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Tips on Practicing Part I 

For students, parents, and teachers

“I love playing piano, I just don’t like practising.” If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Piano teachers hear this sentiment quite often. Many students enjoy their lessons, playing for friends, or going to piano spontaneously to play familiar tunes. However, as soon as you mention “practising” the piano becomes a burden, a chore which many dread and procrastinate on.

Many things can affect an individual’s ability to build good practising habits such as age, attention span, personal character traits, prior knowledge, and home environment, among others. Nevertheless, a few tips that I am about to share, should be of interest and use for all piano students, parents, and teachers.

Let us start with some not so good practising habits and see if we can turn them around. Here is the first set of practising tips.

1. Playing over and over with the same mistakes.

We sometimes try to fix a mistake by just repeating the passage in hopes that the mistake will disappear. In fact, without dealing with it directly and thoughtfully, we only reinforce that mistake. It can lead to frustration and aversion to practising.

What to do

·    “Alice gets smaller and smaller” (Alice in Wonderland). Cut your passage into smaller parts, then even smaller, then still smaller, until you almost need a magnifying glass to see each bit.

·    Play each little part, single out the ones that get you in trouble, and see what the problem is (incorrect notes? rhythms? bad fingering? tension in the body? poor coordination? rushed uneven playing? lack of ear control?).

·    Fix the problem (if unsure how, bring it up at the lesson), and reinforce the correct playing a few times and for a few days in a row.

·    Now, “Alice gets bigger and bigger.” Start expanding from the former troublemaker to return back to the normal size of the passage; first bringing back the parts before, then those after. Keep checking that what you fixed stays correct.

·    Sounds like your teacher has already told you to do so, and not once but maybe many times? You guessed it - your teacher was right!

2. Playing inexpressively, learning just the notes with the intention to add musical meaning later. 

This could be compared to reading of a text without understanding its content. Practising without fully engaging your mind and soul will lead to boredom, apprehension, and eventually loss of interest.

What to do

·    Expand your musical horizons by listening to more music; your ear will start recognizing musical patterns and phrases. Then, when you read music, the notes will come together into meaningful patterns-motives (letters into words) and the patterns will become musical phrases (words become sentences).

·    Secure your knowledge of the notes so you don’t have to figure out them again and again.

·    Play with the correct rhythms right away! If needed, figure out the rhythmic patterns first. Incorrect rhythm ruins the melody and obscures its meaning and flow.

·    Observe phrasing as soon as you can. It’s often marked with slurs. If not, try to recognize the beginning and end of each phrase by yourself: sometimes, the beginning of two phrases is identical or similar, and the length could be the same.

·    Think for a few moments of the character of the phrase and which emotion this music evokes in you. Play with feeling- it is so much more interesting and rewarding than playing notes only! “I never practise, I always play” (Wanda Landowska).

3. Bad posture at the piano. 

The connection between posture and enthusiasm to practise is not immediately obvious. However, sitting at the piano like a potato sack will drain your energy very quickly. It will turn your practising sessions into a dreadful chore with unpleasant consequences such as back and neck pain, tired arms, reduced focus, and, in some cases, repetitive strain injuries.

What to do

·    Warm up before playing. Do back stretches, arm swings, shoulder shrugs, head turns and tilts, finger movements. Your teacher is the first source for inquiring about warm-up exercises. There are also online resources for musicians for easy and practical warm-up techniques. I use poetry and finger games to keep the warm-up focused and live.

·    Once at the piano, pay attention to all parts of your body: feet steady on the floor (or a step stool), correct bench height with forearms slightly higher than keyboard level, upper arms not clinging to the body, head light and high, back wide, shoulders relaxed.

·    Take breaks often! After 20-30 minutes, you can get up, stretch, have a drink or snack, take a few steps, or lie down on flat surface and let your muscles relax.

·    Break your practising hours into shorter sessions. This will help both your body and your mind. You will feel more focused, refreshed, and ultimately happier with the results.

4. Coming to the piano with angry and tense feelings. 

“I don’t want to do it,” “My parents make me,” “I want to watch TV, play video games, chat with friends etc.” Nothing good will result from anger and tension at the piano.

What to do

·    “Get up from the piano. You hurtin’ its feelings (Jelly Roll Morton). Be positive about your time at the piano AND about piano itself! The piano is your partner and a very sensitive one, too; you don’t want to hurt its feelings because it will hurt yours back.

·    Before you get to playing, think of the positive sides of practising (getting better in general and in some specific pieces and tasks, enjoying new music, having fun reviewing old favorites, immersing yourself in music and getting away from any negativity in your daily life) and goals (preparing for a show, passing a level, getting through an exam, making mom happy by playing her favorite song better).

·    Remind yourself that “getting started is half the battle,” and you will feel better once you start playing. Make your practising a daily routine. You don’t get angry over brushing your teeth every day because it simply has to be done. Learning piano is like feeding your brain; it makes you smarter. It has to be done.

·    Get someone to listen to you. Piano practising is a lonely sport. Getting a parent, sibling, friend, pet to listen to you is like having a partner or team player with whom you can share both fun and struggles. It helps to stay positive and motivated!

·    Reward yourself! When I was a child, I used to divide a chocolate bar into little squares and allow myself one after each 45 minutes of practising- it felt so good!

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for more practising tips in Part II.


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