Previously, we discussed some fun new ways to make practicing piano scales fun. Drawing some inspiration from that, we thought it would be beneficial for pianists to learn how to maximize their piano practices. We’ve shown you already some useful scientifically tested methods of learning to playing piano flawlessly. However, it seems even by applying said methods that the activities a pianist does during their practices is still an area of equal parts confusion and frustration to many. So, we’ve come up with some innovative ideas for what you should do during your piano practice routine to maximize your time and effort spent on those ivory keys.
1. Piano Exercises
Many students develop their own routine of exercises, which may include written exercises by Czerny, Hanon, etc and a few scales and arpeggios. A good one created by Oscar Berenger, is one which follows a simple premise which centers around shifting harmonic progression (C- D- E- F- G, C-D-Eb-F-G, C-Db-Eb-F-Gb, etc.) that slowly and simply moves you up through all the keys. If an exercise is simple to remember, you then spend more time concentrating on what your hands and fingers are doing. You should not be worrying about what the next note is. We understand that you can’t always guarantee access to a piano when you need to, so here is an exercise you can also do on a table top or even your knee – with either hand:
Place your right hand on the surface (or between C and G on the piano). Keeping your thumb (1) pressed down on C, play D with your second (2) and F with your fourth finger (4). Now alternate your fingers to play E (3) and G (5) all the time keeping your thumb down on C. Continue these alternating thirds until you are in control of this movement. This can be illustrated for the right hand as follows:
1————————————————hold down thumb
2————————————————-hold down this finger
3————————————————-hold down this finger
And so on:
4———————————————– hold down this finger
5———————————————- hold this finger down
These are designed to improve finger independence. You will notice there is a tendency for the finger that is holding down the note to lift up; be careful not to press down hard to counteract this. One way to stop yourself doing this is to very slowly raise and lower your wrist as you are doing the exercise, but not in rhythm.
2. Finishing A Piano Piece
The majority of time spent learning a piece will be polishing, where improvements seem to happen only very slowly. Once you can play a piece fairly well, there is no point just playing it over and over again in the same way. You will become too comfortable, lose your concentration, get bored and become inflexible. Ultimately, having flexibility enables you to adjust your performance to cope with different performing conditions – playing it on a different piano, in a different acoustic or even coping with the unexpected.
As we suggested earlier, when practicing piano scales, play each hand with a different touch (e.g. in a Bach 2-Part Invention, play one hand staccato, the other legato, etc.). Try emphasizing the third beat of every bar when it would be normally on the second, change the shape of your phrases, try playing it at double speed – play musical games with yourself. In unison fast semiquaver passages – try crossed hands both ways. This forces the left hand to stop being a passenger, and become a leader, therefore becoming stronger and more independent. This is where playing piano scales in this way comes in handy!
Playing the piano is choreography – of the hands, arms, fingers, in fact your whole body. Imagine you are practicing in slow motion, where the movements are the same but just slower. (Don’t exaggerate your movements, otherwise you are practicing a completely different movement and when you play a piece up to tempo, these oversized movements will get in the way.)
5. Without Pedal
Try practicing at half-speed without the pedal. While you are trying to make it sound less lumpy and more linear, you will be constantly forced to think of the next note and you will achieve a smoother finger legato. Say the notes to yourself as you play them — whether out loud or just in your head — obviously easier when you are playing it slower. 
Now that you have the technique underway and understand ways you can practice, you should not forget that half of the battle is mental. In particular, there are four important elements you should watch out for when practicing the piano. The good news is that, the primary element is simple as what you need to do is to basically change your method of thinking. Instead of problem solving think of it as solution finding. Instead of “when“, think “how“. Remember these things in order to avoid complacency which creeps up on even the best of us from time to time.
6. Be Curious
“When am I going to finish practicing? When will I start playing this piece correctly? Is it done yet?” Asking yourself “when” makes you concentrate on quickness of hands and more specifically speed rather than quality and miss things like dexterity, tone, control, clarity and evenness. So, scrap the “when am I going to be able to play this at normal speed” habit. Doing so will likely cause your notes to be uneven and perhaps unclear with the overall tone uneasy. Start by asking the right questions.
Ask yourself “how” in order to work towards your goal. For example, ask yourself, “How am I going to accomplish [insert goal here]?” Having a goal or a target to aim at will help you channel your thoughts and actions towards something to aim at. Doing so will allow you to measure yourself quantitively rather than simple subjective qualitative analysis. Make sure you’re asking yourself “how” your progress is and be honest with yourself. Nobody said practicing was easy. Asking yourself “how” questions keeps you focused on process and quality over quantity. Doing so will enable you to save time by spending less on fixing mistakes you make with the effect of “when” type questions.
7. You Don’t Pattern-Interrupt
Never forget the physiological aspect of playing piano which is a brain game focused on how you use your muscles. If you find yourself exhausted after practicing the piano, you probably need to change or at least mix up your routine. This happens when you’re not experiencing flow and as such are not actually playing to your full potential. So what exactly is “flow”?
“Flow is complete focus, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost“, says Csíkszentmihályi, the (positive) psychologist who coined the term.” 
How does one get their groove back? GET AWAY FROM THE PIANO. Seriously. For a few minutes that is. Doing so will help you come back refreshed not only physically but more importantly mentally. The way our minds work is that even when we are away from something, it is in the background trying to piece things together. So taking a breather and coming back later will have a better effect than playing tirelessly as the song will have flown from your mind to your hands in that time. A good way to do this is to practice twice a day in the morning and in the evening. You can simply halve your regular piano practice and divide it into these times. This will allow you to get the flow you desire and in effect help you learn to play more easily.
8. You’re Not Your Best Critic
When listening to yourself practice it a good habit to pretend like you’re listening to someone else play in order to be objective. If you are you’re biggest critic, then you will be prepared for any criticism when you play to others and have nothing to fear. If you find that listening and playing are difficult to do together, then you could try recording yourself and listening to it later on. You’ll be able to pick up your strengths and weaknesses and be able to work on sections you can hear need more work in an objective way. The advantage of this is that you’ll also be able to hear for yourself how much you improve over time.
9. You Don’t Think
Surprised? Well that’s because it is true to many of us. We don’t “think” of what we want to do with a piece we’re learning, or for that matter why we’re learning it. This goes beyond practice and cuts to the core of why we learn to play the piano. Is this a step in the right direction towards our ultimate goal? Or is it a diversion which is only eating up time you could spend doing something that will enhance your ability or fine tune your technique.
For example, learning to play from memory and not being able to play it smoothly despite the music sheet being right in front of you means you don’t have the finer details under your belt. If you’re pushing beyond your ability, then it is best to have a stepping stone between the piece and your current state. Don’t push yourself to the point where you feel your goal is impossible or unattainable. Keep it within reach but slightly out of sight. It should challenge you and inspire you in equal measure.
One key element to everything is to have a deadline, even if the deadline is self made. This way you will be more disciplined and limit yourself. Doing so might sound counterintuitive, however, for most of us we work better under some pressure. Least of all, it will motivate you not to get relaxed if there’s a deadline coming up. Here’s an example of a simple plan:
- Sight read half the piece: 3 days
- Play the first half of the piece fluently: 5 days
- Fix up small errors: 3 days
- Sight read the second half of the piece: 3 days
- Play the second half of the piece fluently: 5 days
- Fix up small errors: 3 days
- Memorize the piece by quarters: 3 days for every quarter
This helps make your goals easier by creating a visual of where you are on your path. All that is required is to stick to your plan. If you’re ahead of your plan even better, or if you aren’t you can give yourself some leave-way (but not too much obviously as that defeats the purpose!). 
Lastly, remember THREE important questions. How do you know when a passage is good? How do you know that it is, technically and musically, the best it can be? Asking yourself the following three questions is a good start. If answer “yes” to all three questions, you can have confidence you are on the right track. If there is a problem with one or more of the three elements, you need to do some problem solving.
i. Does it SOUND right? Does it have the right notes, the right rhythms, the right dynamics and phrasing, the right tempo, the right articulation, the right voicing?
ii. Does it FEEL right? Are you as relaxed as possible to play this passage, or do you feel excess tension in your hands, arms, shoulders, neck, or anywhere else? In general, do your movements feel smooth and flowing or sharp and jerky? Do you even have an awareness of how your hands, arm, and body feel, or have you blocked these feelings out altogether?
iii. Does it LOOK right? Can you see any evidence of excess tension? Does the choreography of your movements—hands, fingers, arms, head, and entire body—seem to match the requirements of the passage?
Looking at what you are doing is often a great help in creating a greater awareness of your muscular sensations and feelings. The muscular sensations are often very subtle; your eyes can help you tune into what you are feeling. Observing yourself in a mirror or via videotape is often very helpful. 
Concert pianists spend much more of their lifetimes practicing than they do playing concerts. It’s not just that pieces need to be kept in the memory (muscle and mind), but the very act of playing the piano is physical and athletic. It involves reflex and endurance. It may be true that you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but if you and it are rusty there’s not much hope of winning or even completing the Tour de France. As it is said, “In practice a perfectionist, in performance a realist.” 
We hope these tips will help you in your pursuit of your goals of being a pianist, whatever that goal might be. The most important thing of all is to not lose heart and to keep at it. You might not see results for some time but given enough time and dedication it will come along to a level where you begin enjoying practices. No matter what your level, there is something to aim at and work towards. It all starts with making a conscious decision telling yourself what that goal is. So ask yourself, “What Do I Want To Achieve As A Pianist?”
So, dear readers, tell us your thoughts? Are there any practice tips you’d like to share with us? Anything in particular which you avoided, perhaps? Maybe you have your own alternative style? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
- Ten Piano Practice Tips With Jonathan Plowright
- Wikipedia: Flow (psychology)
- The Four Deadliest Practice Mistakes Ever
- Piano Practice
- The Practice Of Practicing
I read all the 9 ways of piano practice and looks likes interesting and helpful tips for a semi professional pianist. I keep looking more notes on your blog post and i found many interesting ideas. Thanks
This is some really good information about accompanist and how to make practice better. My little sister is looking for a piano accompanist for her when she sings. So, I liked that you pointed out that you should make sure that you sound good together.
That’s true that exercises seem to take up a lot of practice time. It trains your fingers, so I should do it more. Tip number three would probably help keep it interesting by doing the scales in different ways. Variety is the spice of life, after all. I need to practice more regularly.