You’ve said it before, “I am going to finally learn how to play the piano!”
You were so excited and motivated. But after a full day of working, exhausted, you thought: “I’ll practice piano tomorrow...”
A day passed, a week passed, and a month passed…
Before you know it, your books were collecting dusts and you couldn’t even remember where you are in the method book. This is very a common phenomenon for adult pianists.
Learning piano as an adult can be challenging; with a full-time job, taking care of the family, household chores….your day is already jam-packed with a multitude of tasks! But you don’t want to give up your dream of playing the piano.
Piano-playing is a difficult task that takes time to improve. It can be frustrating, but if you are determined and know HOW to practice, you can improve drastically and your hard work will surely pay off.
Remember, no one is good at anything from the very beginning! You will be able to get to the level you want, if you trust yourself and are patient with yourself.
To help you in your endeavors, this article provides some advice on HOW to practice and WHAT to do in your practice sessions, including:
(1) what to do before you practice;
(2) strategies for your practice sessions; and
(3) what to do in the time between practicing.
These tips will help you to improve your piano skills as effectively and quickly as possible while maintaining a good balance between your daily life and practicing!
BEFORE YOU PRACTICE
First off, some questions and reflection:
How do you start learning a new piece?
Do you start with listening to a recording?
Or do you immediately start practicing at the piano?
Step I. Study the Score
Learning the piece AWAY from the piano can drastically improve the efficiency of your practice sessions. It is very important to have a good understanding of the piece so that you can 1) have clear goals in mind and 2) avoid learning bad habits.
Why? Knowing how the piece should sound from the beginning will allow you to have a clear goal in mind and you will more likely avoid establishing bad habits. More importantly, the efficiency of your practice session will drastically improve and you will be able to achieve your goals quicker if you study the score!
How? Here are some of the basic ways to “study” the score:
- Research the piece that you are learning. Who is the composer? When was it written? What kind of style period is this from? (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, or Contemporary?)
- Listen to several pieces written by the same composer AND his/her contemporaries. This will allow you to get a better understanding of the style, touch, and character of the piece you are learning. Try to listen to pieces with different instruments, not only solo piano, like sonatas for other instruments, orchestra, or opera and so on.
- Describe the character of the piece you are learning. Is it calm? dramatic? melancholic? schizophrenic? Does this piece grow louder? softer? thinner? thicker?
- Now that you have a clear idea of what kind of touch/sound/character the piece should have, visualize yourself playing the piece with a beautiful sound and posture.
Step II. Supplement your technical weaknesses with regular technical exercises
Why? Learning a new piece is exciting. But sometimes it can be frustrating because of new technical challenges. When you encounter sections or phrases that make you feel uncomfortable, what should you do? Adult pianists tend to have too much tension in their neck, shoulders, arms, and wrists. Here are some of basic technical exercises that will help you to learn new pieces with proper technique.
How? 1. Exercise for Arm Weight (Playing a melody just with just 3rd finger supported by a thumb): When you are doing this exercise, your arm should feel completely loose. It should feel like you are hanging onto the key because of the firm finger tip. If someone pokes your arm, it should wiggle without any resistance. This will help you to produce full rich tones.
2. Exercise for Flexible Wrist (Five finger pattern with dropping wrist - each note to bigger groupings): Wrist related injury is the most common injury among pianists. Your wrist should be IN MOTION at any time you are playing, never be locked into one position. This will give you rich tones in slow tempo pieces and makes light touch easier in fast tempo pieces.
3. Exercise for Finger Independence (Holding one note while playing other notes): This exercise will help you with your finger control and to produce tones evenly. Especially you are playing fast scale-like passages, you want to make sure all the fingers can have same sound quality. This exercise will train especially the 4th and 5th fingers to be more independent. Use this exercise only a small amount at a time because this can be straining to your muscles.
4. Exercise for Strong Fingers (Two note phrase slur + staccato exercise): You will not only need fast fingers but also strong fingers. This exercise will supplement the strong and fuller sound production. This can be a great warm-up exercise when you have cold hands in the winter.
When you are too busy and have no time to sit at the piano, here are some extra exercises that you can do whenever you are sitting at a desk or table, or while watching TV.
Lifting Finger exercise: This will help with your finger independence and you will gain more control. Make sure to keep your wrist at the neutral position and try not to have any extra tension in your arm.
Flexible Wrist exercise: This exercise is simply on-the-table version of the Flexible Wrist exercise, introduced above. The more you feel comfortable with this wrist gesture, the more comfortable you will feel when playing the piano.
Step III. Make a DETAILED Practice Schedule
Why? The more detailed the schedule is, the more clearly you can envision your goals.
- Set your ATTAINABLE weekly goal then make daily tasks towards the goal. (See the sample schedule below.)
- Make the weekly schedule DOABLE. The key to successful practice sessions is to make sure you can complete daily tasks. If the schedule is realistic, you can achieve them. If you are able to achieve them, you will be more likely continue to stick with the plan. It is important to feel that you are making secure steps towards the weekly goal by completing daily tasks. Piano playing depends largely on muscle memory - a small portion but with frequent repetition is the key to fast progress. You can adjust the amount as you go if you feel you can do more or less based on how you did in the previous week. You feel you are too busy? Then plan 5-minute sessions. Maybe you have a bit of free time? Then do 30 minutes!
- Have a buffer time in between practice sessions and material. For example, when two days of practicing the same section are planned, have one day just for a review. Or in case you didn’t make much progress, you can use this extra day to continue improving.
- Have a day for mental practice. You can do any of the following: (1) look at the score; (2) look at the score and move your fingers as if you are playing the piano; (3) look at the score and listen to a recording; (4) (if you memorize the piece) close your eyes and visualize either the keys or the score and play the whole section in your head.
Sample Schedule (Bach's Minuet in G)
Weekly Goal: be able to play mm.1-8 both hands with metronome (60BPM)
|Monday||mm.1-8 (Hands Separate)||15 minutes|
|Tuesday||mm.1-8 (Hands Together)||15 minutes|
|Wednesday||Mental Practice||10 minutes|
|Thursday||mm.1-8 (Buffer Time/Staccato Exercise)||10 minutes|
|Friday||Exercise for Finger Independence||5 minutes|
TIPS FOR THE PRACTICE SESSION
Tip I. Stretch
Why? Piano playing is an athletic activity. Any sort of repetitive muscular activity needs some warm up.
How? Stand up tall, slowly rotate your neck, shoulder, and wrist.
Tip II. Drink water to fuel your muscles
Why? If you are hungry, you cannot be productive. Muscles are the same. They need fluids in order to function properly.
How? Always have water available during the practice session. Fluids with electrolytes (sports drinks, Gatorade, etc.) work the best to fuel muscles.
Tip III. Practice at extremely slow tempos
Why? Extremely slow muscular motion will train your brain and muscle memory. You will get to the faster tempo sooner if you can teach your muscles how to play extremely slow. This will be also helpful if you are working on memorization.
How? Play the section at slower than half tempo while maintaining the same speed throughout the section. You can also count out loud the subdivision of the beats (one - and, two - and, or one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a) while playing. This will ensure the coordination with the rhythm.
Tip IV. Reduce the information
Why? Piano playing involves understanding and executing many different pieces of information. By reducing the information and tackling it one piece at a time, you are more likely to be successful at executing all the information in the end.
How? For example, start with tapping the rhythm on the piano lid. This will help you with the hand coordination. You can also vary this exercise: R.H. plays on keys while L.H. taps the rhythm on the lid and vice versa. Once you feel more comfortable with the rhythm, try with playing all the notes forte, then all the notes piano. You can also vary the articulation, everything with staccato or tenuto. These exercises will give you various physical sensations, which helps your muscle memory and accelerates the learning process.
Tip V. Record yourself
Why? Piano playing requires a lot of coordination. Your brain is processing many things at once. If you are so focused on playing, you might not be able to recognize mistakes, posture, or sound quality you are making. For the best result, video-record yourself. This will help you to be critical not only aurally (by listening to the sound) but also visually to what you are doing and you can be the best teacher to yourself.
How? Video-record yourself on your phone. Watch it and see how you are doing. If you see or hear something that is not right, mark it on your score and think of how you can do it differently next time. For example, if you noticed that there was too long of a pause when shifting the hand positions, then you can practice only the hand shifts, one hand at a time. If you realize that there is a note that you always play wrong, then you can ask yourself the following questions: Am I using a good fingering? Am I using correct fingers? Am I familiar enough with the notes? You can try saying the finger numbers out loud while playing, or you can sing the melody, etc. These exercises can fix the note mistakes. You can also check your posture. Do your shoulders look tense? Is your back hunched? Are you clenching your jaws? If you notice any of these habits, try paying attention to these habits while playing instead of paying attention to the music. These habits might take longer time to fix, but if you can pay attention to them sooner, you will be able to get rid of them quicker.
Tip VI. Always be attentive of what you are doing and do “mindful” repetition.
Why? In a real performance, you need to play the section successfully only once. By randomly repeating the same section, you are teaching your brain and muscles bad habits. Re-learning is extremely harder than learning a new thing. Mindful and strategic repetition will make your practice session efficient.
How? Once you feel comfortable with the rhythm and notes, choose a short phrase (even just two bars!), play it and see if you can play it without any mistakes. If you made a mistake, stand up and walk around to ‘reset’ your hands and mind. Then come back to the piano and play the same phrase, maybe slower. Make sure you play in the speed at which you can play without any mistakes. This will avoid ingraining the habit of playing the wrong notes or rhythms.
IN BETWEEN THE PRACTICE SESSIONS - LISTEN!
This is probably one of the most important activity for improving your playing. LISTEN! Listening to music performed by the best performer(s) will always help you to develop a good ear, motivate you to become a better player, and inspire you to be creative at your interpretive choices. You can also compare the same piece performed by different performers. Did you prefer one to the other? Can you tell the difference? Through the listening process, you can develop your taste - you can find your favorite pianists, composers, or ensembles. Always ask yourself, why do you like them?
“Make haste slowly…”
This article introduced some of the tips to improve the quality of your practice session. It is totally normal for some people to feel frustrated while learning a new piece. The most important thing in learning the piano is PATIENCE. You have to tell yourself that it is okay to take time, it is okay not to be able to do it immediately. Piano playing is a difficult task that takes time. When you are too tired, please rest. The quality of the practice session is more important than its quantity. Relax, enjoy each step, and trust yourself. You are improving day by day towards the mastery!!