Practice Habits and Tips

I sent this out as an email in October 2015, but wanted to publish an easy to find reference here.

I’ve talked with most of my students about practice habits, especially when looking at a new piece. My overall goal when I sit down to look at something new is to play it correctly THE FIRST TIME. That way, I don’t have to go back and correct mistakes later. Here are some ideas to guide practice sessions, especially for my older students who are tackling more difficult material. Please pass these on to your kids, maybe even print them out and hang them up near their practice areas.

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1) Read, understand, and utilize the notes your teacher gives you. It amazes me how often a simple reading of the student’s notebook would have saved time, trouble, confusion, and forgotten work. It’s usually more than just page numbers in there.

2) Take a good look at the entire song before you start playing so you know how it starts and ends, and if there’s anything you haven’t encountered before in the middle. As you start to play, take some time to carefully read from the very beginning. There’s a lot of information there–the clef tells you which hand to use (generally). The time signature tells you how to count, and the tempo marking tells you how fast to go. The dynamics are right there to tell you what volume to use. If they are present, key signatures (sharps/flats throughout a piece) are a common stumbling block. Study and remember these things.

3) Choose a slow tempo to start, probably slower than the marked tempo. Play with a metronome and count carefully to ensure even, steady rhythm. Pay attention to correct technique (always).

4) Read the music carefully. Don’t just guess at the notes. As you have no doubt discovered by now, I can tell the correct notes from the wrong ones when you play. I can discern reading from guessing.

5 )If a piano piece involves both hands, play each hand separately all the way through BEFORE you try to play with your hands together. Preferably, each part should be close to note-perfect before attempting to play hands together. I do this, too.

6) If you can’t play a piece well at a given tempo, slow down. I’m ALWAYS impressed by correct notes, inflection, and technique, and NEVER impressed with fast and sloppy playing. If you are in a hurry to get through a piece, be assured that fast and sloppy playing ALWAYS means you’ll get to play a particular piece again, which kind of defeats the purpose of being in a hurry, don’t you think?

7) DO NOT speed up until you can play a piece with very few errors. Going fast through mistakes reinforces the mistakes. You will keep making those mistakes, you will not improve, and you and I will become frustrated.

8) It is OK to only play portions of a piece during your practice sessions. You DO NOT have to play every piece all the way through at every practice session. Work on the difficult spots more than you do the easy parts. Work your shorter sections back into longer sections and eventually back into the entire piece.
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I am trying to encourage and reward good musicianship. For weekly lessons (and kids younger than 12), a reward (star/sticker) is offered when students have obviously practiced and prepared thoughtfully (even if a piece is not learned within a week), and are willing to work hard at lessons to correct mistakes and/or learn new things. Going forward, I will enforce the notion that a lesson is NOT a practice session. It is a time to work on deficiencies in technique and learn new ideas, thoughts, and theory. If we spend more than about 5 minutes of a lesson working on a particular passage that is within a student’s ability–especially if a piece has been assigned for multiple weeks–that constitutes practice, and you should be doing that at home. Along those lines, if your student seems frustrated and unwilling to practice because the material is too hard, I need to know that so we can adjust accordingly (or at least have a conversation about it).

My next blog post will be on the plateaus we all face in every skill we try to learn. These plateaus can be caused by difficulty of material, life changes, interest, and many other things. One of our jobs as parents and teachers is to help our kids navigate and endure the slow, difficult stretches.

Thanks for reading!

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