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How to Practice Piano

In this essay, Dr. Hall explains some of the most important rules to follow when learning new music as well as retaining older repertoire.

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Learning to play classical piano well and to excel in the music of the great masters like Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and others takes much desire, dedication, and practice. Ideally, the younger one begins piano study the better one will be able to play later in life; however, it is encouraging to know that students at any age can begin piano study and it is never too late to learn piano. Whether one is 7 or 77, one can always have fun and enjoyment through the study of piano and especially by following the rules below!

Learning how to practice efficiently and to make the most out of your practice sessions is the key to rapid progress. If one wishes to run marathons (26.2 miles), one must run many miles over the course of one week. Running a full marathon would be impossible by training only 5 miles a week. If one wishes to become accomplished at anything – be it violin, kickboxing, or yoga – one is required to practice that sport or craft on a regular basis with full concentration and a determined mind. The following lists the 10 most important rules to follow when practicing, regardless of whether one is a beginner or seasoned professional. These rules are the result of many years of practice, teaching, and experimentation:

10 Important Practice Rules

1.     Try to set aside a time to practice that works consistently on a daily basis and keep this time as your “holy” practice time. Turn off all phones and devices during this time so that there are no distractions. In our age, more than ever, we seem to be burdened with too many extraneous and unimportant distractions. Your practice time should be set aside as “holy” and treated as such. If you are a parent or teacher working with a child around the ages of 7 to 12, try to instill in them this type of regular work ethic.

2.     Consistency, rather than long periods of time, is key. It is better to practice 20 minutes a day with the time well-spent than to practice sporadically for longer periods with distractions. Ideally, beginners and those up to about Level 2 should strive for at least 30 minutes a day, those at Levels 3-4 should strive for at least 45 minutes a day, those at Levels 5-6 should strive for 60 minutes a day, and those at Levels 7-8 should strive for 75 minutes a day. These are minimum suggested practice times as it is always helpful to practice more if one is able.   

3.     Always learn new music slowly and never try to play too fast too soon. A good general rule to follow is to learn all moderate-speed or fast works at least at half speed and after this is close to perfect begin speeding up the new piece gradually by increments of about 10-12% over the next few weeks. An excellent metronome speed progression to follow is:  36-42-48-54-63-72-84-96-108-126-144-168-192-216. Research has shown that these are really the only metronomic speeds that are necessary for virtually all music. For example, if the desired performance speed for a new piece is 84 beats per minute, one would learn it first at the half speed of 42, then when secure progress to 48, then 54, then 63, then 72, then finally the full speed of 84.

4.     Always learn new music with no damper pedal even if the music requires lots of pedal. Learning proper pedaling is one of the most difficult aspects of playing the piano. For this reason, it needs to be treated separately and with much listening and care. Using the pedal from the very beginning when learning new music makes it difficult to focus on the essential elements of the music, namely, the correct notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulation, coordination between the hands, and other important details. Once the student is able to play the new work from beginning to end securely at a moderate tempo, this is the best time to begin adding pedal just as frosting is added to a completed cake.

5.     Students from the beginning levels up to the late intermediate level (around Level 6) should do a lot of hands separate practice. Especially beginners, as a rule, should always play hands separately, then together. However, once students attain a relatively high level of proficiency around Level 6 or so, hands separate practice should become the exception rather than the rule used only occasionally to spot-check problem areas. By the time students are at the late intermediate to advanced level, they should be weaned off of the “separate then together” rule.

6.     A good suggested time to spend on technical exercises like scales, chords, arpeggios, etc. is about 10 minutes for every 60 minutes of practice. 

7.     All piano students should strive to increase their repertoire and try out composers and styles that are different and new. A good idea is to write all the pieces one can play on a set of 3” by 5” flash cards, one piece for one card, and throughout the months and years try to increase the stack of cards. An effective way to achieve this is to spend about 75% of the complete practice time each session on new material and about 25% on reviewing old material. For example, if one practices for 60 minutes then the first 10 minutes could be spent on technical exercises, about 37 minutes could be spent learning new material, and the remaining 13 minutes could be spent reviewing old material. Such “new” and “old” material may apply to the same work if it is long enough. For example, if one already has half a movement of a Mozart or Beethoven sonata securely learned (which in this case classifies as “old” material), then the “new” material could be a portion of the next half of the sonata.

8.     The best way to become a better sight-reader is to constantly learn new music, which gives students all the more reason to take heed of rule #7. The more new music one learns on a regular basis, the better one’s sight-reading skills will become. It is really this simple.

9.     Memorizing should not be an issue for students up to about the intermediate level, or about Level 5. Instead of trying to memorize music, students in these lower levels should be more focused on learning good musical habits, increasing technical skills, and learning to read music fluently. Students who try memorizing music prematurely – that is, before attaining a fluent technique or sight-reading skills – are “putting the cart before the horse,” so to speak. However, by the time students are at a solid intermediate level in technique and performance, they are ready to begin placing emphasis on memorizing small portions at a time.  

10.  Try to avoid practicing too many pieces in the same session. In fact, research shows that the fewer pieces one practices in one session the better. For example, if one has 60 minutes to practice and begins the session with 10 minutes of technical exercises the remaining 50 minutes is better spent on one or at the most two works – like a movement from a Mozart or Beethoven sonata – than 10 minutes each on five separate pieces. It is better to spend an entire week on one piece and get it at 90% perfect than to touch upon only small portions of 10 pieces each at 10% perfect. In other words, “quality” always reigns supreme over “quantity” when practicing piano.

Sincerely, Dr. Cory Hall (August, 2015)