Effective Practice Techniques

10 October 2015 Melbourne, Australia

Student learning to play the pianoStudent learning to play the piano“Emma” starts playing the Prelude. And she is having trouble moving from chord change to the next. She knows that she is stopping and starting but does not know why. Or how to stop it. She starts playing the song. She starts to move from one chord to the next but she stops. I observe her looking at the music, then at her hands, moving her hands, looking up at the music then her hands, hesitate then play the note, unsure if it is right or not. As I observe other students practising, the same scenario occurs. 

What is the problem here? “Emma” can read the notes, recognise were her hands should be on the keyboard, and knows how it should sound. So why CAN’T she play the music?

It is at this point that I would start to get frustrated. And so would they. And I would continue to encourage them. We all know that “practice” is doing something over and over until we get it right. And that’s what teachers encourage students to do. But herein lies the problem.

I started reflecting on how I have learnt to drive the car. I started learning to drive by understanding how to work the car: brakes, steering, accelerator and gears in a “safe environment”. I graduated to the local streets learning to observe basic traffic rules. Later on I started learning to drive larger distances, and in varying weather conditions. I learnt how to drive on different roads from freeways to country roads. And continually make necessary adjustments. I learnt to drive the car in all different scenarios so I could handle any situation. 

Maybe if I started teaching students to play the piano in different settings then learning to play particular pieces of music would become easier?

So I asked “Emma” to play the music doing the chord changes across 2 bars quickly, loudly, softly, multiple times and only once. I asked her to play the chord changes from memory and looking at the music. Each time “Emma” played, she was given full permission to make mistakes, and we celebrated every time she got it “right” with a “high 5”. After this we recounted the process we just used. We then applied the same process to the next 2 bars. 

I asked “Emma" to play these 4 bars again. For the first time she was able to play the section without stopping. 

I thought I should try the same process on another student, this time on a mature aged student “Ann”. This time I used the “driving” analogy, and that we are essentially “training the brain”. I explained to “Ann” that by looking at the music then the hands and back again that she is adding extra memory processes which has her stop. And in the “second guessing” herself she noticed the background conversation “NO, that’s not right” preventing her from playing with ease.

“Ann” was able to put aside that conversation, and I asked her likewise to play a particular melodic run she was having some difficulty with in different ways: fast, staccato, from memory and in different rhythms. Again the result was an increased fluency. 

I am discovering that learning to play the piano (or any musical instrument for that matter) is NOT so much about playing the right notes at the right time, and practising a section “over and over until you get it right”. It is more than “finger memory”. It is more than “hearing it” (audiation) or "seeing it” (visualisation) or even just playing it from memory. 

Effective practice is wiring the brain in such a way that ALL the senses are aligned. Playing the music and varying the “conditions” of practice so that it is set in “stone”. As I once was taught by an old master: “I don’t practice to get the music right, I practice so I never get it wrong”. This no longer has to come after advanced years of playing, but it starts NOW.