I’ve been playing piano since age 5. No, scratch that. I’ve been “practicing” piano since age 5. Yet, there are days when I still need to ask myself, how to I practice? Should I stick with the old advice of practicing the same thing over and over again until it sticks? Is that the most efficient way? The short answer is no; playing something over and over again mindlessly is not the most efficient, or enjoyable way of progressing at your instrument. I’ve found that on some days I accomplish more in 1 hour of practice versus 5 hours on other days. So what constitutes as accomplishing more? There is one simple goal that you should strive for everyday in order to get better.
This one simple goal is to accomplish something you’ve never done before. That’s it! Let’s say you play a piece all the way through one day perfectly with no missed notes. The next day you play the same piece all the way through again perfectly. Even though you played it through perfectly, you haven’t gotten any better or progressed. There are a number of objectives to reach after playing just the right notes. For example, a piece could be even more expressive, reach the next level of a deeper interpretation. Perform it for your peers or family, since you are in a different emotional state when performing versus practicing. For most of us, it can take months or years before a piece is ready to be performed on a regular basis. There are always pieces to keep working on and polish. In order to avoid that plateau, one must make it a goal of accomplishing something new each day that they haven’t done before. Some examples can be memorizing a section or the whole thing, playing through a difficult section without stopping, playing through a fast section more evenly, practicing extra slow or extra fast with a metronome, and playing around with dynamics and expression. Something a teacher told me once is if i feel stuck musically with a piece, I should play it the way I want it first. Then after I play it my way, play it in a completely different way. Then after that, play it in an even more different way. It doesn’t matter if you won’t use these new ideas, but it does get you thinking and hearing it differently, instead of being stuck with one musical idea.
As a teacher, I get asked the question of how much one should I practice each day many times. I like the quote by the famous pianist Vladmir Horowitz, “If i don’t practice for one day, I know. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows. If I don’t practice for three days, my audience knows”. The first important step in practicing is to do it every day. Sure, i give myself a pass on occasions like Christmas and my birthday since I’ll be playing with new gadgets, but in general, a serious musician should be practicing everyday. The amount varies based on skill level and commitment, but I tell my 8 year olds at least 1 hour, and my 6 year olds as long as they can keep their attention span. Everyone has their own practicing techniques and advice that works for them, but I’ll explain mine in the next section.
I used to be the type that will repeat a piece or a whole section mindlessly, and hope that muscle memory will take over eventually and all I’ll have to do is put my hands in the right positions, and the fingers will do the rest by itself. it certainly worked, but I would learn pieces very slowly. Ever since reading a piano practicing book by Chuan Chang, the process I use now is practicing mostly hands separately. However, be listening to what your separated hands are doing instead of mindlessly repeating over and over again. When practicing hands together, your hands will fatigue and your ears are focusing on many notes and ideas. When breaking it down with each hand alone, your hands will never be simultaneously tired, because one hand is always resting. The more important aspect is that your ears will have an easier time to digest the sounds, whether they are musical or not, and retaining the music into memory. Playing piano is a full body task, not just muscle memory in the fingers. You are involved emotionally (bringing out the character of the piece), physically (moving of the fingers and body), and intellectually (memorizing the piece, thinking about musical ideas). When playing and practicing with your whole body of resources, that’s when you make the most progress and make for amazing performances.
To sum up, a problem of many pianists or musician is the feeling of being stuck. To alleviate this problem, try to accomplish something new each day that you haven’t done before, whether it’s an emotional, physical, or intellectual task with the music. When I stated earlier that some days I feel like I accomplished more in an hour, it just means I’ve accomplished more new things in that hour than some days in the span of 4 hours, where I haven’t done anything new. While everyone has their own techniques that work for them, one that works for me is an abundance of hands separate practice. This makes it easier on the ear, which is probably the most important body part for a musician. When practicing everyday, accomplishing the one task of achieving something new will make you become a better pianist.