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  1. Listen! Everything else in practicing depends on you listening to yourself.
  2. Remember that even if you only have 10 minutes to practice..every minute counts. DO everything you can to perfect the piece in that amount of time--Cheryl Graham
  3. Do it right from the very first.
    Always aim for perfection in notes, sound, and musical expression. YOU CAN DO IT! If you work to get it right from the very first, it's easy. Once you've practiced it a hundred times the wrong way, though, it's very difficult to play it perfect. Remember: doing it one time right is better than doing it a thousand times wrong.

    Psychologists say: A stimulus enters long-term memory (that is, it is "learned") after it has been attentively observed 7 times. But if an "incorrect" stimulus is first learned, it then takes an average of 35 (!) repetitions to learn the "corrected" stimulus. Learning it right the first time is five times easier than re-learning after learning it incorrectly.
  4. Try to understand the music.
    Apply the things you have learned in your theory classes and everything you know about music to the pieces you play. Look for the key, scales, chords, patterns, repeated sections, the form, phrases, accompaniment patterns, rhythmic patterns--everything you can find. If you understand the music, you will learn it faster, remember it better, and play it more musically. Keep a pencil by the piano and write these things in the music as you find them.

    Psychologists who study learning say: Analyzing the meaning of something helps you remember it longer.
  1. Write things down.
    It helps you remember things better if you write them down. When you see it a day, two days, and a week later, it refreshes your memory and helps make it a part of your permanent memory. If you write things down, this process will happen automatically. If you don't write them down, you probably won't think of them again, and you will forget them.
    Things you should write down:
  • Things your teacher says. We pay hundreds of dollars for piano lessons, yet the minute we walk out the piano teacher's door, we forget 90% of what the piano teacher has said. It's just like throwing away 90% of the money we pay for piano lessons. The piano teacher tries to write things down for you but just can't write down everything. You should go home, play through your pieces, and right there in the music or in a notebook write down everything you can remember about your lesson. This doesn’t have to be complete sentences—just notes and phrases that you understand and which will jog your memory. If you do this, you will be amazed at how much more you remember and how much less the piano teacher has to repeat the same thing.
  • Things you figure out about the music. If you figure out a piece is in the key of D major, write down: "D major." If you find an F major chord, write it down. If you figure out the piece is in ABA form, write it down. Figuring these things out once and then forgetting them does no good.
  • Interpretation. Circle all the dynamics and tempo markings. Write in how you want to play the piece. For instance, draw crescendos and decrescendos to show how you're going to play a particular phrase.

    Psychologists who study long-term memory say: The key to making a particular stimulus a permanent part of your long-term memory is to review it repeatedly over a long period of time. Memories that are not reviewed in this way become gradually weaker with time. Writing things down allows you to review them over a period of time and so make them part of your long-term, permanent memory.
  1. Be your own teacher.
    Don't wait for your teacher to tell you every thing to do; figure it out for yourself. Often you can figure out the problem and solve it just as well as the teacher can, so why wait?
    In the end, you teach yourself how to play the piano, with some help from others.
  2. Look at practicing as problem solving.
    Don't look at practicing as putting in a certain amount of time at the piano, or as repeating your pieces a certain number of times. Look at practicing as finding and solving problems in your pieces.
    There are three steps in this process:

    IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM. Know what that piece should sound like, and recognise the difference between the way it should sound and the way it does sound.

    FIGURE OUT WHAT CAUSES THE PROBLEM. Is the problem caused by weak technique? Bad fingering? An awkward stretch or jump in the music? An unclear mental picture of the music in your mind? Whatever it is, you have to figure out the cause of the problem before you can fix it.

    FIX THE PROBLEM. This might mean using some of the practice methods outlined below, changing the fingering, analyzing the music so you understand it better, or (as a last resort!) just practicing the spot over and over until it is comfortable to play. Problems you can’t solve yourself, ask your teacher or fellow students.
  3. Remember three important questions.
    How do you know when a passage is good? How do you know that it is, technically and musically, the best it can be?

    Asking yourself the following three questions is a good start. If answer "yes" to all three questions, you can have confidence you are on the right track. If there is a problem with one or more of the three elements, you need to do some problem solving.
  4. Does it SOUND right? Does it have the right notes, the right rhythms, the right dynamics and phrasing, the right tempo, the right articulation, the right voicing?
  5. Does it FEEL right? Are you as relaxed as possible to play this passage, or do you feel excess tension in your hands, arms, shoulders, neck, or anywhere else? In general, do your movements feel smooth and flowing or sharp and jerky? Do you even have an awareness of how your hands, arm, and body feel, or have you blocked these feelings out altogether?
  6. Does it LOOK right? Can you see any evidence of excess tension? Does the choreography of your movements—hands, fingers, arms, head, and entire body—seem to match the requirements of the passage?

  7. Looking at what you are doing is often a great help in creating a greater awareness of your muscular sensations and feelings. The muscular sensations are often very subtle; your eyes can help you tune into what you are feeling. Observing yourself in a mirror or via videotape is often very helpful.

    Students often pay attention to sound only. On any instrument, it is very possible to get a perfectly correct and even a beautiful and musical sound, while at the same time misusing your body in quite a terrible way. You may be able to play like this for a year or even ten years—but eventually it will catch up with you. In the meanwhile, you probably have various aches and pains and your sound and technique—even if good—are not as good as they could be.
  8. Section by Section Practice.
    Divide your piece into small sections and practice each section until it is good. Then combine two small sections to make larger sections. Practice this larger section until it is good. Continue combining sections until you play the whole piece.

    Make sure to divide the music into sections that make sense--a phrase, a half phrase, or two phrases, for instance. Don't just divide it by two measures or one line if it doesn't make any musical sense.

    At the start, your sections should be quite small--small enough that you can almost play it perfect from the start. As you get more comfortable with the piece, the sections can get larger. With an easy piece, the sections can be larger to start with; with a difficult piece, the sections will be very small.

    The most common error students make is to start with sections that are too big. Pick a small section and work out the fingering and the counting. Then try playing your section, with careful attention and at a slow tempo, seven times over. If you can’t play it flawlessly (at a minimum: correct notes and counting) after one or two tries, then your section is too long or your tempo is too fast. After playing the section seven times, close the book and try playing it by memory. If you can’t remember it all, your section is too large. Cut it in half and try again.

    As you learn a piece, you will gradually be able to deal with larger and larger sections. But when you are first learning a piece, your sections should be short enough that you can memorize them after playing them only seven times.

    Why this works:
    The rule "memorize after seven times" comes from the psychology of learning. If a stimulus small enough to fit into short-term memory is observed, with attention, approximately seven times, it will enter long-term memory. If this process is repeated over a period of time (say, the stimulus is observed seven times a day for a period of five days) the long-term memory gradually becomes stronger and stronger—a "permanent" memory.
    So if, in the beginning, you stick with sections that are small enough that you can "memorize after seven times," you will be working with sections that are small enough to fit comfortably in your short-term memory. These sections are the easiest for your mind to comprehend and process, so they will be learned and memorized more quickly and they will be retained longer.
    If in your practice you play sections of your pieces that are longer than your short-term memory capacity, the beginning of the passage will have "slipped out" of your short-term memory by the time you reach the end of the passage. This overloading of the short-term memory disrupts the whole memory process. Learning and memorizing is much more difficult under these conditions.

    Working in a way that complements the natural way you learn, you will learn faster and retain what you’ve learned longer.
    If you practice a whole piece or a section that is too long, you forget all those mistakes in the first phrase by the time you get to the end. Working with a small section, you can grasp all the problems at once—and so fix them.
    You can aim for perfection. It is easy to get one small phrase perfect, even the first day you ever practice it. But it seems impossible to get a whole piece perfect, even after weeks and weeks. Remember: Divide and conquer!

    You should use this method with every piece you learn. You should also combine it with other methods.
  9. Whole-Part-Whole.
    Do the whole thing, divide it up into parts, then do the whole thing again. For instance, play the whole piece, then practice each section individually, then play the whole piece again. Or, play a whole section, then divide it up into smaller sections and practice those, and finally play the whole section again. Or play hands together, then hands separate, then hands together again.

    Psychologists who study learning say that this is one of the best methods of learning. It helps you learn faster and retain things better. Psychologists refer to this method as "synthesis-analysis-synthesis". It can be used in other areas also (for instance, schoolwork).

    It can be used at any time in learning a piece, but it is particularly good for a piece that is pretty good but needs to be polished, or to bring an old piece back up to snuff. Play it through, practice it in sections, then play it through again.
  10. Stops
    You insert stops at certain points in the piece. For instance if your piece has a section with running sixteenth notes, you could stop on the first sixteenth note of every beat. Or, on the second sixteenth of every beat, or the third or the fourth. Or you could group 8 sixteenth notes together, stopping only on the (for instance) the 1st and 3rd beats of a measure in 4/4 time.
    For instance, here are four different ways you could use stops in a passage with running 16th notes:

    1 e & a [STOP] 2 e & a [STOP] 3 e & a [STOP] 4 e & a [STOP] 1 e & a [STOP] etc.
    1 [STOP] e & a 2 [STOP] e & a 3 [STOP] e & a 4 [STOP] e & a 1 [STOP] etc.
    1 e & a 2 e & a [STOP] 3 e & a 4 e & a [STOP] 1 e & a 2 e & a [STOP] etc.
    1 [STOP] e & a 2 e & a 3 [STOP] e & a 4 e & a 1 [STOP] e & a 2 e & a 3 [STOP] etc.

    A good way to practice using this method is to first stop every beat. Do this until it's perfect. Then stop each two beats; do this until it's perfect. Then stop every four beats. Continue this way until you play the whole section with no stops.

    Inserting the stops makes you think in groups of notes. This can make your playing sound more musical.
    Practicing with stops can help your playing sound more rhythmic—one thing that is usually lacking in student's playing.
    Practicing with stops helps memory. It makes each group of notes absolutely clear in your mind.
    Practicing with stops helps your technique. To oversimplify the subject slightly: There are two types of nerves that control the muscles that you use to play. We can call these the "stop" nerves and the "go" nerves. The "stop" nerves tell the muscles when to stop; the "go" nerves tell them when to go. Obviously, it takes co-ordination of both "stop" and "go" nerves for good playing. Not enough "stop" impulses makes your playing out of control (fast, wild, uneven); not enough "go" nerves makes it slow and sluggish. Stopping before the beat strengthens the "stop" nerves, giving you more control over your playing. Stopping on the beat strengthens the "go" nerves, making you able to play faster. Obviously, both "stop" and "go" nerves are very necessary in creating good piano technique.

    You can use it on any passage, but it is particularly good for runny eighth and sixteenth note passages that go at a fairly constant speed. It is very good for finger passages, or any passage where a regular rhythmic pattern is followed.
  11. Staccato
    Just play all the notes staccato.

    Strengthens finger lifts (often a weak part of finger technique).
    Helps give a clearer sound; keeps notes from running into each other.

    Use on finger passages.
    Playing staccato can lead to tension; use common sense and listen to your body.
  12. Soft
    Play each note as soft as you can. Be sure to play all notes very evenly. You can play slowly or up to tempo.

    Helps evenness.
    Helps control.

    It can be used on any passage, but it is especially good for finger passages.

    Paradoxically, playing softly can lead to tension. Often this tension is not in your hands or lower arms, but somewhere else—upper arms, shoulders, upper back, legs, or another part of your body.
  1. Loud
    Play each note very loud. You will have to go slower than usual. Do it only for fairly short passages, then switch to a different practice method (such as soft). If your hands or arms start to hurt or feel tired, stop immediately. After you build up your strength for a while, you may find that you will be able to do it a little longer.

    Builds strength.
    Builds endurance.
    Can help memory, by presenting a very strong stimulus.

    It can be used for any passage, but it is especially good for finger passages.

  • This is a practice technique, not a way to vent your frustration. Banging a passage out, from frustration, is counterproductive and possibly dangerous to your hands and arms.
  • This technique, if overused, can be the cause of hand and arm problems. When practicing (with this technique or any other), you must always be aware of the state of your hands and arms.
    Your signal to stop and rest your hands and arms is when the muscles of your arms have reached a point of exhaustion. The muscles of your arms are small and delicate. They reach this point of exhaustion far sooner than most people would think.

    The signs that your muscles have reached a point of exhaustion and subtle and easily overlooked. Your arms (typically the top or bottom of your forearms) may feel tired, heavy, full, or have a slight tingle. Your fingers may seem to be a little sluggish or unresponsive. You will not feel pain as such; the point of exhaustion is far below the threshold of pain. (If you do feel pain, you have gone WAY too far. Stop immediately and take a long rest!)

    If you stop at or before this point of exhaustion, you will not need a long rest before you can resume practicing. Your arms may recover in as little as 10-20 seconds—just long enough to reach for a new book or look over the next section you wish to practice. Careful observation will tell you when you can resume playing. Your arms will no longer have that tired, full, tingly, or sluggish feeling.

    Every time you continue playing past the point of exhaustion, you dramatically increase your risk of hand and arm problems. Some large muscles respond well to being worked beyond the point of exhaustion (ask a fitness instructor about this next time you are at the gym). But small muscles (the ones we use in piano playing) do not respond well to overwork. They are damaged, often irreparably.
  1. Metronome slow to fast
    Start with the metronome at a fairly slow tempo. Play the passage at this tempo until you can do it perfectly and stay exactly with the metronome. Then move the metronome up a notch and repeat the process. Keep doing this until you reach the tempo you're supposed to be playing the passage (if possible).

    If you can’t play a passage perfectly with the metronome, move the metronome a notch or two slower. If you still can’t play it perfectly, and exactly with the metronome (give yourself two or three tries at most), move the tempo slower still. Often, the tempo at which you can play a passage precisely with the metronome and without mistakes, is surprisingly slow. Find this (surprisingly slow) tempo and gradually work from there up to the speed at which you would like to play the passage. You will make much faster progress if you work this way, rather than vainly repeating the passage, always with mistakes, at a tempo you think you can handle but really can’t.

    Strengthens memory. Many times students can only play a passage by memory up to tempo, but not slower. This is because they are relying on finger memory alone. Playing at different tempos forces you to develop other memory methods.
    Strengthens technique. Many times students have technical problems playing a piece at a slower tempo, even though they can play it up to speed. This shows that the piece is not technically secure.

    Keeps you honest. You can’t fool the metronome. If you’re playing the wrong rhythm or can’t keep a steady tempo, you’ll know it right away.
  2. Metronome Up/Down in Steps
    As in metronome slow to fast, first find the tempo you can actually play a certain section with no mistakes. Then decide on the tempo you would like to be able to play the section. Let’s say you can play it at 80 beats ber minute and you would like to play it at 104.

    Put the metronome on 80 and play the section. If you played without any mistakes, and exactly with the metronome, move the tempo up one notch to 84. Play it at 84, and if it is again free of mistakes and precisely with the metronome, move it up another notch to 88.

    If there were mistakes or you didn’t play exactly with the metronome, move the metronome down a notch.

    Continue this way—moving up a notch on the metronome if the secion was well-played, and down a notch if not—until you reach your final goal tempo (in this case, 104).

    This method helps you advance in a step-by-step fashion from the tempo you actually can play a section, to the tempo you want to play it.
    Moving the metronome up or down is a subtle positive or negative reinforcement of your playing that encourages you to play better.
  3. Metronome with sudden leaps in tempo
    Proceed as in the previous method (metronome up/down in steps). But after completing each step, just try the section at your goal tempo.
    If the tempo you can actually play a section is 84 and your goal tempo is 104, a practice session with this method might go like this:

    80 no mistakes
    104 (try it) disastrous
    84 no mistakes
    104 (try it) a little less disastrous
    88 a mistake
    84 no mistakes
    104 (try it) still quite disastrous
    88 no mistakes
    104 (try it) getting gradually less disastrous
    92 no mistakes
    104 (try it) not so disastrous now
    96 no mistakes
    104 (try it) good

    Some research has shown that those who practice by this method achieve their goal tempo sooner than those who practice simply with metronome up/down in steps. (It is debatable which method leads to better long-term retention, however.)
    Practicing more of the time up to tempo (if you can do it!) may be more productive, because technique (the muscles you use, how you control them) at the actual tempo is quite different from technique at a slow tempo.
  4. Metronome
    The metronome should be used often in practice. It forces you to be more precise in your counting and playing. It helps develop your rhythmic sense.
    Metronome practice can and should be combined with other practice methods, such as practicing in sections, stops, staccato, loud, soft, and so on.
  5. Count out loud
    The basic practice method of counting out loud shouldn't be ignored—even by advanced students.
    It is often helpful to count at different levels. Each level is helpful in a different way. For instance, if a piece where in 3/4 time and had eighth notes, at the lowest level (smallest subdivision) you could count:

    1 & 2 & 3 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 1 & etc.
    A higher level (feeling larger beats) would be:
    1 2 3 1 2 3 1 etc.
    A yet higher level (feeling one beat per measure):
    1 1 1 etc.

    Sometimes you can count at yet higher levels, feeling one beat per two measures or one beat per four measures.

    Counting out loud helps develop your rhythm.
    You are certain to play rhythms correctly if you count out loud.

    Counting out loud helps you stay exactly with the metronome.

    Counting out loud, by linking your voice and your hands, often helps you find natural and pleasing rhythm, which is strict on the one hand, yet flexible on the other.

    Counting larger beats (higher levels) can help you find the natural rhythmic flow of the music.

    The sharp breaths often used when counting out loud while playing, can lead to tension. When counting out loud, pay particular attention to your breathing (shallow, deep, etc.) and to tension within your torso.
  6. Subdivide
    This is similar to counting, but instead of counting "1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &", you say a syllable such as "tah tah tah tah tah tah tah tah". Say it along with eighth notes if your piece has eighth notes, or with sixteenth notes if your piece has sixteenth notes.

    You can do it out loud or silently when you practice; you can even do it silently during a performance.

    It helps develop your rhythm.
    It makes your rhythms very precise.
    It helps co-ordinate your two hands and your brain.
    It helps make your playing more even.

    Anytime your rhythm isn't secure.
    Instead of counting.
    To make your ritardandos and accellerandos happen gradually instead of all at once.
    When your hands are having trouble playing exactly together.
    When practicing constant eighth or sixteenth note passages.

    Vocalizing subdivisions can affect and even interrupt your breathing. One advantage of subdividing as opposed to traditional counting out loud, however, is that you can subdivide (tah, tah, tah, etc.) while breathing out as well as while breathing in. So subdividing need not interrupt your breathing. But it does have a tendency to do so—be aware of how you are using yourself.
  7. Practice for perfection
    Pick out a section of your piece. Try to play it three times in a row without a single mistake. When you can do this, try playing five times in a row without a mistake. When you can do this, try it ten times in a row perfect. When you can do this, you know you've mastered the passage.
    You can have different levels of perfection. At first, you might just try to get all the notes. Later you'll want perfect tone, phrasing, dynamics, pedal, balance, evenness, etc. etc. etc. Work on just one small section and one thing at a time, though, and you'll be able to do it!
    Once you can do all the small sections perfect, you can combine them and try to play the larger sections perfect. Keep combining sections until you can play the whole piece perfect. You may never actually play an entire piece flawlessly. But you might get a lot closer than you would have otherwise. And you might well get close enough that any slips or mistakes are so minor that they do not detract from the artistic impression you are trying to communicate with that particular piece.

    You can make a chart showing all the sections in your piece and check it off each time you play a section perfectly. A good goal might be to play each section at least once perfect every day.
    Or you can keep a record of how many mistakes you make each time you play a passage. If you play it perfect, put a "P", otherwise put the number of mistakes. You'll be amazed at how many mistakes you make and never even noticed before.
    This method can be combined with the other practice methods.

    You get used to playing it perfect from the first. It's so much easier to do it right from the first than to try and fix it later on.
    You have a definite goal in your practice instead of just aimlessly playing this and that. Practice time goes faster and you get a lot more done. And it sounds a lot better in the end.

    You are more aware of your mistakes, so you are more able to fix them. Most people make dozens of mistakes in their practice and don't even notice. It improves your listening.

    Paying attention solely to what you are playing—to getting the correct notes and counting—can lead you to neglect the necessary attention to your use of self. Remember it must SOUND right, FEEL right, and LOOK right.

    If you have practiced diligently and have learned to play a passage perfectly (note- and rhythm-wise) but with incredible tension, then guess what? You have trained yourself to play with something you don’t want—namely, incredible tension. Now you must unlearn the wrong way of playing (incredible tension) and re-learn the right way (minimal tension).

    And remember five times easier rule: it is five times easier to learn it right the first time than to re-learn it after learning it wrong.
  1. Pencil Practice
    Similar to "Practice for Perfection," Pencil Practice cleverly ties together several psychologically proven methods to help you learn faster and better.

    Imagine the music shelf on the piano has three positions. You can place your pencil in any of the three positions. 1 is the lowest position, 2 in the middle, and 3 the highest.

    1 2 3
  • Pick a short passage to practice. Place your pencil in position #1.
  • Play the passage one time. If you were satisfied with the passage (remember SOUND, FEELING, and LOOK), then move the pencil to position #2.
  • Play the passage again. If again you are satisfied, move the pencil to position #3.
  • Play the passage again. If you are satisfied this time, then move the pencil back to position #1. Now you are ready to move on to another passage (or the same passage at a faster tempo).
  • If you aren’t satisfied with your performance, move the pencil down one position (from #2 to #1, or from #3 to #2—but you can’t go below position #1). Then try again.

  1. If you find yourself continually staying on the lower two positions, or you take a long time to "pass off" a passage, you are either playing too fast or trying to tackle a passage that is too long (or, perhaps, playing a piece that is just beyond you technically at this time). Try a slower tempo (metronome is most helpful), divide the section in half, or try practicing hands separate.

    Moving the pencil up or down is a small positive/negative reinforcement.
    Pausing to move the pencil gives your brain time to absorb what you have just learned (taking the time to move the pencil actually saves time in the long run!). It gives you time to think about what you just did and what you’re going to do next.

    Stopping to move the pencil is a "micro-break", which helps you to break up rigidity and tension. Take a slightly longer micro-break after you have "passed off" a passage, to briefly stretch, move, etc.

    Moving the pencil helps you keep track of where you are and keeps you mentally on task.

    Like "Practicing for Perfection", Pencil Practice can lead to "end-gaining"—that is, trying so hard to "pass off" your passage that you forget how you are using yourself.
  2. Record yourself
    Keep a tape recorder handy and record your playing often. It will be an ear-opening experience.

    You should keep a tape of all your best performances. Whenever you get a piece ready for performance, record it on this tape. Don't just do it once, record it a few times until you get a really good one. Then every few months, you can listen to this tape of all your best performances. You will be amazed at the progress you make in a few months' or a few years' time.
    You don't need to wait until a piece is really good to record it, though. You should record it at different stages along the way. Then listen to it carefully and decide what you need to do to make it better. You can give yourself a good lesson this way. (For free!)

    You can also record yourself playing a short passage, and then compare this carefully with a professional recording of the same passage. You are not trying to slavishly imitate the professional recording, but rather to analyze: Why does the professional recording work musically, while my recording (usually!) doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as well.

    Improves listening.
    You can hear and judge your own playing instead of relying on somebody else to do it.
    By listening to your old recordings, you can hear the improvement you've made.
  3. Practice in the morning before going to school or work.
    This is when you are fresh. If you have school or social activities at the end of the day, your practicing has already been done.
  4. Set a specific time to practice and put in time for a break.
    Don't get down from the piano until then. And then reward yourself (with a cup of coffee, a cookie, the newspaper, etc.) when your mission is accomplished.
  5. Start with the end of the piece rather than the beginning.
    Typically, the opening of a song is great, but the more you get into the piece, the more work it needs. This is because we always start at the beginning and continue to the end. When you practice, start at the end. After you work on this, then go back and start from the beginning. You're sure to end the piece more confidently this way!
  6. Always work on a song during your practice time that you absolutely love.
    Finish your session this way. You'll want to come back to the bench again.
  7. Create your own style.
    I didn't come to appreciate this until I was "discovered" at a department store. People always came up to me because I had a unique sound that was identifiable. Remember that you can always identify a famous person because they have "style". Style is created through phrasing, dynamics, chord structure, trills and name a few things. Think about what you like about music, and go for it!
  8. Don't be afraid to put the music away.
    Most importantly, be yourself! Play from within.

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