Practice Makes Perfect

Or does it? This essential area of learning a musical instrument can be neglected. Students often do not know how to practice. Teachers may not have made the process entirely clear. The difference between playing and practicing is misunderstood.

Too often, a stumble or a mistake while practicing sends the student back to the beginning, starting again only to arrive at the same sticking point, and going back to the beginning again, only to make the same mistake yet again. Perhaps the student will then just carry on hoping it will come right, only to reach another awkward bar, and the whole process starts again! The mistakes have been ingrained, the player is frustrated and confidence erodes.

Knowing how to practice efficiently saves time and mental energy. Check that you know how many beats in a bar, and which key your music is in. Practice the scale and arpeggio for that key, and chords I, IV, V. If you are apt to forget sharps or flats, pencil them in. You can always rub out later. Choose a short section, a phrase or 4 bars, or other convenient pausing place, and tap out the rhythm, remembering to give the longer value notes their full length. Do this a few times until you are confident of the rhythm, and aim to keep a steady beat in your head.

Then work out fingering for the right hand part. You probably will have done this with your teacher during your lesson. If you are working on your own, change any editorial fingerings which are difficult for your hand. A useful tip is to work backwards. Decide which finger you need to comfortably manage the highest or lowest note or final note of the phrase, and work backwards from that point. If it works well, pencil in the fingering. If it is awkward, try again with another fingering. Then practice the phrase SLOWLY, several times until you can play it comfortably at a slow tempo. Count the beats aloud as you practice, avoiding any temptation to speed up! Remember to include dynamics (quiet and loud), articulation, (staccato, slurs, accents etc). As you are playing slowly with one hand only, these can be included from the start.

Now repeat the same process for your left hand part. If you have practiced one or two phrases in this way, you will have achieved much, and your time allocated has been wisely spent.

The next stage will be to coordinate both hands together, which will feel very different. The rhythm might disappear because you hesitate, but keep counting the long notes! Be very vigilant about both hands going down exactly together, even if you have to wait in between note changes to do this. The waiting will disappear as you gain confidence, and fluency will return, plus the correct rhythm. Are you still practicing SLOWLY? This importance of this cannot be over emphasized.

The above guidelines may last for several practices, or only one or two. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t a race. If you have been doing this, your time has been well spent and your practicing very productive. Carry on working on small sections of your music in this way. It can be a good idea to begin at the end of your piece, or begin with the part which looks the trickiest. Once you have mastered the music, practice beginning anywhere in the music to make sure you can carry on from any point. If you encounter a persistent trouble spot, isolate the reason. Is it fingering, an awkward leap, a difficult stretch for your hand? Discuss with your teacher or another pianist, and find a solution. Practice this bar(s) very slowly until mastered, then practice integrating back into the phrase.

This is your practicing and study, and may sound like hard work. But the benefits are:

1) Far fewer mistakes, because you didn’t make them in the first place, and then didn’t practice them in the second place!

2) Your learned pieces will be much more secure and you will gain in confidence. You may even know them from memory. (A side benefit!)

3) You will master your pieces more quickly in the long run.

4) You will notice the difference in your playing, and hopefully so will your family and friends.

Do what many of the greatest concert pianists do:

When you learn a piece, practice it slowly.

When you know it, practice it even more slowly.

When the day of performance looms, practice it slower still.

So now you can safely say, yes, practice makes perfect.