Do you ever stop to think about the phrase “practice makes perfect” as it relates to the piano?
Do your students practice their music until it’s perfect? What is perfection? What should practicing consist of?
These are all questions we must answer in order to spend our time efficiently at the piano.
I will admit that some of the issues that arise from these questions can be a matter of semantics and how we choose to label things.
To clarify, I am referring to practice as the general time spent at the piano rather than the specific process of repeating things. In fact, the main intention here is to point out that simply repeating things may not be the best use of our time.
This article aims to remind those who study music about some of the core components of good practice that are too often taken for granted.
A Few Thoughts About Repetition
The idea of practicing something lends itself to repetition, but that’s not all there is to it. Our brains will work to improve anything we do repeatedly, despite our intentions. Regardless if a passage of music is completely correct or riddled with mistakes, whatever we practice will be secured as-is.
Because of this, we must work to ensure the things we repeat are as we would like them to be.
When thinking about practice in a strictly repetitive sense, I think “practice makes perfect” should be replaced with “make perfect, then practice.” I define perfection not as flawless but as possessing all the necessary elements for musicality.
This includes rhythmic precision, notes, fingering, voicing, and so on.
We don’t automatically achieve these qualities in everything we attempt. Therefore, we should explore music from many angles and incorporate this into our repetition.
One way to gain some perspective on a piece of music before we begin practicing is to work through a series of preparatory exercises to familiarize ourselves with the piece on different levels.
Here are a few ideas to help prepare (depending on the level of the student):
Clap the rhythm while counting out loud.
Name the notes and intervals of each part.
Analyze the harmony.
Look for technical patterns.
Identify sections and repeated material.
Identify and mark difficult passages.
The basic idea is to focus on concepts in isolation and gain an overall sense of the piece before the difficulty of playing music is introduced.
When learning a piece of music, pianists should aim to reduce the complexity of what they are doing to the greatest extent possible. Reading the piece beginning to end over and over is generally not the way to go because it leads to insignificant progress throughout the piece. The brain’s resources are spread too thin.
Instead, students should break the piece up and work at very slow tempos while counting. I often tell my students that the best pianists possess the ability to play the slowest. Having studied with many master teachers myself, my concept of slow practice has been continuously redefined.
Slow practice in each hand independently allows us to focus on technique and avoid overplaying, which greatly affects how fast we will ultimately be able to play. In my experience, performance tempo is more easily acquired in both hands by bringing each hand up to speed independently in small sections.
Next, the hands can be combined and practiced slowly again, and then brought up to speed with confidence.
Students who work at tempos that they can securely manage will have an easier time memorizing passages and making them consistent. This leads to faster learning with fewer repetitions in less time.
Also, Students who prioritize tempo above musicality and accuracy will have to spend a much larger amount of time practicing to achieve the same end, perhaps less securely.
In my experience teaching, I have observed many students that will generally repeat things until they achieve a good run and then move on.
This is the “practice until it’s perfect” mentality at work, which represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the brain absorbs the material. One ideal repetition floating around a sea of undesired repetitions does nothing to secure memory and build confidence.
We can secure music by playing it very consistently and repeating it in short amounts of time. Ideally, the version of the music that we are actively practicing should represent the best quality that we can manage. Our brains act as sophisticated repetition recorders. We should work to ensure that the ratio of accurate runs far outnumbers any inaccurate ones before moving on.
Although practice time on an instrument is the highest predictor of success, the quality of practice greatly impacts how much we accomplish as musicians.
We need to practice smarter, spend our time wisely, and move away from the idea that simply repeating things is the only path to success. Furthermore, we should think about our music in a variety of ways and always aim to hit the mark musically.
These concepts, as experienced by me along with many other musicians, tend to make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
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