phrase until it is learnt thoroughly, you can move on to the next, confident that the next time you play it you will not have to relearn everything all over again but can pick up from where you left off. Gradually you will be able to practice larger sections until eventually you will be familiar enough with the music that you can play the piece as a whole. Even once you are able to play the entire piece from beginning to end, you should continue to practice in small sections as well, polishing and refining your performance. This approach is far more effective than practising the entire piece of music every time.
How you practise those smaller sections is the next thing to consider. Most of us know deep down that the way to get good at anything is to do it a lot and to aim to do it well. A little known secret when it comes to piano playing is that deliberately changing a passage can actually speed up the learning process. Most of the time you should practise your music as close as you can to the way you intend to perform it. However, by varying a passage (changing the rhythm, tempo, articulation, dynamics, playing backwards… etc.) you will be forcing yourself to study and understand the passage more thoroughly than you might have otherwise. The music will stick with you longer and more forcefully. Varying a bar or phrase of music will also enable you to see it in a new light. You may realise things about the music, see patterns, chords etc. that would not have been apparent if you only played it as written. This can give the music (which is essentially abstract) a greater sense of meaning and will actually improve your memory of the music.
Practise away from your instrument
There is one other practice technique which can be of huge benefit to those willing to use it. It is not a practice technique for the casual player but it can cut the time it takes you to learn a piece of music in half. Mental practice, or imaginary practice, more than any other practice technique, forces you to concentrate on what you are doing simply because it is so difficult to do. Because imaginary practice is a purely mental activity (you shouldn’t be miming your movements, or making a sound, as you practise mentally) there is no way out of concentrating. In other words, it is impossible to practise mentally without concentration. And it takes a lot of concentration. This is what makes it such an effective practice technique, particularly where memory is concerned.
Mental or imaginary practice involves sitting away from the piano and imagining yourself playing. You should visualise the keyboard, your hands, your feet, and the pedals, and in your mind only go through the motions of practicing. This can be done with or without the sheet music in front of you. It is something that can take some getting used to but in my experience is well worth the effort.