Frazier Piano Studio

How To Practice More Effectively

Published by Ryan Frazier
Violinist practicing

This is a list of practice ideas to super charge your practice sessions. So often I find myself going to the piano and doing the same things every time. Mix it up for maximum effectiveness.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

— Albert Einstein

What is practice?

Before we get started we should define what practicing is and its purpose.

The obvious goal of practice is to improve. If we spend time practicing and don’t get any better, then we have wasted our time.

Practice is not performing for yourself. Practice should be uncomfortable. Your brain should grow. Seriously. If you practice what you can already do, it’s not practice. It’s playing the piano. Be willing to sound bad.

So any activity that makes you better can be counted as practice. Some of my best practice is silent or away from the piano. It may be visualizing the score, or reviewing a past performance and marking up my score.

Set goals

Before you sit down to practice make sure you know what the purpose of that practice session is. Having purpose, intent, and a bit of urgency will carry you far. Get a practice notebook. Make notes and goals for your practice sessions in this notebook.

To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.

— Leonard Bernstein

Play from memory as early as possible

Try playing from memory before you think you are ready. Learning occurs best when you have to stuggle to recall something you’ve learned. This is called Generative Learning. The least effective way to memorize is to play it over and over until we reach “muscle memory” (a term which I actually hate). Struggling forces you to be creative. You may find yourself singing the passage, thinking through the harmony or making a good guess. Getting it absolutely right is not the point at this stage. It’s about struggling to recall it and generating a solution. It feels a bit like recomposing the piece. Be vulnerable. Be willing to make mistakes in your practice.

For more on this topic see Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning

Conduct it

Rostropovich, the famed Russian Cellist, would imagine himself as the conductor of his own performance. A good exercise is to get up and move or dance while you sing. Some conducting even looks a bit like dancing.

Leonard Bernstein conducting
Leonard Bernstein conducting/dancing from PlayBuzz

Record it

This gets me out of my head and gives me immediate and obvious feedback. I usually stick my phone on the piano, record a phrase or two and work to improve it until it sounds exactly the way I want. On first hearing, my recording usually doesn’t sound at all the way it does in my head.

Sing it

I recommend you sing everything you play. There is something that happens in the brain when you actually sing it. The best players sing when they play. You can often hear Oscar Peterson and Glen Gould humming in the background in their recordings. There is something zen-like about singing in your head and playing what you hear, as opposed to the mental chatter, “now here comes the recap, which is in the key of A, and here is this tricky part, cross thumb here, …, whoops I messed up …”. Just sing it.

This is also a great memory tool. I try to sing my peices from memory and then play what I hear.

Transpose it

I am never very confident that I thoroughly understand my music until I can transpose it. This is especially true for those with perfect pitch (which is a blessing and curse).

As a little side note, some of the greatest musicians don’t have perfect pitch. Examples are Bill Evans and Bobby McFerrin.

Teach it

Rubber ducky
Rubber ducky

Nothing internalizes the material better than having to verbalize exactly what you want to happen. You can even teach a rubber ducky.

I heard a story from pianist Norman Krieger of a visitor coming to visit Vladamir Horowitz’s wife. Upon hearing what sounded like a lesson going on upstairs, the visitor asked, “Is Vladamir teaching?” His wife responded, “No, he is practicing.”

Write it out

Try writing your music out from memory on a blank sheet of staff paper. Although a little tedious, it guarentees you have it memorized. You can then compare your version with the actual score.

Interleave practice

This idea comes from The Talent Code. Have several tasks planned out in your practice session and switch between the tasks throughout the session. Don’t spend too long on one task. The idea is that the brain responds best with new stimuli. If you stay on one task too long you stop paying attention and retention suffers.

A possible practice session for myself might be:

  • Memorize Bach fugue
  • learn Satin Doll by ear
  • learn new Bebop lick in all 12 keys
  • learn new ii-V-I voicing
  • sight sing something

I might spend no longer than 10 minutes on each task. Don’t keep practicing until you have thoroughly mastered each task, that is not the point. Dan Coyle calls this kind of practice “Block practice”.

Of course this type of practice can also be applied within the same piece. Say you are learning a Beethoven sonata. Your tasks might look like this:

  • sight sing melody
  • do harmonic analysis
  • transpose a section
  • check memory on previously learned section
  • watch/listen to a performance of piece

You get the idea. Don’t sit at a practice session and do the same type of activity for an hour. Mix it up.

Randomize it

This is similar to the last item. If you are trying to memorize a piece. Don’t start from the beginning and go to the end. Divide the piece into small chunks and randomly memorize each of those sections. For similar sections try playing them back to back.

Quantity over Quality

Potter at the wheel

Look at the great masters of the past. Arthur Rubenstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, … These guys played everything. I don’t think their repertoire was huge because they were able to play it. I propose the other way around. They were great because they practiced and learned everything they came in contact with. I suppose it’s a chicken or the egg problem. However, my teaching experience also validates this conclusion. My students who will play everything assigned to them whether easy or hard or classical or jazz, are better players.

Here is a excellent example of the volume vs quality problem from Art and Fear.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Perform it

There is nothing like an upcoming performance that adds some urgency and focus to ones practice. Schedule yourself some low stakes performance opportunities to learn how to perform. Do it often. Performing is a skill like anything else. It must be practiced. When I prepare for a big performance, I perform my pieces almost weekly for whoever will listen.

After each performance take time to review what went well, what failed, and what to improve. A video recording is especially helpful.

Conclusion

This list is by no means exhaustive. Leave a comment below for your favorite practice strategy.

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