5 Most Important Piano Practice Tips
Over the years that I’ve been playing music, I’ve realized there is no one fit for all when it comes to the best practice routine. Every single musician is a unique being with a specific personality which translates into the way they are most effective during their practice session. Some people prefer structured regiment of their practice routine, broken down to multiple different sections. While others might be the most productive when practicing one specific thing or area for days. Whether you lean towards the first or the second approach doesn’t really matter, what truly matters is what gives you the best results. The following list is by no means a comprehensive set of practicing tips, but rather my top five tips that helped me the most. While I use them to improve mainly my piano playing skills, you can use them almost on any other instrument. I hope you will find them as useful as I do.
Tip no. 1 Practice things that you are excited about.
Some people would say that practicing doesn’t have to be always fun, and I would agree, as long as it does not last too long. Yes, practicing should never become just another duty that we must do. Since the primary reason why most of us started to learn the instrument was the sheer joy and excitement about the instrument, we should strive to keep it that way. On the other hand, to grow musically, we have to put a lot of focus and effort into it, which doesn’t always come easy. Keeping your attention during a practice session is essential, and practicing something you are not excited about will make it much more difficult.
For this reason, I find it critical to choose a subject or area you are excited to learn. So if you have been lately into discovering new harmonies, or maybe wanting to transcribe a particular solo or a chord progression, choose the area that makes you excited. There is a chance that even the things that you are eager to learn will have some tricky parts to master and after some time could become tiresome. The extra bit of interest and desire to learn a particular piece, a solo or chord progression, can help you to overcome your momentary frustration.
Recently I found that jazz pianist Hal Galper agreed with this statement. During one of his masterclasses, one of the students asked him what to practice. Hal responded, “practice what you respond to emotionally on an intuitive level.”
Tip no. 2 Find fun and engaging ways to practice.
This advice is closely related to tip no. 1. Whether you are a beginner or a professional, every one of us has many areas we can work on to improve our skills. Unfortunately, things like scales, fingering exercises, ear training, or many different practicing techniques might become tedious. Some would even go so far as to call them a necessary evil which we have to undergo to improve our abilities. But does it have to be that way? As it is with every technique, scale, or exercise the ultimate goal is to help us make better music. And sometimes we forget that and use the technique for the sake of it. Since the whole purpose of exercises is to improve our ability to perform, we should seek ways to make those monotonous parts of our practice routine fun and engaging.
Are you not feeling like doing those ear training exercises? Download an app such as Functional Ear Trainer, and put a new spin on your ear training. Bored of playing scales up and down – find a few drum loops, and practice your scales with different rhythmic variations. Can’t stand those complicated harmony books, that are hard to wrap your head around? Find YouTube video of Jacob Collier or other people with a great love for the topic talking about their approach to harmony. There are so many ways how to make seemingly boring parts of our musical education more fun and engaging.
Tip no. 3 Listen, listen, and listen.
Many professional musicians consider music to be a language. As it is with any language, the purpose of it is to express ourselves or to communicate with others. Now if you think about the first language you learned as a child, you may realize that the way you learned it was by listening to others speak. And here is my point, since we want to improve our abilities to express ourselves on the instrument, we should listen to as much music as possible. By doing so, we will expand our vocabulary (sounds, melodies, harmonies, etc.) as well as internalize a feel for particular idiom or style. Just don’t forget that knowing all the words doesn’t help us much if we end up not using them. So next time you sit at your instrument, and you hear a particular melody line or a chord in your head, make sure to fumble around until you can play it.
If you want to expand your musical vocabulary, you should not only listen to your favorite music or style but also seek out new sounds, that your ears aren’t used to.
Tip no. 4 Whatever you play, play like it is your last chance to play.
For quite some time, I didn’t realize that wheater, I’m practicing, performing, or just having fun at a jam session, I’m unconsciously shaping my feel and touch on the instrument. If you think about it, one of the things that differentiate amateurs from professionals is not the notes or chords they play but rather the way they play them. In other words, what matters is the feel and emotions behind what we play. So next time you sit down to play, try to appreciate and enjoy the time with your instrument – have fun :)! Realize that the feeling you experience during the practice translates into the way you play, and eventually will affect your feel. It is important to realize it, especially during those moments when you’re stuck learning a particular passage or a piece. If you keep practicing things that feel tedious, tiresome, repetitive, or boring long enough, it will affect your piano feel (touch, tone, articulation), because that is what you are internalizing. At moments like these, it is a good idea to take a break. Go for a walk, listen to inspiring music, or change the focus of your practice for a while.
Tip no. 5 Stay focused during your practice routine
Most people would agree that in order to practice effectively, you need to focus on the subject or area you are trying to learn or improve. In my opinion, it’s easier said than done. Especially in this day and age where our cell phones, computers, and smartwatches flood us with endless notifications which distract us so easily. Productivity apps such as Freedom can help us to remove those distractions for a specific period of time, but it’s not a complete answer to our focus problem. I got one excellent tip on how to stay focused while practicing from a great musician as well as an amazing teacher – saxophonist and pianist Jeff Schneider. Here is the tip on how to stay focused while practicing. Choose exercises that if you mess them up, it is really obvious. Think of it as being on a balance beam, when you fall off the balance beam than it’s clear you lost focus. It is critical to have a reference point during our practice time, to let us know whether or not we are focused on what we practice. An example of such a “balance beam”(focus checker) could be practicing with a metronome. If you practice in a certain tempo and suddenly you get off from a metronome, it is a clear indicator you lost focus.
Another example of such exercise could be taking a solo or melody that you are practicing to a whole different key (especially those you don’t like ;). This exercise will reveal whether or not you have internalized the melody or whether you are just relying on your muscle memory. Those two exercises are just examples describing the principles of structuring a better and more focused way to practice. I hope you will come up with your exercises that will help you to practice with greater awareness and concentration.
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