Is it “practice,” that word that sounds so much like homework or chores, or is it “Wow, I get to go make some music?”
We get to decide! Practicing, or learning a piece has some definite steps, and is not just playing through. However, we are still making, and should be listening for, a beautiful sound…and enjoying that we have the privilege of doing so.
Practicing also includes that time we spend playing the pieces we know and love, and improvising or creating our own music.
Beyond the-more-the-better obvious answer, of course it depends on age and level. Young beginners in Primer Level benefit from just a few minutes at a time; perhaps 10-15 minutes per day. It does not have to be all at once. For the very young, breaking it down into five minutes here and there might help.
Young ones benefit greatly from parental help during practice, even if the parent does not play. There are practice instructions on the page (also check the assignment book!) that the parent can go over with the student. Plus, from the start, we want making music to be a social activity, rather than letting the child develop the thought that practice means you lock yourself away and can’t have fun with anyone else. Let your child enjoy performing for you!
A good goal for Level One (and beginning adults) is 20 minutes per day, and beyond Level One, 30 minutes per day, progressing to more time as the student advances into higher levels. For beginners, each assigned piece (or section) should be played three to five times per practice day. As students progress, more specific practice instructions are given. (More tips on how to practice follow in “Tackling the New Piece,” below.)
If there is not enough time in that practice session to work on all of the pieces, it is better to practice some thoroughly than to quickly play through all of them. If a piece is played only once or twice in a practice session, it’s difficult to move beyond warming up on it to actual improvement.
Practicing every day is ideal. Our goal is at least five days each week -- and hopefully six.
When we meet a new piece in the lesson, here are some things we look for. Go through this again when you get home with your new piece. It will make learning it go more smoothly and more quickly!
Before playing a note, look the piece over carefully. Note key signature, time signature, starting position, dynamics and articulation (how we touch the keys: staccato and legato). What is the mood of the piece? What story does it tell?
Are there long, flowing phrases? Is there lots of staccato? Is the melody in the treble or bass? Does it move from one to the other? Is the harmony solid chords? Broken chords in a recognizable pattern? Less easily defined? This overview can even be done away from the piano. The more advanced the student, the more this kind of analysis is required. Even the very beginner, however, benefits from looking over the piece before beginning.
At the piano, play through each hand separately, with careful attention to fingering and position changes. Note (mark) challenging sections. Go very slowly, with the goal of depressing only the correct keys. Remember that your fingers start learning right away, right or wrong. Use the correct articulation from the start.
Don’t feel rushed to play the next note; stop when you need to, with your fingers on the keys, deciding where to go next. At this first play-through, it is most important to stop and find the correct key with the correct finger. This is better than playing the wrong note with the correct rhythm. This does not mean that we ignore rhythm, but rather that we might "freeze time" to find a correct note, and then go on in time.
While writing in names of notes or every finger number is not the way to learn a piece, some marks can be helpful. Circle or highlight dynamic changes or pedal marks, if necessary. Circle that pesky sharp or flat that keeps getting missed.
Work on the piece in small sections. That may mean one page, or two measures! After finding correct notes with correct fingers, it’s time to play in time - every time! Don’t wait until the middle of learning a piece to count it out and find the rhythm. Play in time, slowly. It is much more difficult to correct the rhythm than to learn it correctly from the start.
Don’t play any faster than you can control the piece. After you have the correct notes, fingers, articulation and rhythm, still at a slow tempo, it is time to add dynamics and pedal.
Smart practice is slow, careful practice of what is written on the page. To play without regard to the rhythm, dynamics, articulation, etc., is wasted practice time. In fact, it simply adds to the time needed to finish the piece because it takes time to undo the learned wrong rhythm, etc. Careful practice actually leads to mastering pieces sooner! This is truly a case of haste makes waste.
If you find a “trouble spot,” play those measures over and over very carefully, and then add them back into the piece by first adding back in a measure or two on each side of the trouble spot. After you can smoothly move into, through and out of the spot, you can fit it back into the whole page.
Tip: When practicing one or a few measures, always play through to the downbeat (beat one) of the next measure. This will insure that there is not a “bump” at the bar line when that section is added to the next.
Only after all aspects of the piece are together is it time to slowly increase the tempo. An easy way to do this is to find the metronome setting that matches the tempo at which you can comfortably play the piece. Every few times you play, give the metronome a slight nudge (2 - 4 beats per minute) and try the piece at that tempo. Do that day by day and soon you’ll be zipping along. Don’t forget to enjoy the beautiful music!
Whether parents play the piano, another instrument, or not at all, they are a vital part of their children’s success. Setting aside a regular time to practice is critical. Having the same time each day usually helps. Some students find in the morning, before school, ideal.
Assignments are written in the assignment book each week, and students are asked to record their practice days and time spent. You can help by going over assignments with them, writing in their practice times, and looking over their theory work to see that it is done (or that they have marked the sections where they need my help). Listening to them play is also a great boost! For the very young beginner, I suggest that a parent is always sitting with them to supervise the practice time and show support.
“But I don’t want to practice!”
Almost every student will go through this to some degree. Hang in there, and keep me posted. We can work on changing the type and amount of music assigned to work with changing interests and changing schedules. No one has ever told me how glad they were that they quit lessons, but many have said how much they regretted it. Please don’t give up as soon as practice enthusiasm wanes. We will get through it, and your child will have a life-long enjoyable skill. They will thank you when they are older!
“It used to be easy -- now it’s hard!”
Learning does not follow a straight line. There are jumps and plateaus -- this is perfectly normal and to be expected. There are usually few-to-several month cycles of rapid and slower progress. That is the beauty of private lessons: We can move at whatever rate is right for the student at that moment in time.
Sometimes beginning piano is very easy for the student and they move through the material quite rapidly. For many of these students, the music will “catch up” with them down the road, and they are surprised. Suddenly, a new technique is difficult to master, or a piece takes much more time to play well and at tempo. This too is normal, and it can help to know it is coming! At times these young beginners will want to quit at the first roadblock, and need your help and encouragement to continue.
I see the student one day per week, and during that time I can help them work past this point. It will take more than this once per week support to keep them going, however. They need support and commitment from their parents to help them through the tough times. With our combined support they will make it past these obstacles and be glad they didn’t give up.
You are giving them a wonderful gift with music lessons; let’s work together to keep them playing for life! Thank you for your support.
Here a re some sites you may find useful. Please note: I have no connection with these sites, but have found that they have some good information and/or drills:
www.teoria.com This site has a combination of theory drills and ear training drills. While many are appropriate for the very beginner, the site has a very grown up look. Young children will need an adult to navigate it.
www.musictheory.net This site also has a combination of theory lessons/drills and ear training drills. It is simpler to navigate.
www.musiclearningcommunity.com This site is a subscription product; however, it has many free games available for trial. Great for young students.
pianoadventures.com This is the site for the method that I use with the majority of my students. Click on the Student "side" where you can hear samples of pieces in the books, see what other supplemental materials are available to correlate with Piano Adventures (e.g., the PlayTime to BigTime books), and make use of the glossary. Also, you can see which books have play-along CDs or midi discs available (which I can order for you if you wish).
In addition, here are links to a couple of music products that are available in a trial download:
www.earmaster.com I downloaded the trial version of this for my own use and really like it. It is a comprehensive ear training course that will keep score for you and suggest when you are ready for the next level. It is, in my opinion, one of the best online ear training sites I've seen.
www.ronimusic.com At this site you can download a trial version of the "Amazing Slow Downer" which will play CDs or mp3s at whatever speed you choose without changing the pitch. It is a great practice tool. The trial version limits how much of a piece can be played, however it is a good way to evaluate it. This would be a great way to practice along with CDs that come with some of our music when we aren't yet ready to play them at tempo. It is also available as an app for either Android or iOS.
In addition to these sites, there are many ear training and music theory apps available for both Android and iOS. Check out Flashnote Derby, Rhythm Swing, Rhythm Cat and Good Ear for starters.
Also, if you have iOs, check out Anytune, to be able to slow down music either for listening closely to rhythmic details, or for playing along.