What is practice? Or better yet, what isn’t practice?

Practice is a necessary skill that every music student, no matter what instrument they play, must acquire and perform as close as possible daily. Yet, a surprisingly high number of students practice very poorly, or do things other than practicing when they are sitting in front of an instrument. It may be easier to start a discussion of what practicing is by outlining what practicing is not. This is because that “other” thing that students do way too often when they are supposed to be practicing is playing. Playing is not practicing. I remind my students of this every time I ask: “How was practice this week” and the answer is something like: “Great! I played through my songs three times every day.”

Playing vs. Practice

Playing is performing a piece of music from beginning to end. It is what performers do at recitals, concerts, or when mom and dad want to impress home visitors with Johnny’s piano skills. Although playing and performing music each play an essential role in the development of any musician, it is not what most music students should be doing regularly.

Practice should be a very intentional process. A good practice session should be a conversation between the student and him- or herself. The conversation should mainly consist of questions and answers. The student may want to start with questions like:

-Did I play the correct dynamics? How were they? Did I play all of them, including crescendos and decrescendos?

-How was my tempo? Was I playing too fast? Too slow? Was I hesitating? Why? Is the tempo well suited to the piece I am playing, and most importantly, to my current level of knowledge of this particular piece?

-How are my hands balanced? Is my melody louder than the harmony? Where is the melody? Right hand? Left hand? Both?

-How is my articulation? Am I paying attention to staccato and legato?

-Do the phrases have a shape and direction?

-Was I accurate? Should I double-check any of the notes to make sure that they were right?

At the beginning, practice S-L-O-W-L-Y

To achieve accuracy, slow practice is usually necessary, at least initially. The student should not be trying to learn a piece with 50% accuracy in the first week, 60% on the second, and so on. Instead, 100% accuracy should be the goal from the get-go. That accuracy is only attainable when the student is given the right tools, and he or she implements them.

The first problem with practicing slowly is the word “slow.” Whenever I ask my students to demonstrate what deliberate practice is, they usually breeze through the piece or passage in question. I typically use one of two practice helps in this instance. Either:

-Practice as if you were starring in a passage of a movie shot in slow motion.

-See how slow (instead of how fast) you can play this piece or passage! Can you time yourself and see whether you can take a whole 10 minutes to play this instead of 6?

The second issue with slow practice is that, even on those rare occasions when it takes place, the student tends to increase the speed dramatically instead of gradually. The metronome can be used as an excellent tool both for practicing slowly and for increasing the speed very gradually.

It could all be boiled down to the following:

Slow practice – fast progress

Fast practice – slow progress

No practice – no progress

Practice in Small Sections

Many students practice from beginning to end, so that no single portion of the piece ever gets their undivided attention.

If you make a mistake, do not go back to the beginning.

What would you do if you were reading a book, got to page 233, and found a word that you did not understand? Would you go back and start reading the book from the beginning? What would happen when you once again arrived at page 233?

Creative Practicing

One of the reasons students become bored with practice is that they tend to conduct their practice sessions, in the same manner, every time. They should, instead, change, experiment, and explore. How about changing the tempo? Dynamics, articulation? Even playing a passage written for the right hand with the left hand, or vice versa, can be an excellent memorization exercise.

Good Repetition, not just Repetition

Repetition is vital, but it cannot be thoughtless. Repetition for the sake of repetition leads to boredom. As I mentioned at the beginning, practice must be focused, engaged, purpose-driven, and goal-oriented.

Above all, remember: Practice Makes…?

When I ask students this question, most everyone will answer “PERFECT.” While that is a standard answer to the proverbial question, it is somewhat inaccurate.

Let us imagine little Abbey. She is taught that her name is spelled: “A-B-B-E-Y.” She then proceeds to practice spelling her name: “H-A-B-B-E-Y.” She practices this spelling day and night, repeating thousands of times every week.

Is she getting perfect at spelling her name?

No! She is achieving perfection at misspelling her name.

Practice makes permanent.

Good Practice makes perfect.
Robert Schumann’s Advice on Practice:

How to study music

  • Learn the fundamental laws of harmony at an early age.
  • Do not be afraid of the words, theory, thorough bass, counterpoint, etc, they will appear friendly enough to you when you are familiar with them.
  • Dragging and hurrying are equally significant faults.
  • Try to play easy pieces well; it is better than to play difficult ones in a mediocre way.
  • Take care that your instrument is always in perfect tune.
  • It is not enough to know your pieces with your fingers; you should be able to remember them to yourself without a piano. Sharpen your powers of fancy, so that you may be able to remember correctly, not only the melody of a composition, but its proper harmonies also.
  • Try to sing at sight, without the help of an instrument, even if you have but little voice; your ear will thereby gain in fineness. But if you possess a powerful voice, do not lose a moment, but cultivate it immediately and look on it as the best gift Heaven has bestowed on you.
  • You should be able to understand a piece of music merely on reading it.
  • When you play, do not trouble yourself as to who is listening.
  • Yet always play as though a master listened to you.
  • If anyone presents you with a composition, with which you are unacquainted, so that you should play it, read it over first.
  • If you have finished your daily musical work, and feel tired, do not force yourself to further labor. It is better to rest than to practice without pleasure or freshness.
  • When you are older, avoid playing what is merely fashionable.
  • Time is precious. If we would learn to know only the good things that exist, we ought to live a hundred human lives.
  • No children can be brought up to healthy manhood on sweetmeats and pastry. Spiritual, like bodily nourishment, must be simple and strong. The masters have sufficiently provided for this, hold to it.

Tips for young pianists

  • Executive passages alter with the times; flexibility is only valuable when it serves high aims.
  • You should not aid in the circulation of bad compositions, but on the contrary, in their suppression, and with all your power.
  • You should never play bad compositions and never listen to them when not forced to do so.
  • Do not try to attain mere technical facility, the so-called bravura. Try to produce the same impression with a composition, as that which the composer aimed at; no one should attempt more, anything beyond it is mere caricature.
  • Look upon the alteration or omission of modern ornaments, in the works of good composers as a contemptible impertinence. This is perhaps the most considerable injury that can be offered to art.
  • Question older artists about the choice of pieces for study. You will thus save much time.
  • You must gradually learn to know all the most remarkable works by all the most notable masters.
  • Do not be led astray by the applause bestowed on great virtuosos. The praise of a master should be dearer to you than that of the masses.
  • All that is fashionable again becomes unfashionable; and if you cultivate fashion until you are old, you will become an imbecile, whom no one can respect.
  • Playing in society is more injurious than useful. Study your audience, but never play anything of which you feel ashamed in your own heart.
  • Lose no opportunity of playing music, duos, trios, etc., with others. This will make your playing broader and more flowing. Accompany singers often.

Rules and maxims to study music

  • If all were determined to play the first violin, we should never have a complete orchestra. Therefore, respect every musician in his proper place.
  • Love your instrument, but do not vainly suppose it the highest and only one. Remember that there are others equally fine. Remember also, that there are singers, and that the highest expression possible to music, is reached by a chorus and orchestra.
  • As you grow older, converse more with scores than virtuosos.
  • Practice industriously the fugues of good masters; above all, those of J. S. Bach.
  • The “Well-tempered Piano-forte” should be your daily bread. You will then, indeed, become an able musician.
  • Seek among your comrades for those who know more than you do.
  • Rest from your musical studies by industriously reading the poets. Exercise often in the open air!
  • A great deal is to be learned from singers and songwriters. But do not believe everything they tell you.
  • People live on the other side of the mountain, too. Be modest! You never thought of or invented anything that others had not already thought of or invented before you. Also, even if you had done so, you should consider it a gift from above which you ought to share with others.
  • The study of the history of music and the hearing of master-works of different epochs will most speedily cure you of vanity and self-adoration.