Some Suggested Practice Techniques

This is not brain surgery!

First of all, bear in mind that piano study isn't brain surgery. Your patient isn't going to die if you make an error. In fact, you can make as many errors as you like: they are gone instantaneously and you can try it again as many times as you wish. Be gentle with yourself. Piano study is not supposed to cause stress; it's supposed to release it!

Don't plan to walk on water.

Don't expect to play perfectly. It very rarely happens, even to concert artists and recording stars who devote their entire lives to the study of piano performance! Even when you know a piece well, you'll drop at least 5% of the notes. Don't sweat it! Do the best you can and enjoy!

Divide your time.

Divide your practice session into parts. I suggest something like 20% of your time on technique, 60% on literature, and the last 20% on fun. Don't forget the fun! That's why you're taking lessons, right?!

Set practice goals.

As mentioned in another article on efficient practice, your practice sessions should have a goal. A small goal. If your goal is too large or too unfocused, you won't reach it. "To improve" or "to play this movement better" are examples of such goals. "To fix measures 17-20" is a reasonable goal and one you can reach. When you set goals which are unobtainable in one practice session, you leave the piano feeling depressed and angry. Avoid this by making your goals small enough that you can reach them easily.

Is it chance or control?

I ask my students to continually ask themselves: is it chance or control? "Was it just good luck that I played that correctly or could I do it again whenever I want to?" Only the student knows the answer. Deep down inside, he cannot lie to himself!

Go for control!

This is especially pertinent when a student is trying to speed up a piece he has moderately well-learned. If he always aims at control, speed will develop naturally.

Build bridges.

Identify the exact place you are having a break-down and work systematically to fix it. Here is a technique I ask my students to use; I call it bridge-building.

The breakdown can be isolated to the elision between two notes. This is where you need to build your bridge. First check the fingering; write in what is missing, after making sure you aren't breaking any of the basic rules of fingering. Now play between the two notes that are the problem spot, making sure your fingering is perfect each time. Once you have that mastered, add a note on either side of the problem. Next, go one note before and one note beyond. Continue to accrete in this fashion until you have the entire phrase learned. Another technique to use in the bridge-building stage is rhythms.

Now the tough part: putting it back in place.

This is tough because you now have to reduce your speed! Yes, when you put it back into context, you have to play more slowly than you can actually do the problem section. Play the phrase before the problem phrase and the phrase after it. Practice starting at different places in the preceding phrase; don't become wed to only one starting place. After you are comfortable--is it chance or control?--add the phrases before and after, and so on until the problem phrase is back in the fabric of the piece.

Pick the three worst places.

When hunting for a place that needs work, I often tell my students to play through the piece one time and note the problem spots. *Small* problem spots! They are then to select the three worst ones and focus on those for the day's practice. If they don't get to all of them, fine; the other one or two will certainly be waiting there tomorrow!

Don't eat Hershey bars!

Ready for another analogy? Playing moderately-well-learned material to the exclusion of working on harder material is like eating Hershey bars. It feels good while you do it, but the effects can be harmful. Your problem is a lack of self-discipline. If you play only the parts you know well, you never get better on the parts you know less well. Then the known parts are even more fun to play and the unknown parts more painful. Train yourself to focus on the more difficult sections. Yeah, I know it's hard.

Play at a practice tempo.

There's a big difference between a practice tempo and a performance tempo! And there's a gigantic temptation to select the latter during home practice, especially when playing a section you know pretty well or one that you've just conquered! Beware!

Playing at performance tempo before you can control the piece completely is counter- productive. You end up slopping through the music just to keep the speed up.

A practice tempo--engrave this on your forehead!--is the speed at which you can control the weakest section. It is a comfortable speed, not a frantic one. True, the sections you know better probably will be boring at this speed. This is why you need to focus on the less-well- known sections! Please--I beg you!--do not do this: start at the speed you can play the first part, slowing down when you come to the hard sections and speeding up at the easier parts. You do yourself great harm. You eat Hershey bars *and* you kid yourself that the piece is better-prepared than it really is.

Where to start to learn a piece

The way pianists learn a new piece is typically to begin with the first section. When they are fairly accomplished, they dive into the second section. The first section is still a lot more satisfying to play, however, so the second section is never quite learned as well as the first. The third section--save us!--is a disaster! The pianist "practices" by playing through the first section first and enjoying it, easing through the second section, perhaps taking second and third shots at trouble spots, and barely stumblng through the last section. Does this sound like you?

If so, I advise you to begin to learn a new piece someplace other than the opening section. How about the middle section? Or the end? (I recommend the end.) Composers typically pull out all the stops at the end of the piece; it's harder than the beginning because it's coming to a grand finale. Which leads us to...

The Lewis Down-Hill Method

This practice strategy says that you learn the most difficult portion of the piece first. Then the rest is down hill. If you can't pick the most difficult section of a new piece, ask your teacher's advice. Caution: The Down-Hill Method takes guts! Once you try it and are successful, however, I think you'll be sold on the idea. It makes learning a new piece so much quicker!


Kids do this all the time: if there's a mistake in measure 8, they start again at the beginning. This is quite ineffective.

Another version: when a mistake is made, the pianist backs up just before the mistake a tries it again.


If necessary, throw your hands over your head to break yourself of this habit.

This reminds me of a colleague from my college days. It was her senior recital, and she made an error. Instead of playing on, she did just what she had done in the practice room: she went back and took another shot at it. Everyone in the audience--music majors and professors, for the most part--knew exactly why she did that: it was exactly the way she had practiced! Short-circuit this impulse to start over or you'll surely practice in the restart!

Serve yourself dessert.

After you've worked on the worst spot (or three worst spots) and have learned the notes somewhat of the entire piece, reward yourself with a single play-through of the whole piece but at a tempo in which you can completely control the hardest section.

Why practice?

To learn your music well enough that you can play it to your satisfaction whenever you please!

You may also be interested in the article on why you seem to play better at home than at lessons.

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.

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