How to Practice: 10 Tips for New Pianists

A girl at the piano

Once students understand why practicing is necessary and how to get motivated to do it, students need to know what to do during a practice session. Many students take for granted that if they just play their pieces over and over that's enough to get better. This is never enough to bring a piece to performance level. Here are a few ideas to get a new student started practicing in a better way:

  1. Warm up before diving into your pieces. Many students forget that scales, arpeggios and other technical patterns are important tools to get your fingers and your brain ready to play. Make it fun by inventing new rhythmic patterns or challenging yourself to play at a fast tempo while staying steady, smooth and even. Take this time to focus on technical details like hand shape, posture and articulation.
  2. Play a piece while saying or singing the note names. If that is too hard you can say the note names while pointing at the notes on the page at first. This helps students become excellent note readers early on.
  3. Play a piece while counting. First count out loud for several days, then count in your head. If the rhythms are new or very tricky, begin by clapping the rhythms while counting out loud.
  4. Play while focusing on the interval shapes. Think to yourself up a 2nd, up a 3rd, down a 5th, etc.
  5. Take time to fix your mistakes. Focus in on the measure where the mistake happens, repeat that measure until you can play it 3 times in a row perfectly. Next put it in context, include the measures surrounding the mistake and then play the entire phrase. When you return to the song the next day, check the trouble spots before you play the piece.
  6. When pieces require hands playing at the same time, start by playing left hand alone, right hand alone, then hands together.
  7. Work backwards in small sections while learning a piece. We all have a tendency to start at the beginning and run through a piece in it's entirety. Instead take the last 4-8 measures first, then add the previous 4-8 measures continuing until you get back to the beginning. This way you give the end some extra practice time.
  8. Use a metronome. Coordinating with a machine may seem counterintuitive while working on art but it will help students be very precise with rhythms while learning so that once they know a piece they can keep that precision without being stiff and mechanical. To get used to it, start by playing scales. When you work on a piece, start at slow tempo; one where the piece can be played perfectly, without pauses. Once a tempo is mastered, students can speed it up. One way to do this is to go up by 5 clicks in each shift, another way is to go 10 clicks faster and then back 5 clicks slower (i.e. start at 90 move to 100 and then back to 95) continuing until you come to the final tempo.
  9. Remember to use your imagination. The reason you work on technique is so that you have the tools to make beautiful music. Make up a story or a picture in your head to go with the piece you are playing. It will make it more fun for you, and those listening will enjoy your performance more.
  10. Reward yourself! End a practice session playing your favorite piece. This will help you remember that your hard work will pay off.