Don’t practice piano like it’s a video game

I’ll be blunt: Too many piano students practice piano like it’s a video (or computer) game and this is holding them back.

There… I’ve said it (whew, I feel better already!!!).

Now before you exclaim “Wait, I love playing video games!”, let me clarify: I love video games too. In fact, I love them too much and had to stop playing them after I practically became addicted to “Prince of Persia” in the mid-1990s.

But what I’ve noticed while listening to some of my students practice piano is that some of them learn piano like it’s a video game, and that’s not good. Here’s what I mean:

To learn many types of video games, you need to move quickly. You don’t really know what’s going on at first, so you fail. You get “hit.” You miss your mark. You get lost. You can’t find something you need to locate so you run out of time, etc. With the video game, this is OK. In fact, it’s often the only way to effectively master the game. You start out playing badly and gradually get better. Your win/loss ration slowly begins improving as you get better at playing.

This process may be fine for video games, but it’s disastrous for learning piano. I’ve seen too many students who start playing a new piece at a fast tempo. Can they do it? Of course not. Some students will play as many as 80% wrong notes on their first attempt. Then, instead of slowing down, they’ll repeat the piece at the same fast tempo, but this time only miss 75% of the notes. And so on. They don’t mind the wrong notes and are content with having the music sound terrible until they start playing it more correctly.

This took me by surprise the first time I witnessed this in a lesson. I couldn’t quite figure out why my student resisted my suggestions to slow down. It was almost like they had a compulsion to play fast, with too much energy at that learning stage. Then I realized: the student couldn’t slow down! This particular teen had spent so much time playing animated video games that he literally didn’t know how to learn something slowly and thoughtfully. He was trying his best in the context of his previous experience.

So what’s wrong with this?

Leaving aside issues of relaxation and careful focusing, this method is not an effective way to learn music.
I’ve been spending this week looking at a recent study of piano practice habits. Researchers at The University of Texas identified some ways we can all practice to learn our piano music more effectively (and faster!). The researchers listed 8 common practice strategies that the best pianists all shared.

Points #5 and #6 emphasize the importance of identifying and wrongly played notes:
5. “Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.”
6. “The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.”

This is very important. Don’t keep playing the same wrong notes when you’re practicing. Slow down, isolate the difficult notes, and play them correctly. I realize it’s sometimes difficult to accept the need to do this, but it will help you become a better pianist.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but slow, careful practice will get you playing faster than ever. Have fun with your practicing!

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