Effective practice habits are central to learning the piano and just about every other musical instrument.
If appropriately and consistently taught, the wise teacher’s labor of love will help guide students to excellent musicianship.
Here are 5 practice habits to aid you on your teaching journey!
1.) Slow and steady wins the race.
“Practice makes perfect.”
We’ve heard it time and time again and probably said it to our students on more than one occasion.
Practice is important. But it doesn’t make perfect.
I like this phrase better – “Perfect practice makes perfect.”
And even then, things will never be perfect.
So maybe a better saying is “slow and precise practice yields excellent results.”
I admit the statement doesn’t flow as nicely as the first, but it’s more accurate!
Encourage your students to practice in slow motion. Remind them who wins in Aesop’s classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare.
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus and faculty member Noa Kageyama has this to say about slow practice,
I had forgotten all about this [slow practice in music] until very recently, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim (incidentally, check out his personal jetlag remedy).
He revealed that one of the keys to his success (and building confidence as well) is super slow practice. A process of practicing in slow motion – while being fully mindful, highly engaged, and thinking deeply in real-time about what he is doing.
2.) Quality over quantity.
It’s not how long a student spends practicing that counts, it’s the quality of her practice.
Let me tell you a story.
Camden, one of my past piano students, fell into the “creative” category.
I was excited to take him on as a student because he exhibited more zeal for the instrument than most beginning students.
I quickly became frustrated when he showed up unrehearsed week after week.
I told his mother that he needed to sit at the piano for at least 30-minutes per day. She agreed, and that’s what he did. He SAT at the piano 30-minutes each day.
He wasn’t actively pursuing his studies. He was bored out of his mind!
I sat down with him and his mother at the following lesson to discuss a new game plan.
You see, I realized that I had been approaching our lessons in the wrong way, squashing Cameron’s zeal for the piano.
I told his mother not to worry too much if he didn’t practice for exactly 30-minutes each day. I encouraged her to let him practice at his pace – 5-minutes here, 10-minutes there.
I saw vast improvements in his playing and ability to focus. Most importantly, I didn’t squash his zeal for learning how to play the piano!
5-minutes of focused practice is much better than 30-minutes of unfocused practice.
Quality over quantity any and every day of the week.
3.) Back to front reinforcement.
Repetition is super important in the practice room.
Have students isolate small passages, such as the last four measures of a piece and slowly practice them several times before increasing speed.
Then have the student back up a few more measures and repeat the process, playing and reinforcing the previously learned passage.
This back to front approach ensures that students are working toward something and reinforcing what they already know.
This technique is so effective! And it really shines in memorization.
4.) Quickly move from one piece to the next.
I didn’t believe this one at first. But I gave it a try, and low and behold it works!
This approach works best once a student has lived with her music for a season.
Elle Kaplan, founder, and CEO of LexionCapital, teaches how this approach can help people learn and master any skill twice as fast.
Whether you’re trying to improve your motor skills or cognitive learning abilities, the key to transforming how your brain processes new information is to break out of the habit of learning one facet of a skill at a time. The advantage of this method is that your brain doesn’t get comfortable or store information in your short-term memory. Instead, interleaving causes your brain to intensely focus and problem solve every step of the way, resulting in information getting stored in your long-term memory instead.
For example, one study, gave a collegiate baseball team extra batting practice and broke them up into three groups: a control group, a blocked group, and a random group. The blocked group faced a variety of pitches in a set order, and the other group encountered pitches randomly. After six weeks, researchers found that the random group improved 56.7%, while the blocked group only improved 24.8%. That’s a massive difference! And similar results have been replicated in other sports and classroom learning studies.
Piano playing is far different from baseball. But Kaplan’s approach is worth trying with the student who has a good handle on his music.
Consider having students slowly play 8 measures of a challenging, fast-paced piece and then quickly move to a section of a much slower piece.
Repeat this process with several other pieces in a different order.
5.) Listen before you work.
Don’t discount the inner ear.
Some teachers oppose any listening prior to learning a new piece, concerned that it inhibits a student’s interpretation.
But I’m a huge advocate of listening before learning. Particularly in the formative years.
I love this quote taken from an article on the Suzuki Association of the Americas website –
The early years are crucial for developing mental processes and muscle coordination. Listening to music should begin at birth; formal training may begin at age three or four, but it is never too late to begin. Children learn words after hearing them spoken hundreds of times by others.
Consider bringing several different recordings of a piece for your student to listen to during his lesson or borrow to listen at home.
The inner ear is an essential part of learning to play music.
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