Have you ever wondered how pianists became experts on the piano? Have you ever imagined joining their ranks and being a professional pianist as well?
Whether you want to be a professional pianist or you just want to play for recreation or entertainment, you have to know right now that before you get to such a level, you need to know how to practice piano effectively.
This a lengthy guide designed to help you make the most of your practice time.
Let's get started!
1. Think positive and eliminate all negative thoughts.
First things first. If you are serious about learning piano, you have to chuck any negativity out of the door. Don't listen to anybody who says you can't do it. Ignore them and do your best to prove them wrong!
If you think you are never going to learn how to play piano, then you are never going to learn. Period.
So you have to do the opposite. You MUST condition your mind that you can play, then you CAN play.
Actionable tip: Try to say something positive to yourself before you practice such as “I CAN DO THIS” or “YES, I CAN” just to motivate yourself.
2. Have a specific practice goal in mind.
Practicing randomly without any end goal in mind is not very advisable. When studying piano, you need to have a concrete goal everytime you practice.
The trick is making sure your goal is achievable. Otherwise, you will just end up frustrating yourself.
For example, today you will work on the melody of the song and the next day you will work on the accompaniment notes. Then on the third day, you will play the melody and the accompaniment together.
Actionable tip: I like to practice with a specific objective in mind. If I set my mind to finishing a piece of music in one practice session, then I will do my best to meet this goal.
3. Know what you’re going to practice on.
If you want to practice efficiently, i.e. use your practice time wisely, you have to know WHAT you are going to practice on.
It is therefore important that you review your practice journal and the music sheet(s) you intend to practice on so you can make the most of your time.
Actionable tip: Having a practice journal is really helpful so you can track your progress. It will also allow you to clearly see what you need to work on for each practice session.
4. Don’t be nervous — just relax.
Before you even sit down at the piano or your keyboard, you have to be mentally prepared to do so.
Do whatever it is you have to do first - watch your favorite TV series, call your friends, etc. - so when practice time comes, you’re mentally and physically ready.
When you’ve sat down, take deep breaths, say a short prayer (if that works for you as it does me) and relax.
Actionable tip: I find listening to classical music right before I practice helps me immensely as it prepares my mind and more importantly, it inspires me and makes me look forward to practicing.
5. Observe proper posture
When at the piano, you have to observe proper posture so you are comfortable and relaxed at all times. If you are slouching or sitting too stiffly, you would end up with all sorts of body pains that could affect your practice time. When practicing, observe the following:
- Keep your back straight.
- Your arms should hang relaxed from the shoulder.
- Your elbows should be slightly higher than the keyboard.
- Sit on the front half of the bench.
- Plant your feet firmly on the floor.
Here's a good illustration from Instructables.com:
Actionable tip: Observe the posture described above and experience wonders with your practice. Also, If your bench is too high, you should look into replacing it with a lower one just so you are at perfect height relative to the keyboard. If your bench is too low, simply add cushions to the seat until you are at correct height.
6. Begin with a warm up exercise
Warm up exercises are very helpful to get your fingers, wrists and your mind ready for practice. Depending on your schedule, you can warm up for a few minutes or maybe even 30 minutes. This includes exercising on some chords, scales, and arpeggios.
Feel free to adjust your warm up exercises according to what you’re going to practice on.
Actionable tip: Warm ups help build your finger strength. You can follow this technique to build strength for each finger:
- Press down 5 keys using all 5 fingers in either left or right hand (one key for each finger).
- Raise one finger at a time while keeping the other 4 fingers steady. Play each note/finger several times (I do 20x or more).
- Repeat step 2 until all fingers have been exercised.
- You’re now ready to start practicing!
Alternatively, you can also follow the steps on this YouTube video:
7. Warm up with a song you play really well
If you’re facing a difficult song in your practice session, try to lighten the mood by playing an easy song first to make you feel more confident.
Ride on that confidence and slowly work on the difficult song until you get it right.
Actionable tip: Keep a list of easy songs you can play at a moment’s notice on your practice journal. That way, when you need to keep your confidence level high, simply look for a song that fits your mood to help you start your practice time.
8. Set a time limit
Use a timer or stopwatch if you can only practice for a set number of minutes.
For example, if I’m busy writing and I need a short break, I sometimes play the piano to unwind for a bit. Setting an alarm for 20 minutes works wonders for me and gets me rejuvenated and inspired to continue writing.
Actionable tip: You can use a timer app on your phone or table to set a time limit when practicing under a strict timeline. If you’ve got a wristwatch with a built-in timer, then you can use that instead.
9. Practice slowly
If you find it difficult to play music when following the correct tempo, then stop using the metronome. Try playing the music slowly to help your fingers catch up.
Actionable tip: When I play a new piece, I normally ‘super slow down’ the tempo until I master the entire piece. When I say ‘super slow down’, if for example, the tempo is 80, then I slow down to maybe 20 or 30.
This method allows my eyes to read all notes and my fingers to get used to the pattern (this is muscle memory – more on this in tip 24). Only when I’m confident enough do I turn on the metronome and follow the proper tempo.
10. Break it down - practice by section, by voice, or by page
The most common way of practicing is by playing a piece from top to bottom. However, one look at it should tell you whether it’s complicated or not. If you think you can play the song from beginning to end without any problems then feel free to do so.
Actionable tip: Work on the melody of the song first, then work your way towards the other voices. Master each of these individual voices before you play all the notes together.
11. Work on the difficult sections first
I prefer this method of dealing with the difficult parts first as opposed to making myself feel good by only playing the easy parts.
Overcoming the challenging part first really feels good afterwards so when you combine it with the easy parts, then you will feel a rush of satisfaction and euphoria (at least I do). Sometimes it even makes me say out loud, “Yes, I did it!”.
Actionable tip: Identify the difficult parts in the sheet music. Don’t just eyeball it. Use your pencil to highlight these parts so you can target and work on it first. When you play the whole piece from start to end, you will notice yourself paying more attention to the highlighted parts to avoid making a mistake.
12. Don’t hesitate to mark your sheet music
If there’s some particularly tricky notes in your music sheet and you want to highlight something, use your pencil to mark it. You can always erase it later on when you’ve perfected that section.
Having an eraser on hand prevents your sheet music from looking like a piece of art with drawings on it.
Actionable tip: Don’t ever forget to have your pencil and eraser nearby when you practice. It’s come in handy too many times for me to count. It helps me avoid making the same mistakes over and over and it also allows me to make the most of each practice session.
13. Focus, focus, and focus
Make sure to focus on whatever it is you are practicing on. Even if you have already removed all possible sources of distraction within your practice area, your mind can still wander off.
In that case, just snap yourself back into the task at hand.
FOCUS! Or you’ll just end up wasting your time.
Actionable tip: Talk to yourself. I do this all the time and it works like a charm. I talk to myself in a loud voice and shout, “FOCUS, ANGELA!” There are also other methods you can try. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works for you.
14. Take breaks
When you start feeling frustrated that you can’t seem to hit the right notes or keys, take a break to clear your head.
Alternatively, you can also take a break after you have played a piece successfully.It depends on you really. But taking breaks are important. A change of scenery can do wonders for your piano practice.
Actionable tip: Taking short breaks help clear your head and reduce the build-up of frustration. Be careful not to take too many breaks, however, or it could ruin your practice momentum (if you have any) or distract yourself from the task at hand.
15. Fix your mistakes
Even the most expert pianists make mistakes from time to time so it’s really nothing to be ashamed of. Fixing your mistake before it becomes embedded in your muscle memory is crucial as your hands could get used to playing the wrong notes. Trust me, it will be much more difficult to correct it later on.
Actionable tip: Don’t let yourself commit your mistakes to memory. One way of making sure this doesn’t happen is by using tip no. 12: mark the section(s) you find difficult and work on it until you get it right.
16. Update your practice journal
After you’ve finished practicing, take the time to update your practice journal with your progress and if your daily goal had been met.
You can also write down what your goals are for the next practice session so you have a target to achieve the following day.
Actionable tip: Always keep your practice journal nearby so you can do your updating and note taking when everything that transpired during practice is still fresh in your mind.
17. Seek advice if some sections are too complicated
You are bound to run into this problem especially if you are teaching yourself how to play the piano. If you’ve got some sections or music concepts you’re not entirely sure about, get advice from other pianists.
Actionable tip: You can find other pianists in your local music clubs, in online forums or social media. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask, most pianists are helpful people. 🙂
18. Practicing consistently is important.
When I first started learning piano (when I started seriously getting interested, I mean), I practiced every day.
I practiced once, twice or even thrice a day, every single day. I was pretty motivated to learn and I found it addicting to be honest.
If you cannot practice everyday, try to at least have a consistent schedule such as practicing every other day or for instance every Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays. Whatever works for you. But whatever you have decided on, stick to it and follow your schedule religiously.
Actionable tip: A practice journal would again come in handy at this point. You can even make your own practice calendar and use it in conjunction with your journal. You can print a calendar template off the Internet or use your phone’s calendar system to set an alarm so you don’t forget your practice time.
19. Make practice a priority
If you make piano practice a priority in your schedule, then I promise you will see progress a lot sooner than you think. If, for whatever reason, you miss your scheduled practice, then I highly encourage you to have a make-up session; preferably in the same day so you don’t technically miss anything.
Actionable tip: On days when I am extremely busy, I squeeze in 10-15 minutes of practice time. To make the most of this quick practice, I only work on the most difficult sections; doing this a few times help ensure the patterns get embedded in my brain and muscle memory.
20. Don’t ignore your practice reminder!
If you set an alarm to practice at 6pm everyday, then be ready to practice at 6pm (or a few minutes after that). If you ignore your alarm or reminder, chances are you may forget about it and you’ll end up neglecting your scheduled practice.
Actionable tip: DO NOT ignore your practice reminder. After all, you set your reminder yourself. Make sure you follow your schedule.
21. Stop procrastinating!
I confess I used to procrastinate a lot. Especially when I know a difficult music piece is coming up next on my practice calendar. I will try to delay and keep myself “busy” with other activities until I finally “forget” and decide not to practice. I read a lot of self-help books to help me overcome this really bad attitude. I still battle with it from time to time but for the most part I am able to control this behavior.
Actionable tip: If you suffer from procrastination, the first thing to do is RECOGNIZE it. Then you can get help by getting advice from people who have overcome this behavior. Finally, adopt a strategy that will work for you and help you kick this bad habit to the curb so you can practice your piano without further delaying tactics.
22. Practice after every lesson
If you attend piano classes, or have a piano teacher, then this tip is for you. Practicing after every lesson will help you learn faster because whatever has been taught to you is still fresh in your mind.
Actionable tip: Take notes during your lesson so you can anticipate and know exactly what you are going to practice on when you get home.
23. Don’t forget to track your progress
If you regularly update your practice journal, then you are already tracking your progress. It’s a very rewarding feeling to see how far you’ve come and how much you’ve achieved since you started.
Actionable tip: Make sure you update your practice journal after every practice. That’s what the journal is for, after all! When you’ve written several entries you will see just how useful and rewarding it is to know how much you have learned.
24. Muscle memory
One of the most important tips on how to practice piano effectively is to develop muscle memory -- you do something often enough and your muscles will know what to do without putting too much thought into it.
This involuntary skill is useful in many different fields of sports and music. In playing piano, muscle memory plays a significant role whether you play music by ear or if you read music sheets.
In my case, I only read music (that means I can’t play by ear) and I have long determined that the more I practice a piece of music, the easier it gets for me to play it. Once I become familiar with a piece, my fingers seem to have a life on their own — they already know where they’re going to press next.
The key to making sure muscle memory helps you perfect your music is ensuring you get the sequence right. After all, if your muscles remember a faulty sequence then it could prove difficult correcting it later on as your fingers will automatically press the wrong notes or keys.
Use muscle memory to your advantage to help you play more songs better!
Actionable tip: Practice frequently and make sure you are hitting the right notes when you practice so your brain and fingers ‘record’ the correct pattern. You will eventually find yourself playing the same sequence faster and more naturally than ever before.
25. Ask a friend or family member to listen to you play.
While a recorder does a great job of letting you listen to what you practiced, and gain insight as to where you need to improve, another pair of ears may give you feedback different to yours.
Maybe you sound good enough to yourself, but another person may say you sounded off key on some notes.
Of course, hearing praise and positive comments from someone whose opinion you value is a wonderful motivation!
Actionable tip: Don’t be shy! Talk to a friend or family member and ask them to hear you play. I personally think hearing criticism from friends and loved ones is always better (and less painful) than hearing it from strangers.
26. Be very patient
Mastering any instrument takes time, and the piano is no different. It may take you anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to master the basics and then a few more months to start playing a song from start to finish (this would of course depend on the difficulty of the piece).
If you are determined to put in the work and the time to succeed at playing, then chances are you are going to succeed.
Actionable tip: Everytime you start feeling frustrated, take a deep breath and remember why you are practicing. You can also try counting slowly from 1 to 10 and visualizing your goal. For example, if your goal is to play in front of thousands of people and be recognized for your musical talent, then imprint that on your mind. Recall that image whenever you feel that you’re not progressing quickly enough.
27. Reward yourself!
I find that rewarding myself after practicing a particularly difficult piece feels very satisfying. I usually treat myself to something special like my favorite ice cream or a massage.
Do the same for yourself. You’ve done the hard work - it’s time to reward yourself for a job well done!
Actionable tip: Think of something you would love to do but rarely find the time to do so. Then use it as an inspiration when practicing. When you finally perfect the song you’ve been working on, then by all means reward yourself! You deserve it.
28. Socialize with other pianists
Surrounding yourself with like-minded people can be a source of motivation and inspiration for you.If there’s a piece of music that’s proving too difficult for you, you can ask them for help. If you want someone to provide positive criticism and actually give you useful suggestions on how to improve, then these friends will be more than willing to help you.
Try socializing with other pianists and see where that takes you.
Actionable tip: The best way to socialize is still by physical interaction (for me at least) but nowadays you can easily connect with other piano students in online forums and social media.
Online or offline, do not be afraid to reach out – you just might be surprised at how fast you’ll gain like-minded friends.
29. Enjoy practicing
There will be instances when you will feel frustrated. That’s okay, that’s actually pretty normal. Just take a break to clear your head. Don’t allow your frustrations to build up. Remember, mastering the piano does not happen overnight. It will take time. Just make sure you enjoy your practice time and have fun!
Actionable tip: Make practice time enjoyable. What I usually do when I start getting bored or frustrated is I sing while playing. And what I mean by singing is actually making up some funny lyrics to make myself laugh or singing at the top of my lungs (I only do this when I know no one can hear me).
30. Continue to challenge yourself
As you practice and master a variety of music, always seek to move forward and encourage yourself to learn more complicated pieces. Don’t be complacent with what you already know — always endeavor to study more and improve.
Actionable tip: There are plenty of websites on the Internet that sell musical sheets for all kinds of music – from the classics to the most recent chart topping songs. Test yourself and impress everyone around you by playing something new!
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