Have you ever heard the expression “practice makes perfect”?
Musicians often find that this statement is not entirely true. There’s more to the story!
Have you ever noticed that you were getting into a rut in your practice time? Or maybe you have observed your child becoming increasingly frustrated with a certain passage in a piece they are working on? Our instincts kick in during times like these, and we start telling ourselves (or our children!) “Just keep pushing! Hold on for 10 or 15 more repetitions—something will snap into place and it will all get better.” And voila! The pianist is spinning tires in a muddy rut. Mindless repetitions for the sake of repetition will rarely get good results. A very wise teacher once told me, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
What is Perfect Practice?
So what does it mean to practice perfectly? Well, let’s start defining “perfect practice” by defining what it is not. If you practice mistakes, you continue to more deeply establish those mistakes in your playing. Repeating mistakes is not the way to make progress. For example: Let’s say there’s an especially difficult spot in the piece you’re working on. Maybe some left hand leaps, a difficult rhythm in the right hand, or some complicated differences in the hands which make it difficult to combine them and play hands together. The worst thing you can do is to run through this section again and again, repeating the same problems, and hoping for something to change. And, alas, how many times we have all fallen into this trap!
Correct repetitions yield good results. We must find a way to put ourselves in an environment where we can play the music correctly, no longer repeating mistakes, and thereby practicing perfectly. We can achieve this by practicing in three important ways: Slowly, in Short Sections, and Hands Separately.
1. How to practice "Slowly"
When we practice slowly, we must be careful to find the tempo at which we can actually play every note accurately—right sound, right dynamic, right rhythm, etc. This might be a very slow tempo! We shouldn’t be afraid of practicing very slowly. Another wise teacher once told me, “If you can play it slow, you can play it fast. If you can only play it fast and you can’t play it slow, then you don’t know the piece.”
2. How to practice in "Short Sections"
Short sections are another extremely important key to perfect practice. Our brains can get easily overwhelmed by the idea of playing an entire 1 or 2 pages of music perfectly, especially if it’s new music. New pieces should be broken down into short sections based on phrases (cohesive, meaningful, musical ideas), which are usually 4 to 8 measures long. I draw squiggle marks throughout my music to mark off these sections. When I start to learn a piece, I discipline myself to only tackle one phrase at a time, and not to pass the squiggle mark until I have reached my goal for that phrase. My brain immediately starts to relax and focus better when I am attending to one phrase at a time, rather than an entire page or two! Another wise teacher once told me, “If you’re having trouble with a specific section of music, it’s most likely that your problem can be reduced to the connection of one note to another one. If you can identify this connection and isolate the little problem, you will solve bigger problems much more quickly.” Short sections allow us to look at our music on a much more detailed level, and to identify and isolate little problems that are creating big problems.
3. How to practice "Hands Separately"
Practicing hands separately is an old, tried and true method, but is nonetheless very important. You are much more likely to be able to accurately play the left hand alone than hands together. Every accurate repetition is a step in the right direction, and isolating the hands is a great way to build up accurate repetitions and teach your hands and your brain good habits.
Putting it all together...
The most effective way to start practicing a piece is to combine these three ways of practicing. Mark out your short sections, and start by practicing them slowly and hands together. Once you feel very comfortable with this, it’s usually best to try combining the hands while keeping your slow tempo and staying within the short section. Then, after the combined hands are smooth and secure, start building your tempo slowly—just 3 to 5 levels on the metronome at a time. Now, after you have done this with all your short sections, it’s time to start combining them! Turn off that metronome, and enjoy the flow of the combined phrases and musical story arc.
Pianists are first and foremost practicers. Each performance is only the smallest tip of an iceberg that is many months and countless hours deep, and each piano lesson can only address a fragment of an entire week’s worth of work. The real substance of being a pianist takes place alone at the piano, practicing. How we practice defines who we are as pianists.
We can easily get into frustrating ruts when we try to speed up the process (usually by doing the opposite of each of these three practicing tips—repeatedly running through huge sections hands together at a fast tempo!). Music, by definition, takes time. It’s one of the only art forms that necessarily exist in time. You can’t listen to Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata in 5 minutes, or 2 minutes, or 10 minutes. You have to give it all of the time it takes to play it. Music exists in time. As a result, practicing requires the full amount of time. It’s not a process you can speed up. It just takes time. Practicing in these most effective ways will deliver the best result, with the least effort, in the least amount of time.
Our instructors at Creative Melodies can help you learn or improve your piano practicing techniques, either in your home in Fort Mill and surrounding areas or online!