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.

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.

Taking the ‘lonely’ out of piano practise

For most children the biggest issue during the first couple of years is getting into a routine and making practise a part of their daily lives. The piano can be a lonely instrument and children who don’t have company often don’t practise. Children need a parent around – initially to remind them to read the homework book and practise accordingly, to listen and  mostly so they have company. 

Children who have opportunities to perform and belong to schools or communities where music is encouraged tend to be more motivated. As are children who have friends who play an instrument. Participation in group classes or concerts arranged by the piano teacher is important as this provides performance opportunities and helps students make ‘piano friends.’

That hardworking child who practises WRONG

If you’re a parent with a child who loves practising the piano, who practises daily and keeps getting poor feedback, then this paragraph is for you. It’s quite possible, that you can’t understand why – because you hear playing that sounds good to you, you can see how sincere your child is and how much effort your child puts in.

Taking a look at the homework book, will tell you a lot. You will find :

  1. Homework assignments not done
  2. Section practise requested by the teacher is not done
  3. Your child ‘plays’ taking very long to work on something, when all was needed is to use the practise techniques outlined by the teacher and spend less effort achieving the same result.

Children who enjoy practise often get so lost doing practise homework they enjoy, they forget to read the homework book. They practise what they like and what they remember and simply forget the rest.

Learning 'how to practise' is important for progress. This is the 
area in which beginner & intermediate level piano students of any age
pay poor attention.

For parents who need a class where children work without support..

If you are a piano parent  with a student who does not practise regularly (and by practise, I mean doing the homework that the piano teacher has assigned) and this goes on for sometime, it’s worth looking at the kind of class you’ve enrolled your child in.

Piano teachers generally ask these students to take a break from piano class and enrol again when they’re ready to practise, because a ‘regular piano class’  simply does not work with erratic practise.

What your child needs is a different kind of class, with more frequency – maybe 2/3 classes a week. A class which is mostly a  ‘practise’ class, where there’s a lot of repetition. New topics need to be introduced very slowly, so that erratic practise works. It helps if one of these is a group class which includes music activities and work on rhythm. Piano playing will progress at a slow comfortable pace and your child will find it easy to cope.

Parent support for ‘regular piano class’

The term ‘regular piano class’ is how I describe class that teaches piano playing techniques, reading written music, how music theory goes into playing, the chord approach to piano playing & how to practise.

This is a lot to do in a 1 or 1&1/2 hour weekly class, and daily practise and completing homework assignments is essential. This almost always needs some level of parent support and involvement.

It’s not forever, as children grow up habituated to regular practise – with the resources to organise their practise, and use practise techniques to make their practise more effective. This usually happens between the ages of 14 to 16, depending on the personality of the student and the kind of goals the student has chosen to work towards.

To all you piano parents who are making the time to support your child, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Children gradually learn independence until they finally take responsibility for their own goals.