The missing link in piano practise at home

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If you’re the piano student who listens, follows instructions and basically does what your teacher asks you to, and are getting nowhere, then this post is for you.

A student like this came to his piano lesson the other day. He’d been practising at home, but it really didn’t sound like it, as not much had been accomplished during that time.

Just one practise session at class and there was a difference in the quality of his practise. In terms of his posture, hand shape, playing gently rather than banging on the keys, and playing smoothly. A section with mistakes that had been corrected in the last piano lesson was still troubling him and we worked on it slowly and carefully and he played it correctly in pretty much one go.

So what happened differently at piano lessons?

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The difference was that in piano lessons, I listened, observed and gave him some feedback. He did not just repeat, playing the same thing again and again, the way he does at home.

Instead, he played, I assessed his playing and he thought about it. THEN, he played again.

Did he actually follow my practise instructions?

All, except for the big one – to think and assess in between repetitions. And that was what got him stuck in actually practising errors again and again.

The mistake piano students practising at home often make is focusing on the ‘playing’ part of piano practise, forgetting the ‘aural’ and ‘mental’ activity that is needed before repetition.

Another factor to consider

Why is the aural and mental activity so hard for some piano students to ‘get’, and so easy for others? This is a question I constantly ask myself, in an effort to get through to my students, and here’s some part of the problem…

For many beginner piano students, the only exposure they have to piano music is at piano lessons. Many of my new students don’t even listen to music daily, or listen to an extremely limited variety of music.

And that’s a HUGE factor, because these students often learn in a very bookish way and the ‘feeling rhythm’ or ‘hearing/singing pitch in their minds’, so important for progress, is neglected.

Sadly, students and parents often don’t understand that the piano is learning a new language, and needs language exposure/listening to music to learn. That it’s not always about practise or being ‘good’ and working, but about a learning environment that supports music and makes time for regular and disciplined practise at home.


The missing link in piano practise at home is the listening, assessing and thinking

  • Self-assessment, so the student realises what needs correction. And so that the next repetition is better.
  • The student also needs to notice what went well, so that it can be remembered and built upon. This is how students gain confidence in their ability to teach themselves.

The problem here often is that the student thinks he/she is playing right and the focus needed for the ‘playing’ part of practise occupies the student fully. 

One very easy way for students to learn to ‘observe’ themselves and know what they actually did – rather than what they thought they did – is for them to record their practise.

Just once in a way is good enough. Even just once, at the first session of piano practise after their lesson, when the piano teacher’s guidance and assessment during lessons is still fresh.

Recording is just a tool to help students develop awareness. And they learn pretty quick once they know what to look for.


An important factor in effective piano teaching is the ability we piano teachers have to teach our students to teach themselves. This independence in learning to play the piano often flows into other areas of a piano student’s life, and it’s a joy to see.

Minimising Piano Practise Disturbances

The set-up and placement of the piano at home may be the cause of disturbances during practise, or the cause of infrequent practise.

In most Indian homes, the piano is placed in the hall-cum-living room. Unlike with the violin or guitar, the pianist cannot just take his/her instrument to another room when there are guests. So learning to get quality practise done often means learning to manage disturbances.

Read on, to learn how to work minimise practise disturbances and work around them. Continue reading

The biggest practise mistake piano students make

Your piano teacher says you’re not doing well

This is a student who wants progress. He/she is an older student, teen or adult, who is not content to learn lots of beginner level repertoire. Who comes to class having put a lot of effort into what is currently being worked on. But this student isn’t doing well at all.

Because, daily practise of anything other than the latest new piece or concept is sketchy, this student hasn’t actually mastered any of what has been taught in earlier lessons.

Pull out ANY of the earlier pieces – pieces which have just been worked on  and it’s like starting from scratch. Because the idea of practising more than one or two pieces a day is alien to this student. 

Practise mistakes chart

If this poor practiser is an adult, then it’s often best to discontinue solo piano lessons, and ask the student to resume, when practise is possible. Another excellent alternative, is group piano lessons. Because having other students for company can motivate this adult to practise.

With older children and teens, what usually determines whether students stop or continue piano lessons is whether the parent gets involved, monitors the practise chart and makes sure homework is done.

The mistake parents often make here, is that they take over making the chart, and marking it. Parents, your role is to MONITOR. Your teen needs to prepare his/her own practise chart and your role is to keep an eye with daily checks at first, to ensure that practise is being done. What you are doing here is giving your teen a tool (the chart) and teaching him/her to use is – with supervision at first, gradually letting go until your teen just needs occasional checks.

This student will develop serious confidence issues if the piano teacher doesn’t get to the root of the problem. This often happens in reality, because this student often insists that practise is being done and teachers only get to the truth when they ask detailed questions, as many  of these students often forget to fill in their practise charts.

Solo piano lessons only work when students practise :

  • All homework with the required repetition,
  • Daily – 5 days a week with 2 non-consecutive breaks,
  • Using the practise method or technique that has been taught in piano class.

Students who do well often play pieces outside of their practise homework. They excel, because they explore music outside of their homework, just for fun. And that really, is where piano lessons should lead. It’s what motivates me to teach.


The biggest practise mistake a piano student can make is pretending that ‘not practising’ is ok and calling erratic and incomplete work practise. A student needs to be truthful to him/herself in order to progress in piano class.


 

 

 

Practise is, a reminder for piano students

Here’s a reminder for beginner piano students. A list of all the things they need to keep in mind, so they get the most out of their practise time.

Piano practise is :

  1. correctly shaped hands
  2. different from playing a piece
  3. repetition
  4. good posture
  5. short slots with breaks in between
  6. playing gently without banging on the keys
  7. playing correctly from the very first
  8. paying attention to what you do
  9. thinking and problem solving
  10. making something better than it used to be

Practise is fun, challenging & hard work, all the same time.

A step-wise approach to mindful piano practise

Practising the piano is different from playing.

Practise often involves playing just small sections of your piece, using specific techniques learned in piano class, to get lots of improvement using less time. Students need to ‘practise’ as well as ‘play’ their pieces daily.

Students often just play through their pieces, thinking they’re practising. Piano practise should be a time of attention to detail and focus, but so often ends up being mindless repetition. This often leads to breakdowns & insecure playing during piano performances. Many many young students who say they panic and are therefore unable to perform, actually have the ability to perform well, when they use the right tools to practise effectively. 

Here’s a check-list, to help piano students make mindfulness a part of their practise.

  1. Mark out the theory in a copy of your piece – notice chords, scales, inversions, repeated sections, sequences. Look at non-chord tones and get out your theory book, figuring out what kinds of non-chord tones your piece has.
  2. Read hands together as far as possible. Each teacher has a different approach, and one size does not fit all. I teach my students to learn pieces, reading them hands together from the very first, because I feel that it helps them develop better coordination in the long run. Students who are not used to this, make the switch quite comfortably, once they started practising paying attention to theory (as in point 1).
  3. Play SLOW and CORRECT rather than fast and with errors.
  4. Pay attention to the instructions your teacher gives you on playing technique. Posture, the height & kind of piano stool you use, relaxed shoulders, hand shape, whether you should play with your finger, hand, wrist or arm matter. The speed at which you depress the keys matter. The point of the depression of the piano key, at which the hammer hits the strings matter.
  5. When practising a section again and again, take your hand off the piano and take a short break between repetitions. This forces your brain to get involved, because then, you need to re-figure out hand position, fingering, and all of the thinking you did before you played.
  6. Follow your teachers instructions, reading your homework book before you practise, so that you do section work as instructed.
  7. TRY what your teacher has asked you to do sincerely, before taking a call on whether it’s necessary or not. Students with very set ideas and with mental blocks about how things should be done take time to learn new ways of doing things, so they need to keep at it a while before their ways of thinking allow them to benefit from a new way of practise.

 

Misconceptions on injury while playing the piano

There’s a misconception with some students and parents – particularly those from families new to music, that overpractise and injury is a part of the creative process. That hard work is a goal in itself. That practising long hours is to be rewarded, even when the student practises mindlessly, and is actually risking injury because teacher instructions on playing technique are not followed. That hand pain is good as it is a sign of hard work.

I’m always horrified when I get student families that think this way. Changing this mindset was hard and sometimes impossible when I first started teaching in Khargar, Navi Mumbai, and most of my students were beginners. It’s getting easier now, because my newer students have an opportunity to  hear students who have been with me longer, play for them.

Effective playing technique protects your hand from injury. If you experience pain when playing, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t repeat that action. Stop & think about whether you’re following your teacher’s instruction about playing.  Take your problem to your piano teacher at the next class.

Remember that the key to quality playing is to learn slow, with the correct playing technique. Using your hands in the most effective way, keeps your joints and muscles free from undue effort and this will help you with playing fast, and lasting out in long pieces.

Move from intermediate level to more challenging repertoire, having learned how to make your practise effective. If you’ve learned what your teacher taught you well, you will be able to do this mostly on your own with pieces or passages that are well within your ability, by the time you reach the advanced level.

7 Scheduling Tips for Relaxed Piano Practise

The piano practise conflict.

Many diligent students who practise daily get stuck and don’t do well. Here’s what often happens to them.

Practising daily = Discipline,

Discipline = Rigid practise routines = Practise as a duty rather than a joy,

Practise without joy = Stress and tension which causes tight hands and shoulders, leading to bad playing technique.

It’s the exact opposite of the piano teachers goal, which is for the student to be relaxed and creative during piano practise time.

 

Scheduling for creative practise

The way piano practise is scheduled matters. My years of teaching and talking about how good practise scheduling  helps students practise creatively, has taught me that parents & students of all ages often just don’t realise this.

  • Cultural attitudes here in India that value hard work can often make parents praise piano students who slog unnecessarily. Even when this slogging creates stress and bad technique and the student bangs on the piano keys, sometimes leading to pain and injury.
  • Many new to piano playing can’t hear the difference between banging and playing the right way.
  • Many are ignorant about repetitive stress injury and why good playing technique is important. And I’ve seen a few foolish students who felt playing through injury was a sign of passion for music and was a badge of honour.

The truth is, relaxed piano students do better, learn faster & often just ‘get’ things that other students struggle to achieve. And the way practise is scheduled is important as it has a huge impact on whether a piano student plays out of duty or for joy.

Here’s 7 Scheduling Tips that make daily piano practise relaxed, creative and effective

  1. 2 or 3 small practise slots are better than a single slot  because students are more attentive after a break.
  2. Schedule longer slots than required. Students need time to relax between activities and may come to the piano late, then get so involved that they want to stay and play longer.
  3. Schedule an extra slot, so piano students have a choice when they’re not in the mood at the same time each day
  4. Creativity grows from having time and mental space, and piano students sometimes need to sit around, idle before and after practise time. This time helps their mind absorb any innovative or creative moments during their practise, and retain it for the next session.
  5. Piano students need to explore their instrument on their own, outside of what is taught in class. It’s not wasting time, but rather, it’s a student using knowledge gained in piano class & piano practise, to explore his/her innate ability. It’s wonderful when this happens!
  6. Schedule practise holidays : One or two days each week (not consecutive days). Plus  3 consecutive days each month.
  7. On busy days, a little is better than nothing. Play, rather than practise, if there’s no time. Even 2 minutes with a section of a piece you enjoy.
  8. Don’t just schedule practise, make time to PLAY. Play your favourite pieces at the end of the day. Or play a line of music you like – just a minute in between some other activity. Play to relax, because that’s what learning the piano is about.

 

The importance of the practise holiday

Practise holidays are essential and diligent students often come back from practise breaks, playing better. Scheduling the break tells the student that there’s some leeway in their routine. And gives students days when they can just ‘BE’ and use practise time to do  something different without guilt. These breaks in the practise routine are very important for creativity.

Piano practise is a very solitary occupation and practise holidays let the student have a little leeway and choose their routine. As do the scheduling suggestions in points above.

It’s that element of choice that brings freedom, creativity and passion to discipline of daily practise.

 

Parent support in piano class

The need for parent support

Parent support for piano practise with young piano students is a huge issue. With teachers, because they know the likelihood of any student actually progressing beyond the beginner level depends on this. Even the musically talented student.

For piano parents it’s time and commitment and something more for them to add to their already busy schedules.

As I write this post, I’ve been teaching the piano for roughly 15 years. During all of these years, I’ve had less than a handful of students who practised without parent support.

Learning the piano is very challenging for children of any age and my experience has been that the child who sticks almost always is the child who has parent support.

Continue reading

How to assess your own piano playing

A guide for intermediate to advanced piano students who have learned their piece and want to be able to assess the quality of their playing on their own, with guidance from their teacher.

  • Getting rid of mistakes

    You should have learned your piece correct from the very first. However, it is likely that you still have some weak spots where you falter, when under pressure.

Listen to a recording of your performance and then listen to recordings by different pianists until your ear can hear any differences in time, pitch and the harmony. This will help you hear and correct any errors in your playing such as wrong pitch and note values.

Also, listen to variations in articulation and tone production and figure out what suits your piece.

  • Use the metronome to help you listen

Students can make the mistake of playing erratic rhythms, and think this is interpretation. They need to understand how pianists interpret a piece while keeping the sense of style, tempo and mood that is required of the piece and the period it comes from. A metronome can be a help when listening to variations in tempo.

  • Listen to hear different parts

Listen to reputed pianists play. Listen to small sections, listen separately to individual parts in a section, until your ear can hear them.

Isolate a part or a layer of the music that you wish to work on, and listen to hear that layer well.

  • Listen for the rests

Rests, pauses and spaces in the music are a very important part of it, and one many students ignore. Listen for silences and feel the mood that they generate.  They need to become important to you.

  • Mark weak areas on the score

It might be a good idea to make small notes on the score, or mark areas where you need to check your playing, so that you don’t forget them during practise time.

  • Practise

Practise is different from playing. Yes, you need to play your piece and you also need to play it often enough. The mistake many students make however, is playing the piece through again and again, thinking it will improve their weak areas, and it doesn’t. That’s what practise is for.

  • Work with small sections

If you are ‘practising’ and still not getting results, you may need a smaller section. Working small will help you listen better. It helps to focus on one single weak area at a time.

  • Make notes

Write down the questions you have about any aspect of playing and performing your piece so that you remember them. Talk to your teacher about your ideas when you go to piano class.

Listen Listen and LISTEN.  That’s the key to being able to teach yourself to play better.

What practising scales is good for..

7 reasons why scales are an essential part of learning to play the piano….

  1. Understanding the ‘key’ of a piece of music
  2. Exercising each and every finger
  3. Developing strength and agility of the fingers
  4. Hand coordination
  5. Playing scales in different ways can be used to improve rhythmic ability
  6. Developing a good tone
  7. Developing focus – since students need to concentrate when they play scales

Young students usually love scales, as they’ve heard them sung in the musical “The Sound of Music” and are therefore keen on learning to play them. Older students often find them challenging, therefore enjoy practising them.

Playing scales daily require a lot of discipline and committment – something most young children don’t have, and parents who see the value of scale playing, usually step in and see that it’s done. When children see that they’re playing their scales well, and that they’re easy (because of daily practise) they start enjoying them.

Getting your child to the piano at practise time

Young piano students generally don’t practise unless there’s supervision. They need help with scheduling practise and they also need daily reminders to practise. Here are a few effective and not so effective ways that parents handle the daily reminders.

  • Tell my children to practise and they will do it on their own

Most parents who do this and expect instant obedience will fail. Some of them might also make the mistake of thinking that their child is not interested in piano playing, because they don’t obey.

What many parents don’t realise, is that piano playing is a very solitary hobby for the young piano student and what they most want, in order to practise, is company. Just someone to be around, listen and enjoy their playing.

This method often degenerates into the next method.

  • Shout and lecture on a daily basis

This is the most ineffective way of getting practise done and the cause of a large number of children losing interest in piano playing. Some children who are still very very keen on learning despite this, get very defensive and their minds just shut down, so at piano class, convincing them to learn something new becomes a very difficult task for the teacher.

  • Set a practise time, and see that the child is free at that time, remind your child twice

This is the most effective, and a large number of musical children who do well, have parents who do this. Children usually respond to the second reminder and parents who are prepared to remind their child twice do not get irritated when their child doesn’t go to the piano at first reminder.

  • Listen to your child either during practise or at the end of the day, 3 times a week – preferably on alternate days

This works very well for parents who are both working and come home too late to be there at practise time. For most children, just a reminder that they have to play for their parents is enough to motivate them to practise.

 

  • Convince your child that you need them to play the piano, so that you can relax after a busy day

One parent came out with this really creative solution. Her child would often tell me that she had to practise every day, because that was the only time her parents could relax and unwind. The parent would lie down on a yoga mat and use practise time to do some relaxation techniques!

Young children who get the support they need in the early years, will grow into teens who want to practise daily. The role of the parent will change, from scheduling practise and daily supervision, to helping their child to this on their own.

Recording your performance

Recording performances once or twice a week, is an excellent method of “Performance practise” – for students who have very few opportunites to perform.

Dealing with pre-performance nerves is something every young piano student needs to learn to do and this gets easier with practise.

“Performance practise” needs to be a part of the students practise schedule – maybe once or twice a week, in the weeks leading to a performance.

Playing for family or friends helps students get used to performing. An excellent way to practise performing, is to record your performance – just one run-through of a piece or a section of a piece even, the way you would play if you were performing…no trials or repeats.

Then, listen to your recording – where you did good and where you faltered. Practise to improve the weak spots, and do another recording after a week.

Setting up a private youtube channel is an excellent idea and kids often work, because they want recordings to be put up there regularly, for family and friends to watch.

Here’s an interesting article, which has a section on performance practise : The three stages of motor learning by Dr Noa Kageyama

 

 

 

 

2 minutes and 2 steps to Creative Piano Practise

….for piano students to make their practise spontaneous, yet regular and fun.

So, students, this is how it works :

  • Select a small section from a piece you like (a line or a phrase of music) – change the section every week
  • Play it for 2 minutes, when you take a break from some other activity (for example after studying, dinner, or tidying up your stuff at home) both with and without the book

After some time of doing this daily, students find that they really really want to play the piano as soon as they finish their studies or their chores. They start using piano playing to relax and to express their moods and emotions and therefore, piano playing becomes a need – not just something they have to do as homework.

 

Piano practise becomes more spontaneous and students tend to remember practise ideas they’ve been taught, and also use ideas of their own – simply because they’re so focused on playing something they enjoy well. They also often, WANT to play, when they’re tired or when studies get heavy, because it helps them relax and de-stress and therefore study better and quicker.

 

The 2 minutes are done separately from the regular practise homework, so to the student, it’s just having fun. It often it makes students want to  restructure their daily practise schedule – to allow flexibility, so they can play because they feel like it, rather than because it’s time for piano practise to be done.