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.

Taking responsibility for quality piano practise . . . in 8 easy steps

Quite a few of my most supportive piano parents  went through phases when they got upset with feedback. They had children who played the piano daily and yet, achieved very little. Parents new to piano music often can’t hear the difference between good and poor playing.  It’s important then, to have parents attend piano class and to listen to what effective piano practise sounds like.

‘Correct playing happens. . . Some of the time’

That’s what many piano students say, when they get something right. When students are asked how they got it right ‘some of the time’ they often say it’s luck.

If it’s luck, then the power to play well does not belong to the student, but to chance. Students often don’t realise that they play daily, disregarding their teachers instructions. They end up spending more time at the piano than than they need to, often working very very hard for small gains. These students work hard, but not smart. They don’t  understand that there’s value in learning piano practise techniques.

Students need to play the piano, as well as practise.  It takes them time to understand that there's a difference & to learn to practise  right.

Practise lessons from the diary of a housekeeper

My maid is on leave this month. She does a few small chores for me once a week, that make my life easier and give me some free time. I wasn’t successful at getting a replacement. I could say that I’ve had bad luck. But that’s not the case. Many of the other families she works for have got substitutes.

I haven’t because I chose not to do this.

Because there’s payback to getting a substitute, that is not acceptable to me right now. I will need to be flexible with work time slots and adjust if the maid is late. I know from past experience, that anything from 30 minutes, to a couple of hours late, to not arriving at work at all, is the norm here.  While I might be lucky and get a maid who arrives on time, I’m not willing to take the chance of my daily routine disrupted.

Taking responsibility, means that the power to change things rests within me.

I can change my situation by making different choices

 

Taking responsibility for luck

If we say that piano practise was effective because of luck, we need to ask ourselves whether that luck just happened by chance or whether the way practise was done created conditions that brought about that luck? Can the piano student change the way he or she practises, so that practise brings clarity, and the student is able to see what made it effective? And so, take responsibility for that luck and for making it happen again and again?

Here are some ideas on how to do that.

8 Steps to help students ‘practise’ during practise time

  1. Read what’s written in the homework book and follow instructions. Young children often need their parents around at first, until reading the homwork book becomes a habit.
  2. Record small sections of practise done in class and take a look at it at home, before you practise.
  3. Divide your piano homework into 3 practise sections, practising each section during a different time slot, with breaks between slots.
  4. Schedule an extra slot, so that you have a little flex in your schedule.
  5. Practise 5  days a week and schedule  2 non-consecutive days away from the piano. Students who take a weekly practise holiday are relaxed and therefore more creative at practise time.
  6. Play slow and correct rather than quick with errors. Play right from the very first.
  7. Record your practise, listen to it and evaluate what you did. This will help you improve.
  8. Do what your teacher has asked you to do, then put aside your homework book and play what U want to.

What are the strategies that help you practise effectively? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

 

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 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.

Piano Practise Charts and independence in practise

image

Regular piano practise usually happens because of parent support, and then, teachers need to teach students to move on and learn to practise independently. This happens very slowly, and takes years with very many students, but detailed practise charts speed up the process, and give parents a way of keeping track of piano practise when they’re not around.

Some of my piano parents use detailed weekly charts like this, to keep track of studies too, and it’s very very effective, as students become teenagers, and want to take responsibility for their own activities and have less parents supervision.

It’s my hardworking ‘Piano Mom’s‘ who take the initial responsibility of getting their child to write out the practise chart. Over time, their children learn to remember, and do it themselves, because, when children ask for something out of the ordinary, or want some extra time with friends, parents usually take a look at their child’s practise and study charts, before okaying it.

Detailed practise and study charts help students develop independence in piano practise and studies and take responsibility for their own education.

 

 

 

‘Holiday / post-holiday-practise’ Prizes

This year my students will be awarded prizes for good work in January. They’ve been given practise assignments and targets for December/January – which include rhythm work,  scales, pieces they’ve done at class & new pieces they have chosen to learn on their own.

Here’s how the assessment goes :

  1. Students need to submit a hand written practise chart, when they resume class in January.
  2. All student assignments will be recorded during the 2nd class in January, and students will be given another chance at the 3rd class.
  3. The best audio recordings, will be mailed to all parents and students.

The prize : Sheet music to any one piece of the students choice & a little slab of chocolate





 An update :  

It’s almost mid January, and my younger students have resumed class having done very little practise, cos they were out on holiday. Still, it’s been really quite easy getting them back to work at class, this year. 

They’re quite enthusiastic about being recorded, and also about getting prizes. The chocolate seems to be more of interest to most of them, much more than the sheet music!

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.

My Personal Sightreading Challenge – 5 minutes and 20 days a month

Making the time in my daily schedule and committing to learn new pieces had always been a struggle. So, in April 2015, I decided to make a change. I started small, with just 5 minutes a day, 20 days a month spent on sight reading a new piece.

My first piece was a Bach 2 part invention – just a few bars on day 1,  and I kept adding 1 or 2 more bars each day. I started out recording the results each day, so I could see progress, however small, and feel a little motivated to continue.

I also decided that I would record that first rough run-through of each piece, the first time I could play it completely, upload it, and post a link online.

My goals were small – to learn one piece a month and keep in touch with the pieces I had learned earlier.

Related articles :

Month 6 of “My Personal Sightreading Challenge”

The impact of 100 minutes of practise

 

Why is my child’s progress so slow?

It’s your child’s practise routine – or really, lack of it…..It often takes parents anything from 3 months to a year to realise that their young child needs help with practise – to schedule practise, and schedule the child’s daily routine, so that it’s not overly crowded with too many activities.

Practise for the beginner level student could be anything from 5 minutes to 15 minutes a day, depending on the child’s age, and it builds up very gradually over the years.

The piano class progresses at a pace the child can cope with. It is important that the teacher does not exceed this pace, because young children get very disheartened and often want to give up the piano when they cannot cope.

It’s important that parents make the time to be present in class, when the teacher sets goals or targets for students. Because children often want to reach goals their daily routine, their learning style and practise schedule does not support.

Please read Why young students give up the piano and Coping with the overscheduled child in piano class

Why the IIT approach to piano practise holds back piano students..

Does your approach to scheduling piano practise stop your child from learning?

This term “IIT approach” was coined by one of my piano parents, and I thought it was perfect, as it represents the attitude of the average India parent, with regards to studies. “Work hard, with the exam as a clear goal”

Here’s what it is :

  1. One single large block of practise time – even though it’s too long for the child to focus.

2. This slot is sandwiched between other activities, with few, or no breaks

3. The day of piano class is the same – filled with activities and other appointments, before or after piano class.

What these parents do, is bother about practise only when there’s an exam. When the exam’s over, they’re done, until the next exam work starts. In order for these students to do well, there has to be a constant barrage of little tests and evaluations, which are reflected in a quarterly review of the student. If a piano teacher gives in, piano class is no different from the academic system, which is already putting pressure on students.

The student gets quite stressed before exams and performances, and learns very little repertoire. Sight reading is poor and scales & technique is done, just at the end, to get marks, and is quickly forgotten. The student learns erratic practise habits, which hinder long term piano learning. And piano practise is not fun, but hard work.
These students often learn just 3 exam pieces a year, plus 1 or 2 other pieces!

 

How practise should be

As against this, other beginner level students play daily, and split their practise time into 2 or 3 shorter slots. These students have  leisure time and time to play. They slowly start going to the piano on their own without reminders, just to relax, and try out new pieces, outside of their practise homework.

The day of piano class is kept free of activity, so these students get time to relax after piano class, and therefore retain more of what is taught.

They start to play and practise a lot because it’s how they relax and  have fun. Because learning something new is not a ‘pressure’ for them but a ‘challenge’ which they enjoy. And this is why they’re able to continue to learn the piano, even as the level of difficulty increases, and studies get heavier.