How To Practice Piano Effectively — And Have Fun Doing It!

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As we head into a new school season, it’s important that we tackle the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING that will make you a successful piano student — HOW TO PRACTICE EFFECTIVELY.

Often, we take for granted that we know how to practice something – anything.  However, as a piano teacher I realize that there is a great need to teach each one of my students how to practice their instrument – and it isn’t just playing through a song five times and calling it good. Oh, NO, dear friends!   It takes much more than that. In my piano lessons I do try to show my students how to approach each song, but somewhere between my piano bench and the front door this information mysteriously escapes their brains.

Zoe playing chord pianoBecause of this, I want to tell you some really great tips and steps on how to practice your piano. (And parents, you are every bit as involved in the learning process of your child, so I would recommend that you read and know these as well and read and explain them your younger students.)  I know that if you follow these simple steps they will become a habit, you will see great progress, you will find joy in your practice time (you really will!), AND these concepts can be applied to many other areas of life.  (Except maybe taking out the trash.)

 

1.    Make sure you set aside time EVERY DAY to play the piano and FOCUS – with no distractions.

I know that’s tough.  So many things to do, so little time, and we feel that we need to multi-task.  But, practicing your piano is not the time to do that, my friends.  When I practice myself, I make sure there are NO distractions and my focus is put completely into what I am doing.  (That means that I can’t have the dog in my lap, or be chatting with my girlfriend over Skype, or even enjoying my favorite caffeinated beverage. Dang.)  When you do focus, you may find that your 30 minutes of practice time may even get longer – because you enjoy it so much!  Seriously!

In addition to your practice time, (note the key word:  addition — meaning you’ve also got an assignment to do, I’m sure!) give yourself some time to play around and become more acquainted with your instrument and just have fun.  Make up songs (especially if you know your chords this is so fun to do), and try to sound out some of your favorite songs.  Play around with different chords and how they sound next to each other.  Even though I have been playing piano for years, I am STILL getting to know it!

 2.   Analyze each piece of music before practicing it.

Even if your teacher went over the music with you in class, take a look at it yourself. Yes, YOU!   If you have received a particular piece of music, your teacher obviously believes that you have learned everything you need to know in order to figure it out.  What is the key signature?  What is the time signature?  Where do your hands go?   What are the dynamic markings (p, f, rit., etc.)?  Does the key or time change anywhere within the piece? If you do not know what some things in your music are, please make note and talk it over with your teacher right away.  CALL him or her up or send them an email.  I’ll bet that all of your teachers have phones and computers and would LOVE to hear from their students.  In fact, you may become their new favorite!  DO NOT wait until the next week if you have a question.

3.  Break the music up into small bits.

Never practice a song by just playing it through several times in hopes that eventually it will become perfect.  That’s DUMB.  Break it up into smaller more manageable bits.  I would recommend a few measures or a line at a time.  Play hands separately at first, and then hands together.  Once you perfect these few measures, try a few more (often only two or three at the most – depending upon the difficulty of the song), then add them to the first measures you perfected.   If you find that just one part of a measure is giving you grief, just play those few notes.  BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF.  Work on those smaller (even tiny!) bits that you “just can’t get”.   If you focus on the tough parts, then you will learn the entire song much easier.  You will learn your music very quickly this way.

4.  Make sure you KNOW the notes!

To some of you, this might be a big fat “duh”, but you might surprise yourself.  Often little Sally Sue or Johnny Sue THINKS they know their notes, but there is a difference between “kinda” knowing them and “really” knowing them.   If you don’t “get” the notes, then pull out your flash cards or your “slogans” (Every Good Boy Does Fine”, etc.) and figure them out.  Do not GUESS at which notes you are playing.  You can find what notes you are playing if you know your slogans.  AND, don’t wait until the next week to ask your teacher.  You can figure it out.  If you have to (at first!) write them on your music — but be sure to memorize them nonetheless!  There is nothing better than plain old memorization to learn and know your notes.

And, if you are playing a song with chord charts, make sure you know the chords and which notes are in each chord before you start playing.  Figure out the best way to invert them to make them easier to play.   Notate this on your music to make it easier as you are learning.

5.  COUNT OUT LOUD!

Oh, man, you don’t know how many of my student HATE doing this!  Oh, the whines I hear!    I don’t really pay much attention to the whines because this is SO important!  Many of my students must relearn their music, much to their chagrin, because they did not count it correctly.  This is the number one problem with students not learning their music.  You MUST learn to internalize the beat.  And understand that you DO have rhythm — otherwise you would not be able to walk.   The more time you put into counting their music the faster you will progress in your piano. Counting is the KEY to learning a song.  I don’t know what it is, but so many times a student says, “I can’t get this song” and I say, “Count”, and magically the song falls into place under their fingers!  Who knew?  Something just lines up when you COUNT.   You can be a musician without reading notes, but you CANNOT be a musician without knowing your rhythm.

 6.  GO SLOWLY.

You want to go VERY slowly when first learning a piece.  You want to play it correctly.  The best way to do this is by going as slow as you need to in order to get BOTH the notes and the rhythm correct.  Do not go any faster than you can count it correctly – in the right time without missing any beats or having to pause.  If you have to pause, you are going too fast.  And, I mean you might have to go R-E-A-L-L-Y slow.  Your brain can speed up a piece once it is learned, but it cannot learn it correctly unless you enter the information correctly.  .

7.  Do it right the first time.

I had one precious student who consistently came to class with his pieces learned – but many times they were learned ALL WRONG.  He didn’t have the rhythm correct, nor the notes, yet he played with joy and pride.  I would praise him for putting his practice time in, and sometimes I would just move on to the next piece, but it happened so often that I had to show him the error of his ways.  We would spend the entire rest of the class relearning the piece, and redoing the notes and rhythm, and were not able to move onto the next song because of the corrections.  Studies show that it takes about 7 times to learn something, but I read somewhere that it takes 35 times to relearn it. 

8.  Use your ear. 

If you don’t think it sounds right, there is a very good chance that it is not.  DOUBLE CHECK yourself and then correct it if it is wrong.  And, have confidence in your ear.  That’s what makes a good musician.

9.  Realize that the piece of music tells you EVERYTHING you need to know about how to play the piece.

As I said before, your teacher gave you the piece you are playing because he/she knows that you know everything that is on the piece, or that you can figure it out.  You can do it!

10.  Take the initiative and give yourself the permission to FIGURE THINGS OUT.

I have students who will play something incorrectly and look at me and say, “I don’t know how to do this!” (when I know they really do).  The first thing I say is, “Figure it out.”  They will then give themselves permission to take the time to do so.  Have faith in yourself!   Apply what you have already learned in lessons to each piece, without depending upon your teacher to tell you everything.

11.  Don’t be afraid to “struggle”.

When you are practicing a new piece, you might find a place that is just “really hard.”  HARD is OK!  This just gives you an opportunity for you to struggle and train your brain a bit!  Take that hard part and work it — over and over and over — this is your way of saying to your brain, “You’re going to “get” this if it’s the last thing I do!”  Then, after you’ve worked a while, step away from the piano.  During those break times your brain is still working on that hard part.  Then, when you come back to the piano a few minutes later you’ll find that section might just be that much easier!

Disclaimer:  Don’t try the “break” thing if you haven’t first done the “struggle” thing.  Doesn’t work that way.

12.  BELIEVE IN YOURSELF!

You have already learned so much, even if you are a new student.  Give yourself credit!  Your brain LOVES music!   If you don’t “get” something — it does not mean you are stupid!  It does take time to learn new concepts, but once you learn them you will have a huge bag of tricks you can pull from!   And, you will find that you’ve got a really fantastic brain that can do pretty much anything you tell it to do!

Have fun!  And, please leave me a comment if any of these tips have helped you, or if you have others that have worked for you!

God bless!

T.K.

 

 

 

 

 

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Leave A Reply (13 comments so far)


  1. Dave Plummer
    5 years ago

    Hi T.K. These rules are so true. not just for piano. I teach sax,flute and clarinet and everyone of these apply to my students too, especially the bit about forgetting what you have told them before they leave your house.
    I read somewhere that you should go looking for trouble, basically meaning don’t just play the stuff you already know, go look for stuff you can’t play and start the process again.
    Thanks for this article I will direct my students to you site and see who much rubs off on them!
    regards
    Dave


    • T.K. Goforth
      4 years ago

      Hi, Dave! I love the part you said about “looking for trouble.” I’m going to have to use this with my students! I always like to give them a hard time, and this will fit right in! Let me know if any of this article rubs off on any of your “kids”! God bless!

      TK


  2. Lorie
    5 years ago

    Hi T.k.,
    Thanks for this post. I’m an love playing the keys and sometines struggle
    with maintaining a daily practice. Great tip.


    • T.K. Goforth
      4 years ago

      Hi, Lorie! Thanks for stopping by… It is sometimes difficult to find daily time, but even 5 – 10 minutes a day does wonders. Or, whenever you get the chance — you will always see improvement and THAT is what is fun!


  3. TracyAnn0312
    5 years ago

    It is good to have a piano lesson someday. Thanks for sharing the ideas in doing it with fun ideas.


  4. Arthur Smith
    4 years ago

    This is an excellent article T.K. Hopefully this motivates new learners to take action and actually enjoying practicing piano.


    • T.K. Goforth
      4 years ago

      Thank you, Arthur! I appreciate you stopping by!


  5. TracyAnn0312
    4 years ago

    I really want to learn Piano since I was a kid but due to our financial problem, I never have done to learn to it. Good thing you have shared how to practice it. Maybe it can be a way for me to learn it.


    • T.K. Goforth
      4 years ago

      Hi, Tracey Ann! I hope you can learn one day!

  6. Consistency is key. If you get in front of the piano a little bit each day, it does make a difference. Sometimes a student will practice as little as 15 minutes in the morning.. and 15 minutes in the evening. And they make more improvements than those practicing twice a week for a few hours.

    I also ask students to play older pieces that they have already mastered at the beginning and end of their practice session. Students enjoy playing what they know, and feel proud of. In addition, reviewing older pieces builds musicianship skills and helps students to solidify their older repertoire as well to be easily performed at any time.


  7. Ronald
    4 years ago

    Just wanted to stop by and say THANKS for writing this! So many great tips for people of all ages who are trying to learn the piano. It really takes a lot of dedication, passion, and patience, but it can be done, and this post provides a TON of motivation.

    Thanks again!


  8. piano lessons
    3 years ago

    Piano students learn to work under the close scrutiny of a mentor, in this case, their piano teacher. Students learn to accept advice and feedback from their teacher who they view as the expert in that field. It produces adults who are more considerate to opinions different from their own.


  9. Frank
    3 years ago

    Great article! You outlined every aspect that should be taken into account when practicing piano. If every student respects these pieces of advice, there would be an inflation of remarkable pianists.

I’m glad you came to visit!

My name is T.K. Goforth, also known as the "Chord Piano Chick." I am a musician, song-writer, music teacher and author of "Chord Piano Is Fun!" I am also a wife, mom, and a chick who enjoys life.

I also LOVE teaching others. To see my students embrace music through the keyboard gives me great satisfaction. Music is God's greatest gift to mankind, and through it we can find humor, relaxation, healing, and connection with God and others. And, I believe it should be fun!

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