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Kurt Vonnegut once said, "When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth." Well, trying to figure out what you want to practice on piano can feel the same way.
For example, when I ask parents - my students are mainly children - what their piano goals are they usually say, "I just want them to enjoy lessons and practice every day."
That's like saying you want food for dinner.
Declaring such a vague goal is a symptom of not knowing how to properly set one.
Okay smart guy, then how do you go about this?
Well, the first challenge is understanding you need to sit down and spend some time at your desk.
If that sounds easy to you, it's not. You will encounter plenty of resistance and be tempted to just "wing" it - DON'T DO THIS.
"Going with the flow" seems like the much more attractive option. But it's because it takes zero mental effort.
And as Stephen Pressfield says: what we resist will persist.
Don't run from that resistance, it's actually a compass that will point you in the right direction - lean into it.
So if it's your first time developing a plan, understand that there's no way to avoid that initial discomfort. But hey, since you're reading this article this means you already have
a head start..
And believe me, one day you'll actually look forward to planning sessions.
You'll look back and realize that taking the time to plan is what allowed you to execute your practice and achieve your goals flawlessly.
Now, at this point you might be wondering how much time you need to spend planning. We'll cover that near the end of this blog post.
First, let's talk discuss why writing down your goals is so important.
Things to Practice on Piano
Why You Need Goals
Not setting goals is like trying to shoot an arrow into a bulls-eye ... blind-folded.
With a strategy like that, all you can do is cross your fingers - and hope you're not a contestant in the next Squid Game.
But when you set a goal, it becomes a constraint (like a deadline for a project). And the more specific your goals are, the larger the targets become (easier to hit).
With an effective plan, you'll have better clarity of focus since you won't have to spend your concentration on spur-of-the moment decisions.
It's like planning your meals for the week - I do this with my wife every Sunday. If we don't, we get caught in decision hell: what do you want to eat? No, what do yoooou want
to eat? NO, WHAT DO YOU .... kill me now.
Also try and plan to the last detail, this helps you deal with the unexpected. When I write my goals I do it with the intention that things aren't going to go according to plan.
So when something unforeseen happens, it's easy to get back on track since I expected it.
It's like a battle plan, the most successful generals in history were the ones who planned for every positive and negative scenario.
Recording your goals has another notable benefit. Just the mere act of writing your goals, or making notes, helps you utilize the Zeigarnik Effect.
This theory states that just by merely writing something down, you decrease the amount of useless thoughts that occupy your mind.
In the book How to Take Smart Notes, we learn about the origin of this phenomenon: psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed waiters had an uncanny ability to remember everything customers ordered.
But as soon as the diners left, the waiters were able to promptly forget everything.
Based on this, she later developed the idea that open tasks will occupy your short-term memory until completed.
This explains why we're so easily distracted by unfinished tasks and thoughts - to combat this all you need to do is write your tasks down.
Not doing this means your brain will be full of distractions while you practice. When you write down everything you need to, your mind is clear and sharp.
Now, I suggest taking it a step further and doing this for tasks outside of your piano regimen. If you don't do this, it won't matter if you have all your musical goals written down - there's always a chance things in your personal or professional life will butt in.
David Allen's Getting Things Done is the book to get for this.
Before we discuss what to practice on piano, let's talk about time.'
As in, how long should the preparation phase be?
Take a cue from Ultralearning. The author, Scott H. Young, provides a useful framework: 10% of the total time spent on research.
So if you plan on spending 100 hours on practice, you'll use 10 hours of that to plan.
Another thing he says is if research is helping, you can always do more of it. And if it's not, less - spend more time practicing.
Then, once you've done enough research and you're able to put your plan into action - decide on your timeframe.
How long will it be before you conclude whether or not something's working for you?
If it's your first time doing something like this I suggest going with a shorter deadline.
Try one month. Once it's over sit down, analyze your progress, make adjustments and continue.
However, the timeframe that works perfectly for me is 90 days. It works out to 3 months, what's known as a "business quarter."
But I don't only check my progress at the end of each quarter. I analyze my results at least once a week and once a month, it's like having pit-stops on a long road trip to your destination.
Another question you might have is, how do I measure success?
I've talked about this before, but what works best for me is tracking my time. Knowing exactly how many hours I spend on each activity gives me enough data to make important decisions.
It also keeps me away from a results-oriented mindset: my week-to-week, month-to- month goal is simply to not fall behind on my quota of time spent.
But the meta-goal remains the same: I execute my plan for the entire 3 months, come hell or high water.
What to Practice (Skills)
Things to Practice On Piano (Skills)
Now that the planning phase is out of the way, what next?
Well ... what do you want?
Do you want to get better at note reading? Learn to play by ear? Improvise? The list seems endless and if you have no idea where to start, let's reference Ultralearning again: learning projects are either "instrumental" (professional) or "intrinsic" (personal).
Do you want to eventually make a buck and gain recognition for your talent or do you want to keep piano as a hobby for pure enjoyment?
Instrumental skills move you forward professionally. This is like a makeup artist taking a Hollywood set design class or a stand-up comedian studying improv.
Side note: it doesn't have to be exactly related to your field of expertise. There's a domino effect: what you learn in one field can affect another.
And it's also how to overcome what's called domain dependence.
I bring this up because an unrelated goal might become a related goal later in life.
For example, you might think studying theory is useless - but if you plan on being a public school teacher, what if you're suddenly instructing a music class one day?
It's far from reality: I know of one instance where a music teacher had to do double-duty as a basketball coach.
On the other hand, intrinsic skills are things you do for pure enjoyment: fun activities without a care for professional advancement.
This could be like becoming fluent in a language just because you want to.
In fact, if you want to keep it fun I would argue to do exactly that - the best way to kill a passion is to turn it into a job.
If you go to church, you might volunteer to be your choir's accompanist. Or maybe you just want to jam on the keys with your friends in an amateur cover band.
Perhaps even compose your own music without the intent of publishing anything.
Furthermore, don't make the mistake of thinking intrinsic goals are less valuable than instrumental. There are many hobbies I have that I don't make a dollar from but increase my general sense of well-being - which then creates more fulfillment in my career.
It's a Fine Line
In the next section, I have plenty of suggestions for you on what to practice on piano. But what you'll notice is that I haven't categorized any of these activities as intrinsic or
It's because, at least to me, it doesn't matter.
Personally, I don't view intrinsic goals as different from instrumental goals. I don't care whether or not something advances my career, I learn for the sake of learning
I don't have a lot of time to practice these days, but I still plan on becoming the best pianist I can possibly be. Whether or not I become a professional, my goal is to continue to work on my craft until the day I die.
Perhaps I'll be as good as an actual concert pianist someday. But whether or not I make it, I don't care.
You don't have to agree with me, it's just my personal frame of mind.
And I not only take this approach with piano, but with everything I'm learning in life. It's what Cal Newport calls the "craftsman's mindset."
With my blog, I want to be the best writer I can possibly be. With foreign languages, I want to get to the level of reading scholarly articles.
Again, the whole point isn't to actually reach any of these goals, it's the striving that I enjoy. It keeps me connected to the process - doing the work is its own enjoyment.
So remember, whether a skill is actually intrinsic or instrumental boils down to your attitude. You decide whatever that means.
Things to Practice on Piano (Suggestions)
Now, here are some ideas on what to practice on piano.
To make it easier, group activities into 4 categories:
With technique, you could practice the most fundamental patterns in all of music: scales, arpeggios and chords.
You'll want to take it a step further and play them in every key. Otherwise you'll hit a wall when you get to an unfamiliar one.
Another way to improve your technique is through study of advanced repertoire - practice the greatest composers of whatever genre you choose (baroque, classical, romantic, impressionistic, modern, etc.).
Often, the music is difficult enough that your technique will improve without needing to do technical exercises.
For note reading, you can practice flashcards and sheet music.
To get better at playing by ear (ear training), listen to a variety of music. It's a great way to discover different styles, as well as understand different musical "languages."
Studying harmony helps too: with enough practice you might be able to identify certain harmonies or chord progressions in the musical genre you're learning.
Transposition is also a good skill to learn. After all, if you really want to be able to play by ear you need to be able to play songs in any key.
Lastly, study theory to get better at musical analysis. That's only if you want to understand the "grammar" of music - how music is constructed, and so on.
This is especially important if you plan on writing your own music someday - yes, all music follows certain "laws" of composition as does (good) writing.
Side note: remember that when you learn the rules, you'll know when to break them.
Once you've decided on your materials, read this article. You'll learn useful practice concepts to supercharge your progress.
As the stoic philosopher Seneca once said, "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
Don't fall for those stories of overnight success, which are mostly based on pure luck.
Instead of leaving it to chance, you can change your life through effort - it just takes a lot of meticulous planning.
But the sooner you start, the easier it will be. This will help you take the long-term view.
The farther you're able to look out, the clearer the trajectory of your plans will be. And from there, all you need is to take the smallest action day after day.
Then repeat a thousand times.
Of course, that's easy for me to say and difficult to put into practice - but the only thing that makes it difficult is giving up.
Or not even starting in the first place.
So take that first step. Over time all your effort will start to slowly compound.
One day you'll look back and realize how far you've come, all the while thinking - why didn't I do this earlier?
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