How to Read Sheet Music
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Note: Make sure you also read the last post after today's article, apply what you learn in both articles together.
I've heard a lot of things throughout the years about sheet music, mainly from misinformed subscribers on my YouTube channel.
"Reading sheet music is too hard, it's impossible to learn by yourself."
Yet reading sheet music is a skill anyone can learn, you don't have to be born with it. There's no secret, just a better way.
"Whatever. You just need to play by ear."
Don't get me wrong, playing by ear is a valuable skill - I'm trying to get better at this too - but it's not meant to replace sheet music.
It's supposed to be an additional ability to stack onto the skills you already have.
"But playing by ear is so much easier than reading sheet music."
This isn't true either. Think about it, you can begin playing immediately with sheet music, whereas when you play by ear you have to recreate everything you hear.
Sounds way harder to me.
There's also more guesswork involved with listening, whereas sheet music that's professionally, and faithfully, transcribed is 100% accurate.
Besides, what do you call a person who can't read?
Why put yourself at a disadvantage?
I'm not going to sugarcoat it: learning to read sheet music is hard. But with preparation and understanding, it's completely within your reach.
So here's a rundown of what you'll learn in this article:
For simplicity's sake, I'll not only refer to sheet music as both reading and playing, but also at its most basic sense: a rudimentary level of note reading.
For now, forget about time and key signatures, dynamics, symbols, phrasing and everything else.
Theory comes later.
After reading today's article, you'll understand this has more to do with lack of understanding about the true process of reading sheet music - and the proper mindset to get there.
It's a long road to reading sheet music and the worst thing you can do is expect short-term results.
For a while, you're going to feel like a fish out of water.
But if you dedicate yourself to the longterm, I promise you'll see results. Just keep going and you'll reach that one, sweet day where everything clicks for you.
How to Read Sheet Music
Why People Avoid Sheet Music
Before we get into why sheet music is so friggin' challenging, and what to do about it, let's talk about why piano players avoid sheet music in the first place.
I believe it boils down to 2 things:
The reason we're brainwashed into thinking we need theory to learn piano has to due with our school conditioning.
Because what matters in school? Grades, just grades.
And if you're not up to par? They batter you with homework assignments.
So we naturally grow up thinking we need an instruction manual, a set of problems to solve with pen and paper, for everything we learn in life.
No wonder we apply this standard to sheet music.
You might be wondering what the problem with that is - it's because there's no equation for reading sheet music.
It's is a hands-on process, there's no magic formula. You gain this skill through intuition, experience.
And this presents problems ... because there's no clear roadmap with a trial-and-error approach.
So the typical music teacher defaults to drowning you with theory.
They do this because theory is like homework, it has clearly defined criteria: just do your problems and correct your answers.
It's all they know how to do - they don't have their own unique method.
The other reason is that it eliminates uncertainty. But this is a huge error: uncertainty is inherent in the learning process.
You can't solve every problem you come across by knowing everything in advance - it's like trying to ride a bike by studying statistics.
Realize that theory comes after action, not before it. Studying too much of it too soon will harm you more than help you.
All you need is a simple approach and hands-on practice. This requires a leap of faith, so expect to get your hands dirty.
The more mistakes you make, the better. It's about taking so much action that you don't even have time to think or (over)analyze what you're doing.
Fire! Ready, aim ...
Letting go of previously held beliefs is hard enough, but what's more difficult is not getting in your own way.
I'm not saying that you're your own worst enemy, it's that our brains are wired to keep us out of trouble - and sometimes it makes us avoid what's good for us.
For example, we're equipped with ancient software for modern times. So whenever we come across something mentally strenuous, we unconsciously see that as a danger and do whatever we can to avoid it.
I remember trying to read a book for the first time, about halfway through the first page I started to doze off - I didn't think, wow I need more concentration.
I thought, man this is so boring.
And this is why most piano players gravitate to learning by ear - it's simple.
Monkey see, monkey do.
Not that there's a problem with that, it checks the dots: intuition hands-on
The problem is when you start telling yourself you don't need to learn sheet music. Part of this is because of what we mentioned earlier, educators treating it like mathematics when it's more like experimentation.
Trying to stick a square peg into a round hole.
But it has more to do with ego: if you've reached an intermediate or higher level, the last thing you want to do is start over - which is what learning sheet music feels like.
Yet that's exactly what it is, it's learning a brand new skill.
Being good at soccer doesn't make you good at basketball. Yes, they're both sports but both require different skillsets and abilities.
Instead of realizing this, the misguided piano aficionado would rather salvage his pride.
Now, if you don't want to learn sheet music that's totally fine by me: just don't lie to yourself.
Is it that you can't do it or that you won't even try?
I really hope you understand that it's the latter. Look, no one wants to start from zero and no one wants to admit they're wrong.
But there's no shortcut to the process.
Learning necessitates mental effort, and sometimes (many times) you experience frustration.
This isn't exactly super motivating, but who cares? What's good for you isn't always enjoyable.
Broccoli is better for your health, but we'd rather chomp down on a double cheeseburger.
Giving into these short-term temptations is what ruins us for the long-term.
So my version of "vegetables" might be contemporary music. I loathe most of this genre, and much of what I hear I don't even consider real music.
Yet I still practice it ... because it helps me become a better pianist.
But some good news, later in this article I'll show you the method I've perfected and field-tested on my students over the years.
You don't have to figure it all out by yourself, once you understand all the main points you'll know what you're getting yourself into.
After that, you just need a solid plan to follow through on.
What Makes Sheet Music Hard
There are 3 things that make sheet music challenging:
From my experience teaching students, the most difficult part of sheet music is tracking visually with your eyes - keeping your place on the music score at all times.
Ever watch Sesame Street? If so, you might remember those bouncing dots that helped you sing along with each song.
So if we needed that much help with words, imagine how much more challenging it is when it comes to notes on a page.
This doesn't apply to just students or amateurs, here's an embarrassing personal vignette:
I once turned pages for my wife, and a colleague, during a concert. She was performing a "four-hands" piano duet (2 people on one piano). I actually thought I was following along quite well until ... my wife started whispering to me during the actual performance. I had no idea what was going on ... until both pianists came to a dead stop. Her partner awkwardly took his right hand off of the piano and turned the page himself.
Not a fun time, but I'm glad it happened - it's easier to teach people to overcome struggle when you've gone through it yourself.
And no matter what you hear, music is not a universal language. You don't read music like you read a book.
It's because we communicate linguistically, reading music is more like coding a program. It's similar to learning a language that isn't close to your native tongue - imagine learning Arabic or Chinese as an English speaker.
Some advice: don't obsess about note-reading so much that you miss the forest for the trees. When you get to a higher level, you're not going to see individual notes anyways - you notice patterns.
So ... how do I help my students with this process?
It's ridiculously simple: I use a physical, extendable pointer.
And I guarantee you that most teachers won't even consider this method - they usually believe complex problems require complex solutions.
But you know better, so here's how to do this at home - and you don't even need a piano.
Listen to a recording of your music and follow each note, or musical line, using your finger as a guide.
A good question you might have is how long do I have to do this? We'll answer this in the section on concepts.
What compounds the difficulty of visual tracking is that there's a LOT to pay attention to (besides notes):
So when a beginning student sees this for the first time:
I know it looks more like this:
And this is just information on the page, what about all the senses involved with piano playing?
This is just with a single line of music, imagine how much more complicated things get when more notes are added in different pattern.
You can't do everything at the same time.
Yet most teachers and coaches will make you do this, and yell at you for "not trying."
Instead, the solution is to simplify the process so you can focus on one single thing at a time.
It's not that there's anything wrong with doing everything at once - it's just a longer, and much more frustrating, process.
I think the better option is to do less in order to get some quick wins - this way it's easier to build long-term motivation.
So start with the smallest amount of information you can manage, and then gradually add a layer at a time.
Here's what the basic progression looks like:
When you practice these separately, it proceduralizes more quickly (more on this later).
No Clear Timetable
The last reason why sheet music is hard to learn is that it's not a linear process - you don't just consistently level up.
It's why working out is easier than eating healthy - the results are more visible (no one thinks you got that six-pack by eating broccoli).
In any case, it's the element of randomness and uncertainty that makes people give up too soon - this lack of a clear deadline is why so many people can't stick to sheet music practice.
This is because learning sheet music is like developing a habit - with any habit, you can't predict when it will stick.
It's something that's learned rather than taught - I can do my best to guide each student at their lesson, but sooner or later they realize I can't do it for them.
So realize the journey is different for everyone: some will pick it up in a few months while others take much longer.
Don't focus on results. Instead, make the goal how much time you spend.
You can dictate how much (high-quality) effort you put into the process, you can't control the outcome.
Now, it's not all doom and gloom. In the next section we'll discuss concepts that will illuminate the road ahead of you.
First, a valuable tip: start with music you already know (preferably by heart).
If you practice with songs you're familiar with, then you already understand the form, structure, melody and cadence (rhythm) - at least on a subconscious level.
This familiarity is what will speed up the learning process for you, since you have less to think about.
Instead of a blank sheet, it's like having a blueprint to work from.
The less you have to think about, the more action you'll take.
The more action you take, the more progress you make.
Here are 4 concepts that will enhance your understanding of the sheet music process:
Transfer is how long it takes for one field of learning (related or not) to show results in another.
If you're studying a language, this is when you're able to use all the vocabulary - previously memorized - in a real life conversation. This is why you supplement your sheet music practice with flashcards - individual notes.
It's also why most of what we learn in school is useless for real life - it doesn't transfer.
Proceduralization, from Scott Young's book Ultralearning, is when a skill becomes autopilot - like tying your shoes.]
Because there are many different pieces that need to lock in place, this is why sheet music takes so long to get good at - and also why it's better to do one thing at a time.
Here's how the process typically looks:
This is why it's not such a great idea to do everything at once - it will take forever for each skill to lock in.
Now, if you've ever wondered why you have great days, bad days, and all sorts of days in between, I present to you The Levels of Competence.
This is why learning can feel frustrating: each time you evolve to a higher level it feels like starting over. As a beginner, you work hard to get to the intermediate stage - only to have to learn a new set of skills or wait for current skills to consolidate.
But don't bemoan this fact, accept it as part of the learning process.
Will there be a moment when this ends? Probably when you get to the concert pianist level - the highest level repertoire you can study.
Until you get to this point, you'll frequently struggle with your material because you're discovering new, unfamiliar patterns for the first time. So when you learn these patterns, and continually learn new ones, you gain experience.
Pattern recognition is what leads to expertise.
This is why concert pianists seemingly learn repertoire 10x faster than us mortals, there's hardly a pattern they haven't seen before.
Lastly, there's what James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, calls the plateau of latent potential.
It's when you feel like you're stuck, making zero progress. In reality, you might be close to a breakthrough.
This is why you should expect plenty of ups and downs, progression and regression. As mentioned earlier, it's not a gradual climb: it's more like a rollercoaster ride.
Be patient and play for the long-game. Don't give up too soon, you might be one inch away from pay dirt!
But do exercise caution and notice when you really are stuck. If (when) that happens, refer back to these 4 concepts - they'll clue you in on how best to adjust your course of action.
Next, the action plan.
Before you learn the method, you need the right materials.
A keyboard guide helps you locate and identify notes. For the immediate future, leave this on your piano or keyboard at all times.
Supplement your sheet music practice with flashcards. Due to transfer, quizzing yourself on individual notes will help your overall sheet music reading ability.
If you still haven't checked out the last blog post, read it now to learn my process.
Lastly, grab a book from Faber Studio Collection. Visit this page to learn about the benefits and pick up my free guide (a curated list of the entire collection).
Since you can listen to the material before you purchase, you'll be able to decide which level is most appropriate - I recommend beginners start at the "pretime" or "playtime" level.
This collection is the foundation of my piano lessons, I've taught this to my students for over a decade - once you get your copy, you'll see why.
You'll also find a huge selection of music you're intimately familiar with, a great way to take advantage of my earlier tip on choosing music you already know.
Now, the method.
Here's how I define the basic stages of learning sheet music:
On your sheet music, place a number above - and below - every single note. Read this blog post to see how to do this.
Each number represents a finger, so at this stage you'll only concentrate on playing each note with the correct finger.
For this reason, start with easy enough music that only contains "five-finger" positions.
Since you won't have to move your hands this means more action - and faster progress.
And you don't have to consciously identify each note letter. As long as you continue to supplement your practice with flashcards, you'll learn them at a subconscious level.
When things get easier, mix up your practice by:
But it's not do or die, you can go back to finger numbers or use the keyboard guide any time you want. In fact, expect turbulence.
Once you get the basics down (unconscious competence), you'll begin to recognize patterns. And when you get better at pattern recognition, the next step is to learn form and structure.
But this is a high level skill - many years down the road.
If you get to this point, you can pick up a book on musical form or study theory.
Don't try to spend equal amounts of time on everything, unless you want to makebprogress at a snail's pace. Instead, use the 80/20 rule: spend 80% of your time on flashcards and 20% of your time on sheet music.
You can also flip it around, 80% on sheet music and 20% on flashcards. Experiment to see which formula gives you the best results.
Once you improve, there will be more options: you can use the 80/20 rule in different ways.
At the intermediate level, you can spend 80% of your time on current level repertoire and 20% of your time on easier sheet music.
Practice easier music so you can continue to learn more patterns. Challenging repertoire might be good for your technique, but not your reading ability - in essence,byou're practicing the same pattern over and over again (nothing new).
It's also more motivating since it allows you to fortify your reading skill without having to give up your current musical projects.
Have your cake and eat it too.
Interleaving is another strategy to enhance the quality of your practice sessions - and it's more fun than the traditional course of action.
Instead of doing the same thing repeatedly, you mix together various activities, skills, projects, etc.
I use interleaving to get the most out of my favorite pastime - reading.
I have 3 or more books in my rotation at all times and whenever I get bored or lose focus, I immediately switch to a different book. This is how I'm able to effortlessly read for hours on end - only taking a break if I so desire.
How to apply this in practice?
If you're new to piano, purchase several books at the beginner level. When your attention wanes or you hit a wall, jump to another song or book (flashcards are always in play too).
It's like taking a break from practice - by practicing something else.
And due to spaced repetition you don't have to stick with a problem for long: good enough is good enough.
If you're at a higher level, practice a variety of genres and easier music. Mix in other diversions like sight-reading, technique or harmony (more on this in the next section).
Some Last Tips
You might be wondering, what about the other elements of music? What about dynamics, articulation and phrasing?
Solution: practice these concepts at an easier level.
How easy? The basics should be on autopilot.
This frees up your mental resources to purely concentrate on these other aspects.
If you want to speed up this process, do this with music you've already completed (similar to the pro tip I mentioned before). It's like watching a movie twice, you notice more details you weren't aware of the first time around.
Also, regularly refer to videos or audio recordings. This is because you need a form of feedback, and these resources are the most accurate ones available.
Additionally, use these resources as benchmarks, so you can see how far away, or close, you are to your goals.
On YouTube, there are useful features such as slowing down the playback speed and pinch-and-zoom (zooming in on the screen.)
Lastly, don't forget about the Levels of Competence. Remember that you'll go through these stages over and over again as you improve.
Don't fret: it feels like you're getting worse, when you're just adapting to the next level of difficulty - overcoming the plateau of latent potential.
Now, some additional strategies:
This trifecta helps by exposing you to more patterns on a visual (sight reading), physical (technique) and auditory (harmony) level.
Why is sight-reading useful? Since most examples are short, you can get through quite a few in a short amount of time.
This shrinks the feedback loop, which quickens your progress.
When you first start out, you'll definitely make a lot of mistakes.
But keep at it - continue supplementing your sessions with flashcards and you'll get more accurate over time.
You'll practice technique: scales, arpeggios and chords. Bonus points if you do them in as many keys as possible.
These 3 exercises represent the most fundamental patterns in all of music. It's like having a blueprint for any sheet music you come across.
But it's not just about how fast you can play ...
... a pianist is only as good as their ears.
To hone your listening ability, work on harmony - chord progressions, transposition or solfege.
And listen to as much music as possible, it's a great way to enrich your musical vocabulary.
If you had any misgivings about sheet music before, I hope this article gives you the confidence to tackle this challenge.
I'm confident what you learned today will work for you. After all, it's a process that I've repeatedly used to help my own students succeed over many years.
Remember that sheet music is best learned like most skills: through hands-on practice.
Learn through personal experience, not through textbooks.
You don't need a perfect formula, you just need a daily commitment: discipline.
You'll get it done as long as you want to.
Trust yourself and review this post from time to time, since repetition is what leads to mastery.
I wish you much success.
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In the next article we'll get you up to speed on reading and playing sheet music.
One of the most common questions I get from clients is, "do you teach students to read notes?" My answer is always yes - though in my head I'm thinking of course, why on Earth would I not be able to teach this elementary, basic skill?
It wasn't until I had transfer students here and there that it started to make sense: most of them could barely read music.
Even more shocking - a few had been taking lessons for years. What gives?
How To Read Piano Notes
The Piano Note Reading Myth
It has to do with lecturing birds how to fly.
This is a concept from Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan. As an aside, he's such an important author that I regularly reread all his books at least once every year.
Here's the idea in a nutshell:
Sounds ass-backwards, doesn't it? This is why people think education leads to wealth, when it's the exact opposite. It's also why people go to business school to learn how to start a business.
Funny, my dad didn't even have a college degree when he opened his first dry cleaners.
Anyways, back to our subject.
It seems in the field of education, there's an unhealthy obsession with theory. This idea extends to music lessons as well. In college, I remember taking a pedagogy class - it was 90% theorizing and 10% actual hands-on teaching.
Look ... you don't learn to cook by memorizing recipes.
Another common question I get, "how much theory do they need to know to read notes?". Answer: NONE.
The Right Way to Read Piano Notes
So if you want a simple approach that relies on zero experience, and zero theory, this is the article for you.
For over a decade I've been teaching students to read notes from their very first lesson, through action.
And my success rate is 100% (humble brag).
Here's the breakdown for the rest of this post.
We'll cover the basics from the complete beginner level. I'll share the simple, affordable tools you can purchase from Amazon to replicate my approach at home. Then I'll show you how to use each tool and the step-by-step process I've developed to get you fluent in no time. Sound good to you? Then let's do this!
Here's the good news, there are only 7 letters of the entire musical alphabet:
A B C D E F G
This is something every musician on the planet is familiar with (unless they don't read). Now, take a look at your instrument.
You'll notice 2 colors: white and black. Ivory and Ebony.
And the black keys are placed higher - don't ask me why.
We use the black keys to identify each "letter" - a.k.a. white key. Here's the first pattern to familiarize yourself with.
And the next.
Here's how it looks all together.
Now, let's look at it again, this time with each white key labeled by letter.
That's all there is to the layout on a piano, this cross section repeats itself up and down the keyboard.
Next, the grand staff.
This is what we use to read actual music. But since we're focused on single notes, we're going to split the grand staff across the middle. Let's start with the upper half.
This is the treble clef. Basically, everything from the middle to higher range.
You'll notice 5 lines and 4 spaces.
Each line and space represents one of the letters of the musical alphabet.
The same applies for the bass clef (middle range to lower).
If you were taking a traditional music lesson, this is where the teacher would have you learn a mnemonic. If you don't know what a mnemonic is, here are some examples:
Now, mnemonics are pretty useful: I use one to teach my students the order of sharps and flats.
However ... when it comes to note reading, you do NOT want to learn any mnemonic of any kind.
You're actually worse off if you do. It's like taking a shortcut: short-term fixes usually come with long-term, negative consequences.
The myth is that you must memorize the letter that each space or line represents.
Instead of memorizing letters, you just learn to recognize the location of each note on each line or space. In fact, I dare say memorizing letters is a byproduct of this process and not the main goal.
By the way, we'll get you to do this subconsciously - see perceptual processing later in this article.
In fact, I'm so adamant about not learning mnemonics, I'm not even going to mention this particular one for fear it will get permanently lodged inside your head.
It's a double-edged sword: once memorized, it's nearly impossible to forget. When a student comes to me pre-loaded with one, we waste a lot of time trying to get them to unlearn it.
It becomes a crutch. Instead of just playing the correct note, they cycle through the entire damn phrase.
Over and over again. Thinking and thinking, but not playing.
If you've never learned a mnemonic to read music, count yourself lucky. Unlearning is a difficult process, but doing it the right way from the start is easy - though it takes longer (as it should).
But if you've already learned one of these dastardly expressions don't fret. Later in this post, I'll show you how to banish it from your memory.
Tools of the Trade
Here's all you need:
Let's start with the keyboard guide.
It has two purposes:
Set it up on your keyboard or piano and see for yourself:
This is how we completely bypass the need for theory: with the guide, it's simple to locate each note.
Side note: This guide fits my baby grand piano perfectly. If it doesn't fit snugly on your keyboard, you may have to make some adjustments - get those scissors out (snip, snip).
Lastly, if you're new to the note-reading process, you're going to keep this guide on for quite a while.
Now, just a short blurb about flashcards.
If you prefer digital (free), then just download an app - there are probably hundreds to choose from (good luck). Me? I prefer a physical copy, it's more versatile (you'll see why).
In the next section you'll use flashcards to physically locate the correct keys via the keyboard guide.
First, filter through your flashcards and select the ones that form the middle c position:
Here's the keyboard guide for comparison.
Two reasons why we use this position:
We're going to keep the cards in this sequence and have each answer side showing.
Side note: play all treble clef notes with your right hand. Bass clef notes with your left hand. Remember this rule when you start to play beginning level sheet music.
Challenge comes later, for now we want some quick wins - my philosophy for first-timers is to encode success. Just get familiar using the cards to play each note in the easiest way possible.
But if you find this too wimpy, feel free to skip ahead to any part of this section (you wild thing you).
From here, we're just going to add a layer of difficulty, step by step. Once you're able to easily identify (and play) every note, shuffle the cards so the patterns are random:
This is more realistic since, in real music, you usually won't see notes in any detectable
When this gets easier, practice with the no answer side showing.
A word of caution: ALWAYS doublecheck your answers. I'm assuming you're doing this on your own, so if you don't confirm your results you'll assume you're getting everything correct - only to realize MONTHS later that you've been doing it wrong.
Seriously. Check your answers every single time.
The last step is to repeat this entire process - answer side up, easy patterns, etc. - without the keyboard guide.
Once you go through this sequence without the guide, just go back to square one - put the guide back on and repeat all the steps in order, but with a larger range of flashcards.
Repeat this process until you're able to read every flashcard.
Houston, We Have Ignition
I mentioned earlier that you might be one of those unfortunate souls who memorized the dreaded mnemonic.
Fear not, for I have your cure.
The good news is that it's really easy to implement. The bad news is that it takes a lot of self-discipline to do by yourself: doing this alone is a really unnatural process, it's going to feel like you're "force-feeding" yourself. Anyways, this fix has to do with the last ten seconds of every year - the (New Year's) countdown.
Now, I initiate countdowns - usually 3 seconds - when I notice a student is taking too long to identify the notes. When this happens, there are two things going on:
Counting down eliminates both of these problems.
The reason has to do with perceptual processing: your brain will autocorrect your initial mistakes over time - as long as you're double-checking your notes.
And this happens at a subconscious level: the short countdown eliminates conscious thinking.
If you're a bit of a perfectionist, this is going be uncomfortable for you because you are going to make a LOT of errors - it's helpful to just think of every attempt as a random guess.
The first time I have a student go though this process, they normally miss 90% of their notes.
But we stick with it week after week and they eventually reach 100% accuracy. They get so good we can whittle the countdown to a single second! And keep in mind we do this just once every week (each lesson).
So if you find yourself in the same situation as my students - analysis paralysis or referring to a "base" note - then try this out at any stage of your note reading.
Take a leap of faith and mnemonics will become a distant memory - since you won't even have time to think about it.
But like I was saying, this is hard to pull off on your own. You have to have the discipline to play a key, any key, once you reach zero - I suggest having someone help you out initially.
By the way, if you think perceptual processing is interesting then there are 4 other amazing practice concepts that will blow your mind. Read more here.
So there you have it, the method I've been using to get students fluent in note reading for over a decade.
There's nothing complicated about it. You don't need method books, you don't need a thousand steps, you don't need homework assignments.
What you do need is consistency, patience and a ton of action
Action first, theory later.
Fire, ready, aim.
If you enjoyed what you read today, then you definitely won't want to miss my next blog post - we're going to piggyback off of your success and get you playing actual sheet music immediately.
Life doesn't come with an instruction manual and neither does piano. Just jump right in and you'll leap-frog your competition in no time.
And if you see one of those "researchers," let them know birds can fly perfectly fine on their own.
Hope to see you in the next one and happy practicing!
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When I first became a piano major in college, I worked like I had a fire lit under my bum.
I can't recall another time I extended so much effort in my life, I was practicing 6-8 hours every day - including many weekends - for years.
But it makes sense: as a first-generation Korean-American, I come from a working class family - physical exertion was the only way.
My professor lauded my work ethic, my colleagues - supposedly - admired my discipline and I progressed immensely through brute force alone.
But anyone in their right mind would've hated my approach. They wouldn't just balk at the crazy amount of hours I put in, but dismiss my practice philosophy (if I even had one) as tedious and boring.
To which I completely concur.
Looking back at those days, I can objectively say I wasted more than half of those hours I spent practicing. If I had a time machine, you bet I would go back and do things completely differently.
Fact is, the conventional, traditional approach - repetition after repetition a.k.a. no-painno-gain - is still the dominant one today. To succeed, you need bust your butt day after day ... month after month ... year after bloody year.
If you put in the time, everything will work out. So suck it up buttercup, put your hours in and deal with it - that's just the way it is.
Only it isn't. The truth is that it's not going to magically work out for you if you just put in the hours alone.
The good news is that there's a better way, one that's less painful and way more fun.
The key to practice that sticks is not endless hours of mental and physical exertion. It's using time-proven, science-tested strategies based on variety, maximum concentration and enjoyment.
So in today's article, I'm going to share the concepts that have radically changed the way I teach and practice piano.
If you apply these concepts, I'll bet you my left eyeball that you'll get incredible results - results you wouldn't have dreamed were even possible.
Here's the gameplan: in each section, we'll go into depth on a single concept. I'll not only provide explanations and benefits, but examples of how I've applied each concept in my personal and professional life.
I hope you'll be able to take what you learn here to craft your own personal, strategic, and fun sessions for piano success - whatever that means to you.
Ready to have your mind blown?
How to Break Down Piano Practice
Question: How do you eat a pizza?
Answer: One slice at a time.
You could be a smart aleck and say one bite at a time, but the point is you don't just inhale the whole thing - unless you're a competitive eater.
Yet this is how most people approach work, and what's the result? Procrastination becomes our best friend and worst enemy.
This is because our minds aren't built to deal with huge, massive projects in one go - we have a difficult time processing a ton of information at once.
For instance, pay attention to how you feel when I mention:
The reason your eyes are glazing over is because it puts your mind in a sink-or-swim mentality.
The solution is to small-chunk: divide your entire workload into manageable segments. This comes naturally for us anyway. For example:
Stories have a beginning, middle and end. Songs have hooks, verses and choruses.
Each house is built brick by brick.
Small-chunking not only creates a structure that your mind can make sense of, but a process that is more efficient than the normal guns-ablazing, damn-the-torpedoes approach.
I've used this idea to build many long-lasting habits over time. For instance, at one point in my life I was meditating up to 30 minutes a day.
But I started with 5.
My current stretching routine is a little over a half hour.
Yet it began as 10 seconds (per stretch).
Stephen King suggest the same for writing, which is to do so one word at a time.
Pretend you're working on a sonata. Most students default to practicing the whole piece from beginning to end.
Now, if that sonata was a table then this would be like putting all your attention on the surface: you can enforce the top as much as you want, but if even one of those legs are flimsy then the entire edifice will collapse.
Practicing in small chunks strengthens each column and ensures your construct will stand on solid ground.
Think of each leg as a portion of your sonata: the technical name of each part is
exposition, development and recapitulation.
But you don't even need these terms - you can simply use numbers or letters. For example:
Here's where it gets interesting. Now that you have your major (macro) sections, you can divide them even further (micro).
If you're using numbers, then your exposition becomes 1a, 1b, 1c and so on. If using letters, it becomes A1, A2, A3, etc.
Besides making sure your sonata is sturdy, here are some other benefits you'll reap by small-chunking:
Making these divisions are especially valuable when working from memory: when you memorize each chunk separately they become "signposts" to guide you during performance.
It's kind of like including enough pit-stops on a road trip - even more paramount if you have a weak bladder.
Now, a word of warning: don't mistake difficulty for attention-span. This is another reason why it's a bad idea to practice your entire piece from beginning to end - this results in a strong intro, mediocre middle, and weak ending.
Once you've subtracted enough - created enough signposts and distilled a unit to a manageable nugget - then you add.
Notes become measures, measures become phrases, phrases become a micro-section (A1, 1a), micro turns into macro (A, B, C, 1, 2, 3) and eventually you have the whole thing.
Let's use technique as an another example.
If you're learning a traditional 4-octave scale, start from the smallest unit. When I teach this to a student, this is the progression:
What about rhythm? No problem. We can even use this approach for one of the most difficult patterns - polyrhythms (2 different rhythms occurring at the same time).
Just start with a single beat - play a triplet in one hand against 2 notes in the other.
After this gets easier, add another beat. Rinse and repeat until you're able to do pull off an entire string.
If you start small enough, anything is possible. Onto our next concept.
The Spice of Life
Bruce Lee once said, "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."
This is something everyone can understand: single-minded, undistracted effort.
Due to my culture and heritage, I was basically indoctrinated into this work-till-you-drop mentality. Not that I'm ashamed of it in any way - I'm proud of the discipline I inherited working alongside my family in our businesses.
So when I got serious about piano, I was like a hammer that saw everything as a nail - and my practice was just as straightforward: if 5 reps weren't enough I'd try 20, 50, 100 ... to infinity and beyond!
But like I said in the beginning of this article, all that hard work led to ... bare results.
It makes you wonder, why be so industrious if the returns don't justify the means?
So what's the alternative to this nose-to-the-grindstone work style?
The secret is to tweak Bruce Lee's original saying:
Allow me to introduce our next concept: varied practice.
I came across varied practice in the book How We Learn, by Benedict Carey. It's a book you can't miss - the next 2 concepts I'll discuss are also from this book.
Here's one of the studies:
Researchers at the University of Ottawa observed 36 eight-year olds who were enrolled in a 12-week Saturday morning PE course at the local gym. They split the group into two.
The exercise of choice was beanbag tossing. The first group was allotted 6 practice sessions. For each session, they were allowed 24 shots at a distance of 3 feet.
But the second group varied their practice. They had 2 targets to practice on, one target from 2 feet and another from 4 feet away - this was the only difference.
At the end of 12 weeks, the researchers had both groups perform a final test. The caveat was that it was from the distance of 3 feet, to which the first group was already accustomed.
Before you object to the fairness of the test, check this out: despite the disadvantage, the second group still outperformed the first (3-feet only) group.
As a Lakers fan, this makes me wonder how many more championships would have been won if Shaq varied his free throws.
This isn't limited to physical activities, you can also vary environments.
A college student can use this on a smaller scale. Let's say they're struggling with a paper or project - in this scenario you can deploy the Grand Gesture.
This idea comes from Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and other noteworthy books. In Deep Work, he shares how J.K. Rowling finished the last part of The Deathly Hallows by checking into the five-star Balmoral Hotel located in downtown Edinburgh.
The hotel was not only her inspiration for Hogwarts, but provided a nice change of pace from house chores and loud kids.
She ended up staying ... until she finished the book ... at a cost of more than $1,000 per night.
Now, if your dinner is usually top ramen then you barely have the funds for a Motel 6. But on a smaller, more affordable level, you can retreat to the corner of a library or local cafe.
You can also mix things up by changing the way you work.
I once read that Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. So what did I do? I purchased a standing desk and the change of pace has been super.
It's nice to get off my butt as much as possible, considering how much time I stay seated teaching private lessons and practicing piano. And the change in physical posture has a clear, positive effect on my productivity.
So we've covered beanbag tossing, changing locales and writing - now let's talk piano.
Furthermore, I'll demonstrate the utility of varied practice with one simple pattern.
Here are all the different ways you could practice a single scale:
Like small-chunking and the other concepts you'll learn today, varied practice is only limited by your imagination.