How to practice the piano more

How to practice the piano more?

(Thanks to Roda for asking about this.)

At first glance, this is an easy question to answer: If you want to practice the piano more, then sit down and practice. And if you don’t want to, then don’t!

But as with anything involving us humans, it’s not that cut-and-dry. (Just witness all the diet magazines at the supermarket checkout counter we see month after month after month after month.)

To begin with, many of us pianists have a deep need to play music, and we still have that need during the periods when we can’t, or don’t, get to the piano as often as we’d like. Piano teachers come up against this all the time with their students. The student enjoys each lesson but often arrives next week without having practiced enough.

As someone who’s been intensely interested in this phenomenon for decades, I could write a whole on the subject. For now, we’ll have to settle for this blog post ?

Side note: Isn’t it interesting that the “beginner” pieces that Bach and the other classical composers composed were far more advanced than any of today’s beginners ever learn in their first year or two? My theory is that most keyboards in the 1700s – 1800s were in upper class households. People in the lower economic classes played less expensive instruments, such as wood flutes and stringed instruments. But the upper class not only owned pianos; they had the time to practice. So a student of Mozart’s could begin with pieces that required an hour or more of daily practice. Indeed, most of his written references involving his students speak of his teaching “the Countess,” etc. Not “the carpenter.” I’d be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about this than I do.

One ramification of this is that the beginning piano method books gradually became simpler and simpler during the past 100 years or so, from John Thompson all the way to Faber and Faber. (I’m a big fan of the Faber books, btw. They progress so gradually that no child ever hits a plateau. Perfect for the modern age of busy schedules!)

Now let’s get back to the present day, and the question of how we can practice piano more.

If you can carve out an hour or three every day to practice piano, then yes, go for it! This is the ideal scenario and I’ve spent many days practicing this much. (I did up to 12 hours a day in college.) It’s fun, rewarding, and you’ll progress at a rapid rate. A good way to spend your musical life.

But most people are too busy to find a block of free time this long. We’re working multiple jobs, shuttling the kids to soccer practice and after-school events, and barely finding time to collapse on the couch to mentally and emotionally “detox” after a long day. Piano? What’s that???!!!

But…. There is a way.

The law of inertia states that an object in rest will stay at rest. And the reverse is also true: an object in motion will stay in motion.

So you want to get “in motion” with your piano playing. And if you feel like it’s “3 hours or nothing,” then you’ll probably never get in motion at all.

How do you get in motion?

It’s simple.

Keep your sheet music open on your piano or keyboard. As you pass the piano in the morning on your way to the kitchen, sit down and play the music or improvise for 2 minutes. Yep – 2 minutes. Remember, your goal isn’t to practice for an extended period of time. It’s to get in motion. 2 minutes does a lot, in fact. At the minimum, you’ve practiced for at least 2 minutes on a busy day. That’s more than before!!! And it also whets your appetite. You’ve “tasted” music first thing in the morning. You’ll want to practice more, later on. And when you listen to music on your car radio on the way to work, you’ll associate it with the piano. Maybe you’ll hear a song you’ll want to learn. You are becoming involved with music. Today. (And every day is “today,” right?”)

If you can, take a minute during your lunch break to close your eyes and mentally hear the music you played in the morning. Picture your fingers moving over the keys. Now the two minutes has turned into five. (Magic!) Plus the radio listening and it equals 15 or more minutes of musical involvement. This is more of a big deal than you may think. Mozart thought about music while riding in the stagecoach. And it wasn’t just because he was a genius, since you and I can do the same thing.

When you get home, head right to the piano for a good 5 minutes before you start all the other stuff you need to do. Just 5 minutes. Just do it. As soon as you get home. Then later in the evening, do 5 minutes more. Surely you have 5 minutes on most evenings. If you watch TV, practice during the commercials.

This type of intermittent-but-regular practicing is powerful. For one thing, it adds up to more time spent at the piano than most people do when they have bigger practice plans but don’t accomplish them. For another thing, it puts you in motion in a very good way.

Here’s a fun story: I once had an 8 year old piano student who came to her piano lesson each week with the same statement. She always said she “didn’t have any time to practice this week.” I thought about it for a while and gave her a very specific assignment. I told her, “I want you to practice every day, but only for 5 minutes. Whatever you do, do not practice for more than 5 minutes!”

She came back the next week and told me that she had “failed” the assignment. She said “I’m sorry but I couldn’t practice for only 5 minutes. It always turned into 20 minutes or a half hour!”

Mission accomplished.

If she could do it, you can too. I do it too on busy days. Get into motion and you’ll play more piano than you may think is possible. After all, you love the piano, don’t you?

Here’s another trick that piano teachers can have their young students do. Explain to them and their parents that playing a little piano can invigorate the brain and muscles during long homework sessions. So if the student has, say, 2 hours of homework on a given evening, have them do one hour and then play piano for 10 minutes. This will freshen them up a bit and help them do the rest of their homework better. It’s a win-win situation.

Another aspect of this is that no one wants every minute spent at the piano to be a struggle. And if the piano teacher only assigns harder and harder material, most students will come to view practicing as drudgery. And who wants continual drudgery? I sure don’t! The solution is to assign some easy pieces as well that the student can easily learn. Playing pop songs from chords is great for this too. Even professionals don’t always play difficult music, so why should we inflict this on our students? Pianists at any level will enjoy a mix of easy and more challenging material. And this in turn will help them look forward to their time at the piano.

So whatever music you’re currently working on, have fun and happy practicing!

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