The New Year is a time for eliminating bad habits and forming new, constructive ones. Sometimes we need a bit of help doing this, so here are some ideas to help you at the piano.

1. Be Clear on Your Goals

Whether you are a young person taking lessons, an adult who plays for pleasure or a professional pianist making your living at it – you need structure. This structure might take the form of examination or recital deadlines, or the desire to learn and present new repertoire. Write your goals down as intentions:

This year, I will play a new recital programme three times.

 

In the Autumn, I will take my diploma. My programme will be…

 

In June 2015, I will record the first six Preludes and Fugues from Book 1 of ‘The 48’ and share them with my friends on Facebook.

 

Between now and December, I will study all of Prokoviev’s Visions fugitives with my teacher.

When you settle on a programme, write it down in the style of a concert programme you would give your audience. Put your name at the top and write down each piece in order. Remember to add all the details (such as movements names, opus numbers, full titles, and so on). Print it out and put it in a prominent place (the fridge door is good) so you’ll see it daily.

rubinstein

2. Setting Deadlines

Assuming we want to make sure the works that make up an entire programme peak together, let’s work backwards from the end point. For example, if my recital or exam date is March 1st, I will need to aim to be fully prepared three weeks before that. Prior to that, I’ll need to arrange three run-throughs in front of different people (peers, teacher, trusted friends, piano meet-up group, festival, etc.). Therefore, I would ideally be thinking about planning three preparatory run-through sessions in the beginning of February, at the very latest. Write these dates in your diary, as commitments.

If you are a teacher, give your students a yearly planner sheet with important dates so they can see at a glance what is expected of them and when. Put down the dates of your studio recitals, the date of the lesson when you expect all the scales to be ready for a scale test, the date of the lesson when you will hear a complete performance of Piece A, of all the pieces, the mock exam, and so on.

For information on how to apply Parkinson’s Law to your piano practice, follow this link to Part 4 of my eBook.

3. Concentration in the Practice Room

So much time and energy is wasted in the practice room if we do not have a clear sense of what is involved in the process of learning and refining a piece from scratch to performance. Players do not seem to have the patience to work slowly, in small sections and hands separately. This is not a chore: it has its own sort of interest, and can even be joyful. Nothing of any lasting value can be achieved without total concentration in the practice room, the conscious mind and the ear fully involved and engaged with what we are doing.

Playing through our errors day after day, hoping they will magically disappear, is a colossal waste of time. Stop and figure out what went wrong, and where, and take steps to correct this. It takes far fewer repetitions to store a correctly learned pattern of notes in the long-term memory, and way more repetitions if we need to unlearn mistakes.

The moral of the story is learn it correctly from the start.

4. Routine

I’m a great believer in making lists, or practice rotas, but flexible ones that take into account the realities of life and also that leave room for spontaneity. Rigid schedules are impractical and demotivating, since they are very hard to stick to. However we plan our work, we will absolutely need to get into a routine. A regular routine helps us to frame our work so that the act of practising becomes a habit. Sure, this takes discipline, but nothing worth achieving is possible without steely determination and self-sacrifice. Therefore, it is extremely helpful to set aside a regular time during the day for practice. This gives us direction and impetus.

Since no two people are the same, it is impossible to come up with an exact formula for the length of time needed for practice, or the best format to organise our work. Some people work best in the morning, others later in the day. It can also be effective to break up the practice into two or more sessions, and certainly little and often is better than doing it in one chunk if concentration is likely to wander or tiredness set in.

Unless the piece is short, or very familiar, we’re not likely to get through every section of the piece in any given practice session. Therefore, divide it up into manageable, logical sections for the purposes of practising. Take the score and mark in the different sections and come up with a weekly practice plan. Be creative here: perhaps in week 1, our time with section B will be devoted to memory work, whereas in section C we are aiming to increase speed, etc.

Many people don’t concentrate well on a single activity for more than 15 or 20 minutes. I have found that interleaving the items on the day’s practice agenda is much more effective than spending all the time you will devote to a given activity in a single block of time.

For more information on interleaving v. blocking practice, follow this link to my blog post.

5. Forming Habits

If you are daunted by the prospect of regular, routine practice, remember to start small. Set aside a small chunk of time daily and stick to this religiously. All you have to do is just to show up at the piano at your appointed time. It’s a bit like having a pet – you’ve got to feed and walk your dog whether you feel like it or not. Practice should be a similar commitment. Each week increase the amount of time you spend, and so on, until you are on a roll. It really does work that way!

If you need help and motivation sticking to a new habit, I can highly recommend habitforge.com. You get daily automated emails that will hold you accountable, and there’s even an on-line community if you want a bit of additional support. Alternatively, Time Magazine has published a very helpful article, 24 Great Free Apps and Tools to Help You Build Strong Habits

6. Being Creative with Your Practice

  • If you are an insomniac, rather than counting sheep why not head towards your digital piano and do some midnight practice? With headphones, of course.
  • Take photos of the difficult spots in your piece and set up a folder on your iPad so you can swipe through them. Practise these spots at the start of your regular practice time, in between practice activities and at the end of the session. In addition, go over them during odd moments outside of your regular practice time.
  • Practise them away from the piano too – when exercising or sitting on a train. Change the images on your folder each week, making sure to keep any spots you still struggle with.
  • Record a practice session and listen back critically. How focussed were you? How much time did you waste noodling?

For more on using visualisation as part of your practice, follow this link to Part 4 of my eBook.

iPad-ptp4-images

Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4

I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).

The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.

If you would like a video introduction and more information on the contents of Part 4, please follow this link.

Buy Practising the Piano Part 4 Now

Click on the “Buy” button below to purchase Part 4 of Practising The Piano now:

Or save a further 20% by purchasing all four parts of Practising the Piano together:


Further information on the complete series is also available here and additional discount bundle combinations are available on the series catalogue here.