A couple of months ago, an adult friend asked for some tips to improve her piano practice. I stumbled across our email correspondence today and thought it might be useful to people who’ve recently started, or re-started, playing an instrument. There’s nothing new here, but sometimes it helps to see things written down in a different way: A lot of these tips were actually suggested to me by a group of teenage pupils for a classroom display. If you are reading this, I hope you are still following your own advice!
I spent 18,000 words researching practice strategies and the unshocking conclusion was…the more you practise, the better you get. The problem is prioritising it; nobody will go hungry or lose their job if you don’t practise, so it can easily get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. I think the trick is not to see it as a big thing. If nothing else, play for two minutes every day: There is no set-up time required for the piano, so leave your music and notebook on the instrument, then find a slot (preferably part of the morning routine) to play for two minutes. It could be whilst the kettle is boiling or the bath is running, or a resolution that you won’t check Facebook until you’ve played the piano. Use the time to improve something specific, such as finding notes confidently at different octaves, switching chords quickly or playing a familiar piece all the way through. If you have the time then and are feeling encouraged, keep playing for a few more minutes – but don’t feel like a failure if you aren’t able to do this.
Once you have got used to playing every day, find some extra slots for lengthier practice. Five-minute sessions will be fine; again, try to get into the habit of spending a short time at the piano before cooking/feeding the cat/going online for social reasons. In each session, review your notes from the previous lesson and focus on developing the skills you were taught.
Musical progress is often impaired for visual reasons; reading the music and finding the notes on the keyboard can slow us down to the point where what we play doesn’t actually sound like recognisable music. Reading music confidently is a great skill to have, but it isn’t essential. If you are struggling to make sense of what you are trying to play, the following suggestions might help. Try not to become overly dependent on one strategy, but don’t feel like you are ‘cheating’ if you employ them from time to time:
Use a note-finder propped on the black notes to help you recognise the keyboard layout.
Write note names onto the music in pencil (or photocopy the music and colour-code the different notes). As you get more confident with a piece, rub out all but the first note-name in each bar.
Listen to what the piece should sound like! Record your teacher playing it during the lesson or search for it online.
If the piece is too long, just learn the first four bars. Then look for a section where this material is repeated or varied slightly and learn this bit next.
If you are working Hands Together, play LH/RH/LH/HT. It should help you to avoid struggling with the LH material.
Use a metronome app to focus on keeping going at a steady pace. If this is difficult, introduce it with easy pieces that you already know.
Finally, do really think in lessons about how well you understand what you are being taught. It is fine to clarify something with your teacher, write down a description that you understand or even film him or her demonstrating something. A teacher will be happy for you to ask several times about a particular concept if it means that you return next week being able to do it!
GOOD LUCK! And remember that any playing is better than none, so if you don’t feel like practising, just play for fun.
PS. The ‘slightly-unrelated-picture’ element of this blog continues, with ukuleles instead of a piano.