Practicing effectively isn't as simple as sitting down and playing. There's a LOT that goes into a productive session. Like working out with a personal trainer, it's not just "doing" the exercises. Some questions might be:
In this post, I want to share with you 7 things that will guarantee your piano success. I'll try to keep it brief, since each these can literally be an entire blog post on its own.
Piano Practice Success
1. Goal Setting
In terms of what goals to set, you really don't want to set any. Because goals fail.
Let me tell you why. Imagine two scenarios:
But think about it for second, what does it mean to "have fun?"
What exactly is "playing as well as possible?"
Well... for some kids "having fun" means hardly practicing and only on a few days a week, if that. On the other hand, "playing as well as possible" might mean dragging them to the piano and forcing them to practice an hour a day (which is a surefire way to HATE piano lessons).
Let's take an example from school. I believe the worst goal ever invented is to "become a Straight-A student."
BECAUSE YOU CAN ALWAYS CHEAT.
It's like saying you want a lot of money. The simplest, but very inadvisable way, to do that would be to rob someone who has a lot more moolah than you.
The method matters.
In his book "Atomic Habits," James Clear says "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems."
Instead of goals, focus on the process. Build a system. Doing this is what leads to success. Quality results become the byproduct instead of the actual aim. So what process can you use, what system can you set in place?
That's where I come in.
How to have fun? I give them exciting music that they choose on their own and look forward to practicing.
Don't like practicing? We set a minimum time they can accomplish every day. This even works with the most practice-resistant child. If you're wondering about their progress, don't worry because you can always increase the practice time later (when they've become more disciplined).
On top of this, I give them incentives (motivation). I accomplish this is by offering a "point" for each day practiced. Once they accumulate enough points, they can trade them in for a prize.
And I don't mean a bookmark with musical decorations, I give them something they actually want (thank you Amazon: all hail Jeff Bezos).
Of course you don't need physical prizes to accomplish this (they do help though). Well-timed praise can work just as well. Over time, many of my students begin to care less about prizes, and more about actual practice and doing well.
For the adults out there, I hope this is something you keep in mind the next time New Year's Eve comes around (NO MORE RESOLUTIONS).
And what about results? You have to be patient and allow them to make the choice to become a better piano player. Some students don't make that choice and that's fine. After all, you can't force a child to be a better player than they want be (who's taking lessons, your or your kid?)
Scheduling practice sessions is a lot like sleep. It's a fact that we tend to change our sleep patterns throughout our life. I remember being a "night owl" in college. I would practice until the wee hours of midnight or even 2am. These days, late mornings are my best time to practice.
From what I've heard, as children become teens they tend to biologically want to wake up later. Which is why school has it so backwards (super-early classes when kids should still be in bed!).
On a similar note, the type of work we do best depends on when we choose to do it. For example: focused, technical work is best for early mornings while creative, freestyle activities are best reserved for evenings.
If you don't have a little one to take care, and your schedule is stable, this is pretty much all you need to know. For you busy folks and parents, read on.
So the question is, "when do I focus best?" or "when does my child focus best?"
The solution is to write out those times and plan 2 (or more) shorter sessions ahead of time. The crazier your schedule, the more daily planning is necessary (my schedule hardly changes, so I can set it once a week or even once per month).
This is what most professional musicians do anyway. Instead of a marathon session, they'll usually split their practice into 2 distinct periods. So a 4-hour session becomes a 2-hour session earlier in the day and another one later on. The type of material they work on might differ as well (technical vs. creative).
This is also a wonderful approach if your child isn't used to paying attention for long periods of time. In fact, shorter practice sessions might all but eliminate any resistance you get from them (while increasing concentration).
3. Environment/Set Up
Do you sleep with your phone next to your bed? How does that work out for you? In all likelihood, the temptation is too great to overcome and trying to get a good night's sleep turns into a barrage of random cat videos.
The mainstream advice is to put your phone in another room. If you have a real problem, lock it in a safe (preferably a kitchen timer: Amazon link).
Why do we have to go to such lengths? Because, to refer to Atomic Habits once again, to break a bad habit (distraction) you have to make it invisible. To this point, even having a single web browser open is enough to derail your concentration (even if you're not paying attention to it!!).
As a self-professed foodie, if you wanted to destroy my work day, all you gotta do is walk across the room with delicious smelling food (preferably Lebanese kabob). One whiff and I'm done. DONE.
So make sure ALL distractions are out of sight.
Now I'm not saying this works for everyone. Some people work better in a cluttered, messy environment. And although there's no right answer, what personally works for me is having a clean space.
I believe in the mantra, "a cluttered environment leads to a cluttered mind." Of course, I say this while I ignore the ever-increasing pile of laundry that apparently wont fold itself for some reason (no one's perfect).
Side note: this is just as true for our digital space.
So even though YOU might be able to work in a less than tidy environment, that doesn't mean your child will. They will touch ANYTHING and EVERYTHING they're curious about.
Another reason why a clean space matters is because they'll sit down and get right to work since there's nothing else to do (remember: make it invisible).
It's about reducing friction. Think about 2 very successful apps: Amazon and Uber. Want a car to pick you up? Click a button. Want to order something on Amazon? The same
Want your child to sit down and practice? Clear the room of anything that is not related to playing piano.
What do you notice about most celebrities, athletes, public speakers and CEOs ... besides their massive egos? Just kidding (not kidding). They all have incredible posture.
Good posture not only projects charisma and power, it's also necessary to focus.
For example, next time you're involved in something (like filling out a document or reading a book) scrunch your shoulders, sit at a table that's too high or low, hunch your back and, while you're at it, furrow your eyebrows (btw, nice Quasimodo impression!).
Tense your whole body. How did that feel?
Now ... do the same thing and this time, relax. Sit comfortably, but upright, and use a table that's at the perfect height.
Relax your body, as well as your eyes. It makes a world of difference, doesn't it?
This idea is even more important when it comes to playing piano. In fact, if you don't sit at the proper height and distance, you will make things harder for yourself.
One of the most notorious, historical examples of a concert pianist with the worst posture ever was Glenn Gould. Despite how low he sat at the piano, he was one of the greatest (and most eccentric) pianists to live.
Although he was a hypochondriac (I told you he was eccentric), I'm sure his posture contributed to the health ailments he suffered later in life. See: focal dystonia (wiki, internet link).
A theory that further explains this is the "butterfly effect." It's based on the idea that a tiny butterfly flapping its wings will cause a tsunami on the other side of the world.
That might be a bit far-fetched but think of the precision an airplane needs to get to its destination. One centimeter can make all the difference.
So practice good posture from the beginning and avoid these problems later in life. See the attached photo for a basic idea.
Arms and wrist parallel to the keys. Proper distance allows the arm to have an ‘l’ shape.
Are all the necessary materials at or near the keyboard/piano at all times? When it comes to reducing friction, are all the materials quickly accessible?
The first thing a student MUST to do is check instructions in their piano journal.
Every. Single. Day.
The reason you need this daily reminder is that you need a way to measure your progress. A way to track it.
For those of us on the never-ending weight loss journey, one simple, effective way to lose weight is to just weigh yourself (every day).
The scale doesn't lie.
At one point in their piano lessons, ALL of my students will make the mistake of checking directions only once for that week. Or even worse, not checking at all. They assume they'll remember what I taught them at their lesson.
They won't. Only what's repeated is remembered.
This is why I go so far as to include an "instructions" box in their daily checklist (located on each page of their instructions book).
But how do you make sure they'll do this? Again, incentives. Whatever items are on their daily checklist, they must ALL get checked off in order to receive one point for that day. And these points have to be valuable enough to care about.
This one is absolutely CRUCIAL. In fact, I'll go so far as to say this is the #1 thing above all else. A student must have access to a device (with internet) at all times.
The reason they'll need a tablet, or similar device, is to access the HUNDREDS of videos I've recorded. All the curriculum they'll be studying (for at least the first few years) has been recorded and is available for free on my YouTube channel.
Why are these videos so important? Well, how do you learn a language? We learn it through writing, reading, and speaking. Now, writing doesn't depend on pronunciation, but speaking and reading do. How do you properly pronounce a word? You have to hear how it's supposed to sound.
In the same way, students need to do daily listening and watching. To play a song well, you have to know how it goes. And with the videos, you also hit all of the necessary senses involved in piano playing (visual, auditory, physical).
It's like going to a gym: you sign up with a trainer, or go to a group class, so someone can show you the ropes. The more savvy gyms will have pre-recorded exercises to send your way whenever you need an extra boost during the week.
So for my students, these videos are like getting a micro-lesson every day.
Now, for the parents out there I understand the dangers of your child seeing things they're not supposed to see on the web and getting endlessly distracted. So it's necessary to take the time and limit internet access for your child.
Something I've done to help my clients even further is to provide an entire curated list of all the music I teach into a single PDF document (shout-out to my amazing assistant Val for creating this). So far, it's taken care of the internet issue as all they need to do is open the document on their device (instead of logging into YouTube).
In summary: you need to see a concrete, successful example of something you're learning. And you can't pretend to be better than you are. Just as a scale will tell the (harsh) truth, the tape doesn't lie either.
Get your FREE copy here.
Now in terms of practice, the traditional advice is "amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they can't get it wrong."
This quote sorta implies you need to doendless repetitions. If that's the case, it's actually wrong. It's a hard pill to swallow because if you're like me, that's basically what they taught you in school for most of your life! Do it 10 times, 20, 50, 100!
Here's the thing, in the book "Make It Stick," a highlighted study shows that repetition after repetition makes things worse.
So if most traditional methods focus on rep after rep, it's a recipe for failure (and boredom).
What's the alternative? Although there are more than a few I've learned through the years, here I'll list my top 3 favorite practice concepts.
The major benefits that these concepts have in common are that they:
1. Minimize mistakes
2. Maximize concentration
These 3 techniques allow you to "zoom out." You'll notice any unconscious mistakes and maximize your attention by allowing plenty of rest periods. You can use each concept by itself or (more powerfully) combine them all together.
Practice is like eating a pizza. How do you eat a pizza? One slice at a time. Unless you're Joey Chestnut (remember to chew, people).
This is what "chunking" is.
Now, a concert pianist will almost always first read through the entire piece they're practicing. This is to get an overall idea and to focus productively on the most important sections.
I never recommend this for a beginner though, because it's a high-level skill you need to learn through experience. So instead of an entire song, we'll take it and divide it into 4 (or more) "slices" of our "musical" pizza.
The biggest advantage is that you can shorten a section as much as you want. Let's say 4 measures (think of a sentence) is too much to practice at a time. Divide it in half. Still having problems? Try one measure (one word). I've even gone as far as to chunk it down to a single note or two for a student! I call this a "single-bite" instead of an entire slice.
If you're a project manager, you're pretty familiar with this -> Breaking a huge project down into the smallest actionable steps.
It also works the opposite way. Once you have your appropriately shortened chunk, you can then begin to add to it. So 1 note becomes 2, 2 measures become 4 and so on.
We've all heard the saying, "Don't just stand there, do something!"
But what about, "Don't just do something, stand there!"
This practice concept has to do with waiting. More specifically, "spacing" out your practice.
So instead of doing something 10 times in a row, it's much more efficient to do 3 reps now, 3 reps in a little while, and 3 reps later (or 4 if you're a stickler for math).
I'll go into the science in a future blog post, but for now it's like doing push-ups. If you're like me, and consider walking to a fridge a legitimate form of exercise, 20 push-ups is a stretch (see: IMPOSSIBLE). It's much more manageable if you split that up into 4 separate sessions of 5. This is the "chunking" concept we talked about in the previous section.
But here's where it gets interesting. What you want to do next is take time to smell the roses. And what I mean is to "space" out your practice.
The best way I can describe this to you is like watching a movie ... twice.
If I find my next favorite movie, something I love to do is rewatch it after some time has passed. If it's a great movie, you will notice many things you didn't the first time around. It's even more fun when they hide easter eggs here and there.
So when it comes to practice, 5 "spaced" repetitions will lead to sometimes significantly better results than 5 in a row (or even 10!).
Now how long to wait in between, and situations in which to not use this concept, is a story for another time.
This last strategy is called "multi-leaving." I think a better word for this is "productive multi-tasking." We all know its twin: "channel surfing." Although we don't actually need to switch to other channels during commercials any more (viva la smartphones).
Let's take an example from my favorite activity: Reading.
I've been a major bookworm for, at least, the past 20 years of my life. During my post- college years (and pre-professional), I remember reading up to 3 hours. Daily. Nowadays there's too much going on in my life, so I manage to squeeze an hour to an hour and a half every day.
When I think about it now, 3 hours seems like a LOT. And that's because most people picture themselves spending 3 hours on a single book.
The major key (pun intended) is that I had at least 5 books I would go through at the same time. When I began reading one book, if I noticed I started to get bored or lose attention, I immediately switched to another. It was like starting fresh. If I hit the same roadblock, I would just switch to another book, or even back to the original one.
So this strategy is what helped me to get in the minimum hours on a daily basis. And it was somewhat effortless.
How do I use this at the lesson? I might have them start off with playing their song. Afterwards, we could focus on different "chunks" of the song, switching back and forth as needed. I also use one of my favorite tools: Flashcards. We do any of these activities any time there's a lull in the action. And for more experienced students we add scales, ear training, theory and sight-reading.
This is what allows me to keep the lesson exciting for the student; we do the same amount of work but because we're switching from activity to activity they perceive it as fast-paced.
And the bottom-line is that there's a noticeable increase in their attention span.
If you don't have kids, think of this section as "self-accountability." Simply, reward yourself for practicing, punish yourself for not practicing. Otherwise, this is specifically for parents.
How much should you be involved in your child's practice? For this, let's use the Goldilocks Principle. Not too little, not too much, but just right.
Too hands-off and the student will most likely flit about aimlessly, while developing bad practice habits (and wasting your money). Go overboard and you become a micromanager, doing everything for your child and ensuring they learn nothing on their own.
It's about balance. Just find the right amount that makes you not want to pull your hair out.
One more way to think about this: learning anything for the first time is like developing a new habit. Do remember how long it took to ride a bike for the first time?
So how long does it take for a new habit to become automatic? Anywhere from 30 to 60 days.
In a perfect world your child would just sit at the piano, open up her practice journal and check off every daily item (if this is your child, send them my way wink, wink).But this is totally unrealistic: you might as well have them handle your taxes.
Be patient, they will eventually get there. But you need to be there for them, especially at the start of it all. This is absolutely the most important thing you can do for them.
Involve yourself in whatever amount it takes for them to complete their assignments for the day.
And remember that daily discipline compounds. When investing money, if you're smart about it you can more than double your nest egg over a long period of time. By making sure the student sits down as many days as possible within a 2-month period, they'll develop a discipline that will pay its rewards years down the road.
A lot of my more diligent students happily report that they use the discipline they've gained with piano in their other activities and endeavors. And that's one of my major goals for every client who signs up with me.
Lastly, I'm well aware many adults don't have time to constantly hover over their child's practice sessions. But the harsh truth is that if you're not able to devote at least some time for them, they will most likely fail.
They are the arrows, you are the bow.
So there you have it, my list of 7 things to set yourself (or child) up for success at piano. The beginning is always the toughest stage and I hope what you've read today helps you get off to an amazing start.
And remember, these are all interdependent. One alone does not matter without the other. Think of it all as a well-oiled team working together with one another.
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