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"8 Effective Practice Techniques for Musicians: How to Perfect the Art of Practising"

Updated: May 13

You did, in fact, read that correctly!

How many times do you as a pianist - whether beginner, intermediate or advanced, sit down at the piano with the intention of practicing (i.e. not performing or playing) and just stare blankly at your instrument. Or the four walls. Or maybe you just go down a rabbit hole of guilt-playing. That's when you play music because you feel you ought to be, but the intention is no longer there and you're doing it just to fill the audible silence that otherwise pierces the space?

If you have never and do never do this, chances are you're already past the need of reading this article.

But...if you have had this happen to you just once, maybe you just need a read through of the following tips and tricks to help you prepare for your practice sessions and get the most out of them.

Jack Mitchell Smith piano teacher tutor Congleton Macclesfield pianist

Find a Regular Practice Slot

The first thing you need to establish is when you are going to devote to practice. We all lead busy lives - even those of us fortune enough to work as a musician may find it difficult to fit in the time - but practising is something that we should benefit from twofold:

  • we should enjoy our practice and

  • we should be better as a result of our practice

Regularity does not have to mean daily, although it should be noted that the more you practice, the more you will pick up and learn, reinforce or develop a piece, technique or skill that you are working towards. Our subconscious minds are continually being proven as amazing things - sometimes we can push ourselves so hard in a practice slot that by doing another one too soon after we can overload (even if we practice and reiterate the same things!) - so a break between can sometimes be good. However, humans are also creatures of routine. Thus, if you say you're going to practice Monday, Wednesday and try sticking to that as closely as possible!

The second step towards regularity is to do with the time of day in which you practice. This is well worth playing around with and trial-and-erroring to make sure you get the best out of it. For me, personally, first thing in a morning. If I start the day with some technical exercises, I am then motivated to keep practising to develop other pieces I am working on. This isn't to say I can't sit down at a piano in the afternoon - but my focus is completely different.

And believe me - I'm not what you would class a typical 'morning person'!

But doing it first thing with a fresh (if sometimes initially tired!) mind stands me in much better stead. This may not be the case for you of course, but don't forget that it's worth bearing in mind. Practice may be more or less productive for you following two hours of casual playing. It may be more or less productive before or after a day's work (if your neighbours can tolerate it!). But this is really the first obstacle you need to overcome: when?

Structure Your Time

OK, we now have our slot! Excellent news.

What next?

Well, we need to establish how long we're going to spend overall practising. And this varies between person and between standards.

As a general rule I would recommend a 30 minute practice session for an absolute beginner at any one time, whereas those more advanced may spend several hours every day practising. There is an element of trial and error here, too, but ultimately you mustn't forget that we're not talking about playing for fun. We're talking about very focus driven practice here. We can all play for hours on end exploring and learning and playing over and over some nice pieces we enjoy, but practise sessions are a somewhat different ball game.

Now let's work with our 30 minute benchmark (great for the absolute beginner).

How do we structure this?

Your piano teacher will probably be going through things with you and giving you a clear idea as to what you need to focus on, but as a general rule we all have the following things we need to work on:

  • technical exercises

  • pieces of music

  • music theory

Technical exercises are the like of scales, arpeggios, broken chords and - moving into more intermediate / advanced territory - dominant and diminished sevenths, chromatic scales and finger strengthening and independence exercises.

Pieces of music refer to pieces that are in the workbook from which you are working - specifically music that has more contradictory structure between the two hands as well as more discernible melody than technical exercises. Naturally, if you are working towards exams, these will be your grade pieces.

Music theory relates to your understanding of absolutely anything that comes from a working knowledge of music before you even touch the keyboard. How do you know which note is which on the keyboard? How do you know which note is which on the stave? How do you know how quickly to play a piece of music? How can you transpose a piece from C major to D major without the sheet music? A lot of people are tempted to skip past music theory, but it really is an essential part to being the best pianist you can be.

The most obvious division between these three areas is 10 minutes, 10 minutes and 10 minutes if we are looking at a half hour practice session. This may work well, but make sure you are continually aware of what goes well and what goes not so well. If your scales are effortless but a piece you are learning is flawed, just reduce the scales to 5 minutes and have 15 on the music. If you can play a piece of music really well but don't understand fully how the score represents it, replace some (if not all) of your time studying the score and working it out. Don't be tempted to ask your teacher to explain everything, or to Google for advice. Working things out of your own accord is one of the strongest learning tools there is.

Make sure that you give yourself a fair dedication across the week of practice to all areas. If you do substitute music theory for playing one day, make sure you play more the following. Better still, move onto a brand new piece and put your newfound reading music skills to the test!

Write Down Goals

Just head over to Amazon and type in 'music practice journal' or such as the like and you will be treated to a wide array of choice. And these are fabulous because they really do work.

But scientifically (apparently!) we actually respond better for the sake of writing things down anyway. So even if you just write your goals on the back of a napkin (as some of the best ideas allegedly were) you will be well in the running for success!

But you need to ensure that your goals are achievable.

If you have just started learning a piece of music that spans 10 pages and is rather complex (Rachmaninov, Chopin etc.) then your goal by the end of the week may not be to have learnt it. Perhaps you would like to play with reasonable fluidity to the end of page 1. Maybe you would like to play each hand separately to the end of page 1. Maybe you would like to have learnt the first 2 bars. It really doesn't matter as long as it is achievable for you - you know how much you may be able to achieve by the end of the week.

One reason why practice journals are so good is because they provide a sort of permanent record of your achievement, and if you don't set yourself achievable goals then you're going to be looking back at all the goals you set and consider yourself having failed at. The truth're not failing. No degree of improvement - no matter how small - is a failure, in fact. And nothing boosts morale, motivates more and just encourages you to keep going than being able to put several ticks against several things. And if you forget something by the time you get to your next practice session? Not a problem - that's your new goal. 'Relearn / Revise this particular passage...' for example.

Re-emphasise or Push Yourself?

Ah, now we get down to the nitty gritty of what transforms a 'practice session' into an actual practice session - and it is so simple that I can't believe it took me so long to realise. And I wish someone had told me sooner.

Practising a piece of music is not about playing it over and over again so that it sticks. Practising is about honing in very specific parts or passages with the intention of getting them performed to the best of your ability.

And it was only when 'practising' scales the other day that I realised this. I don't do scales every day. I do, however, do some sort of warm up every day (technical exercises etc.). So what I had a scale session, what I would do is put the metronome on and play through, say, all the major scales hands together. Maybe play one a couple of times until I got it right. Then moved onto the next.

But I never actually appreciated why I was getting any of them wrong.

PLUS - they never got any better than the stale way they were.

I have been studying so hard as to ways to develop scales since this lightbulb moment and I have been spending 15 minutes at a time focusing on individual octaves in one hand and working on building up comfort and speed - with and without metronome. Getting the thumb under at the right time, moving the fingers into place so I can comfortably continue. Studying my own performance and recognising where I could either feel or hear (if not both) where the drags were. For example, descending in the left hand was almost always more slugging and a bit less regimented - even at the comfortable speeds I'd been playing all through my life.

There is a time to play through your scales and your pieces fully (read on) and a time to really pick them apart. And - surprise, surprise - a practice session is a time to pick them apart!

Identify Pain, Problems, Discomfort and Error

This ties very much into the previous point. If something hurts - why? If something is disjointed, uneven or uncomfortable - why? If you are playing something wrong - why?

Sometimes the answer is not as easy to solve as just slow it down a few times to practice playing the passage or exercise with alleviated tension, so don't be afraid to seek advice from your teacher. Hand position, wrist action (or lack of), fingering etc. may all be the case, and your teacher might further be able to recommend exercises to help alleviate and progress through the problem. If they do, wonderful - schedule it into your practice session! Write a goal in your journal such as 'practice playing ... with emphasised wrist movement' or whatever you need to write.

Unfortunately, pain and discomfort are part and parcel of the practice process. However, the more you work with them the more your technique will develop around them, leading to minimal tension and pain during your actual performances.

Schedule Breaks

Even if you are only working to 30 minutes, you need to schedule at least one break. A break doesn't have to be long. In fact, little and often does well. I like to work with a 5 minutes per 15 minutes structure and it works well. Not only does it help to rest your hands - particularly important if you've been pushing them for the sake of learning an awkward exercise of passage of music - but it actually helps to refocus the brain.

I dare say that you can reward yourself in breaks too. I find a cup of tea on about my third break is always very welcome!

Of course, there are many things you can do to help during your break that aren't specifically related to playing the instrument. You may find stress balls, hand massagers, power balls, heat pads / warm water and even exercise help! Just make sure that you at least give your hands a few minutes to themselves, whatever else you do with them in your break!

Play for Leisure at the End

This is so, so important.

You have got to resist the urge to get carried away and just start playing the piece the way you enjoy playing it during your practice session. Save it all up for the end! We have now entered...rehearsal mode! And rehearsal mode is going to be used interchangeably here with leisure mode.

Everything you have been practising (technical exercises and entire pieces - or as much of them as you have so far learnt) - go for them! But don't just go for them thinking you can stop and start and correct. Consider that you are now in rehearsal mode. Rehearsal mode is different to practice mode because you are no longer focussing on individual aspects of a piece to develop them. You are practising the entire performance of the piece and you need to put the pressure on yourself to keep moving through it with minimal - if any - stops and mistakes (and if you do make mistakes, practice working through them rather than being tempted to stop and go back!).

Rehearsal is the last step for you before you are let loose with a piece of music, so it is in your interest to develop it into the best performance you can. However, there is one final test that you can do to ensure you're up for the job when all your practice sessions towards a particular piece have paid off...

Perform for a 'Crowd' or a Camera

Note the inverted commas on crowd!

Because crowd can be one person.

And if you live alone, set up a camera or your phone and video yourself.

The pressure that you put yourself under in your rehearsal sessions is somewhat superficial - you know you're only accountable to yourself. But, much as audiences are almost always forgiving, you will feel greater pressure playing for even just one other person - or harder yet - recording (I wrote a whole blog on how difficult recording is!)

Parents - be prepared to go to your child at the end of a session and ask them to perform (note perform - not play!) what they have been practising. Ask your husbands and wives, children or flatmates! Don't be shy - even if they really couldn't care less, this is about you getting into the feel of the situation!

That pressure can translate to your performance, but ultimately you have to remember that if you do consider yourself to have made an absolute mess of it, you probably just haven't focused your practice correctly.

Go back to the top of the blog and re-follow the steps and - when you feel ready - try again. Don't forget that even if you're not getting it right, playing with an audience or to a camera is still a great confidence builder for when you really do feel ready to do it!


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