We live in a distracted age, where focus can be as fleeting as the obedient dog who loses it when he sees a squirrel in his peripheral vision. Music is a place where multitasking just doesn’t work, so it makes sense that it might be a good focusing tool for children. Music activates brain cells on both sides of the brain. Parents have to love that fact, but the child just wants to have fun. Is it possible to have fun while giving the brain a healthy workout? In my experience, the answer is a resound yes!
Let’s face it: Kids don’t always like doing structured activities, even if they are (hopefully) fun like the piano. Establishing good practice habits takes time, and parental involvement is going to be key especially for younger students. However, practice becomes self-sustaining for kids who really enjoy playing the piano. If you’re looking for some inspiration for getting your kids to practice, please visit the monthly practice corner posts I write each month for my Piano Parents.
This post was inspired by two online articles I came across in my reading. The article about practice from UC Berkeley is not specifically about music, although it applies well to it. I was most encouraged by the experiment that showed how kids as young as six and seven are able to grasp the concept of deliberate practice! The NY Times piece is a guide to parents to limiting their kids’ tech, by age. Limiting tech time is a good opportunity to insert the great focusing tool of music!
When I write my monthly practice corner article, I typically think about the struggles my students face in their learning. In many cases, I struggled with the same issues when I was a piano student. However, not in this case, since sight reading always came very easy to me. I began piano at age 9, which probably helped. Students who begin later tend to grasp the concepts in note reading a lot more quickly than their younger counterparts. However, both younger and older students often find note reading to be quite vexing. That’s why I make sight reading a priority in lessons!
What exactly is sight reading? Simply put, it’s the ability to quickly grasp what’s important in a musical score, and translate that to the piano on the first try. A great parallel would be to how well a student learns good reading comprehension. It’s important to be able to read a passage of text to summarize the main points while not getting bogged down by details.
Sight reading in music is just a first step. It’s great to quickly grasp what’s on the page, but it’s another to make a music from it. Often, there are technical difficulties to be worked out, plus lots of nuances that can only be worked out by lots of practice. Plus, in certain styles of playing, like jazz and pop, sometimes only the bare essentials are notated. It’s up to the student to know the correct style of playing, manipulate the chords, and do a lot of listening to be successful.
How to Learn It
Now that we’ve identified what sight reading is and its role in playing piano, how do you best learn it? Music educators have learned that using landmarks (memory notes) and intervals to be the best method, long term. If you learned piano back in the dark ages, like when I did, your teacher would have typically used a middle-C based book. I bet you remember these books, where your thumbs were constantly fighting for middle C! You would have been drilled on mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine, for the lines on the treble clef, and the acronym FACE for the spaces. It sounds great, right?
However, going back to the analogy with book reading: How effective would you be if you had to speak the alphabet every time you see a new word? As a kindergartner, it might work fine, but it would hinder a second grader! I’ve had an early intermediate student who cannot start a new piece without consulting that every good boy nonsense. I never taught this method; it’s something he learned from a former teacher several years ago.
The primary method books I use, the Music Tree and Piano Safari, both have regular sight-reading as part of the curriculum. I often use the Piano Safari sight reading cards even with students of different method books. They are helpful in developing good note-reading techniques. As a student progresses, he learns new landmarks, which cover all of the Cs up and down the staff, in addition to the Gs on the treble/G-clef and the Fs on the bass/F-clef. He then uses the small intervals like 2nds through 5ths to identify notes that are above or below those fixed landmarks.
I also have a student transpose certain pieces when she gets into the late beginner level. Once she plays a piece in one key, I ask her to play it in a different keys. What I don’t tell her is that she is simultaneously learning how to read new clefs! That’s really helpful, since we as pianists often have to play with other instruments. Some of these instruments transpose (like the trumpet or clarinet) or don’t transpose but read in different clefs (like the viola and cello). You can’t work at your best with these musicians if you’re stuck trying to determine whether every good boy does fine!
Another benefit of being a good sight reader is to hear music without playing it. When I open a score, the music pops off the page. This has enormous implications when learning new music, shopping for new scores, and even for determining which pieces to program. I can quickly find pieces that will work for a particular occasion by scanning them with my eyes, not needing to sit down at a piano.
Now you know why I make sight reading a priority. It’s one of those skills that every teacher needs to nurture, and remediate when the level is not up to par. As a teacher, I can only do so much to instruct the best method for note reading. It’s up to the student to practice the skill on his own. If a student is young, it’s up to the parent to help the student establish the skill. Note reading isn’t everything, but it is a really big thing!
Last Updated 2020-02-05 | Originally Posted 2020-02-04
When I was thinking of a topic to discuss for January, I kept coming back to “your playing reflects your practice.” I witnessed lots of student performances in the past month, and had some of my own. Each of those performances was the product of weeks or even months of practice time. To a large degree, the level of success in each performance was determined at home, by practice. Sure, lessons help, as does a certain amount of innate ability. However, as one sage college professor recently said to me about semester-ending juries: The kids that practiced hard did well, and those that didn’t, didn’t! Let’s look a bit more into the relationship between playing and practice.
Time and Attention Are Important
The amount of practice per day is where I start the conversation with students and their parents. There is a certain natural and practical limit per person, adults included! By natural limit I’m referring to the amount of time that a person can focus. Past that limit, practice time is largely wasted. For a very young child, that may be just 10 minutes, whereas for a teen or adult, it might be measured in hours. Some practice days will be better than others, and that’s just, well, natural!
The practical limit refers to allocation of time. Even though a teen might easily focus for an hour, he may have to stop at 30 minutes, in order to get a host of other things done before the next day. When a child has lots of activities, it’s good to see if there is enough time available to practice. If there isn’t enough time in the schedule, the family has to take a serious look at what needs to be cut. Regrettably, sometimes piano is the activity to be cut.
It goes without saying that frequency is also important, but it really needs to be considered separately from time available. For a younger child, a small amount of time per day with daily frequency is the best solution. As students get older, and get more variability in their after-school schedule, practice frequency will need to fluctuate. That older student might be able to get her work done in just three to four days per week, as long as practice time is increased. My schedule is even more extreme than that, since I typically only practice two or three days per week, but can be efficient for hours each time.
I make sure my students have plenty of time to learn a piece for a festival or recital, and I do the same for my own performing. If I have a recital coming up in a month or two, I try to get a jump on my practicing, because I cannot afford to get behind. For students, this generally doesn’t present much of a problem, unless a student gets into a multi-week practice rut. Sometimes there’s not much to be done when that happens, though regular checkpoints can help to identify the issue.
I can give a very good example of last-minute preparation, from my own experience. I performed a piece on the organ where most of the notes were played correctly, but there was a serious lack of musicianship. I was performing in a musical style rather foreign to me, and I didn’t understand the larger form of the piece as well as I should have. There were lots of nuances that went unexpressed, trills that weren’t well planned, and the registration was not varied enough. When you leave the note learning to the end, you don’t get the gift of time. Our brains often process our learning when we are doing other things, and gift us with new insights at the next practice session.
Your playing reflects your practice. No shortcuts! I’m reminded about what Stephen Covey said about the Law of the Farm. If you don’t prepare the land, plant the seeds, water, and fertilize, you won’t have a crop to harvest. Our work really isn’t much different. Cramming doesn’t work well for musicians. Take my warning from the paragraph above. Music needs time to germinate in the brain between practice sessions, just like plants need time in the fields. An impartial observer at a recital or concert will never know how much time went into preparing for a music performance. However, I assure you that there is no magic involved!
Gotcha! There is no such thing as memory magic. Yet, some students often treat memory as something that’s just going to happen, because it always has before. As a student progresses, pieces get longer, more difficult, and trickier to memorize. Thus, form study, key/chord analysis, and visualization are just three ways to provide a multi-layer approach to memorization that repetition alone cannot provide.
Form study simply means looking at the big picture. This is often done better away from the keyboard, pencil on score. I’ve attached a score study from the first movement of Lynn Freeman Olson’s Sonatina No. 5 1, a piece that has become a right-of-passage for many of my late beginners. What makes this first movement tricky is that the A theme returns twice, each time in a different, abbreviated way. Analyzed using letters, it’s A-B-A-C-A-Coda, which is rondo form, not typical sonata form. I’ve heard students do all sorts of crazy things once they get lost! Knowing the order of the sections and how the A theme changes each time is key!
The key analysis goes hand in hand with the form, yet it makes sense to also separate it for study. In the movement I analyzed, the starting key is D Major. The B section is in D minor, then cadences back into D Major for the second iteration of A. The C theme is in G Major. It, too, cadences back into D Major for the final appearance of the A theme.
Chord analysis is a way to look at what’s happening inside each section. I’ll look at just the B section. It starts in D minor, with tonic and dominant chords in alternation. It briefly moves to E minor, with tonic and dominant chords in similar alternation, that then cadences on a dominant chord that leads back into the A section in D major. These details help firm up the finger and aural memory that naturally develop during repetition.
By visualization, I mean playing the piece through in your mind. Even though I’ve never sat down to practice this movement, I could play it almost perfectly just because I’ve heard it enough, and done the analysis described above. As I just played this movement through in my mind, I realized a bit of blurriness in the coda. Even before looking at the score, I slowed down that passage, and now I’m confident that I do know those notes. I refer to this as musical meditation. You could sit in a chair, or even lay down on a bed to do this. You could even do it as sleepy-time practice – and don’t worry if you fall asleep before you get to the end. The true memory magic might happen without any effort from you!
When memorizing music, it’s important to obviously know it well from the score. However, repetition alone makes for a risky performance, since the tactile and aural memory is easily thrown if you wander onto the wrong keys. By looking at the form, keys/chords, and by practicing the piece away from the keyboard, you increase the chances that you will have a memory secure performance, or at least can get back on track quickly. That’s where you find the real memory magic!
Music is inherently difficult, because there is no such thing as a perfect performance. When learning a new piece, it’s routine to get to the point where everything sort of works, but it’s still not great. I’m not just talking about my students, but in my own playing, too. I call this place the 80% malaise. It often takes extra practice to take care of troublesome technical passages or to make sure that everything is in place musically. It just doesn’t happen on its own. You have to be purposeful to make those refinements.
A Teacher Helps
Students have that built-in helper: their teacher. She will point out all of the places that have potential to be better. It could be little stops and starts, unclear phrases, lack of dynamic contrasts, among other things. However, in order to take advantage of those tips, it’s crucial for the student to practice within a day or so after the lesson. If there isn’t an instrument available, notate the score or write down the places where you have to focus, when you do get back to a piano.
But You Still Must Do the Work
When this doesn’t happen, and the student comes back playing the same way, with the same issues, it puts the teacher in a bind. Does he take the time to explain all of these things again, as patiently as possible? Or, does he just move on, since there is always lots to do in a lesson? While I always give the student my best, I do realize at a point that not all students are striving to be excellent. Some are just satisfied with good enough.
When I train my athletes, it’s a dictatorship with three rules: show up, work hard, and listen. If you can do those three things, I can help you. If you can’t we have no use for each other. I will bust my a** for you every way possible, but I expect you to do the same for yourself. I’m not going to work harder than you do for your benefit. Show me you want it, and I’ll give it to you.
Tim Grover, trainer to elite NBA athletes, including Michael Jordan 1
Try A Digital Audio Recorder
A good digital recorder can be helpful to both students and professionals alike. You might say that you have one built into your phone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t serve much use due to its poor fidelity. The Zoom brand is widely used among serious musicians, and you can get the base model for $200 or less. A generation ago, the Sony Professional Walkman cost far more than this, and that’s before adjusting for inflation. Listening to yourself while not playing can give you an unbiased perspective that you can’t get any other way.
Even though it’s true that we’ll never be perfect, striving to be better is always worth the effort. There’s lots of guidance on that score to get you closer to musical nirvana, and you might have a teacher to give you that extra boost. In the end, it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to do the hard work that makes our listeners sit up in our seats, or just looking around waiting for the performance to end.
When I sit down to practice, I usually set a practice goal. The practice goal is pretty clear when it’s a piece that I have to learn or review to play the next day. Often, the practice goal may be less clear when my bunch of pieces are in different states of readiness. Plus, they may be scheduled to be performed at different times. As a church organist, there’s a weekly requirement to have new music ready. Don’t feel sorry for me – I have a lot of experience doing this, and it’s pretty automatic. My students, however, may be beginners at this, or at most just a few years of figuring out what to do at the piano. For that reason, I hope to help all my students set a practice goal each time they sit on the piano bench.
What Does Practice Look Like?
For the beginning pianist, practice is going to be pretty straight forward. Read through all of the pieces in the assignment, and then repeat, maybe several times. There may be the need to play slow at first, or to stop to figure out the notes. However, covering a bunch of pieces, each just 4 to 8 measure long, isn’t an issue. If the beginner happens to be a young child, help from the parents to ensure good, consistent practice sessions is important. I talk about how a parent can assist in practice in more depth in this post.
Even a later beginner or early intermediate student will face repertoire that can’t be fully practiced in one sitting. Sometimes, it’s good to just work on part of it, and come back the next day to review and add more measures. Certainly, the number of pieces assigned diminishes, but the length per piece increases. This adjustment happens as students transition out of method books and into real piano repertoire. If there is a need to learn a piece in sections, I recommend using little pencil marks in the music to indicate how far you got. It could just be an X, or it could be a date stamp like 10/1. I sometimes leave a few of these before erasing them, just to see how conscientious I’ve been in making progress. It can also help to use the assignment book to make practice notes and questions to ask your teacher.
Practice Also Includes Activities (Theory)
Many of my students forget to budget time to do their activity pages. It’s more difficult since this practice occurs at a table or desk, and not at the piano. Doing a little bit each day is best, but might not be practical. However, doing it all at once, waiting until the last possible moment, is not good. I suggest that doing it two or three times spread throughout the week is a good compromise. These coordinated assignments are invaluable in learning new concepts that appear in sheet music. Theory helps the student to become a well-rounded musician, not just someone playing notes from the page.
Have I captured this well?
It’s really easy for me to preach practice goals, since my time is not invested in making this happen at home. However, I hope that I can provide the support and guidance you need, no matter where you are in your piano journey. Certainly doing a little bit each day, moving forward bit by bit, is going to get you far when weeks become months become years. Let me know if you have any questions, or if I could state any of this better!
Since piano parents are my best audience for helping guide my piano students, I wanted to give them something concrete. As a result, I posted a version of what I discuss below in my monthly studio newsletter. However, I’d also like to share these same tips with a larger audience. During the summer, I had the chance to read a lot through several Facebook piano teachers groups to which I belong. One of these groups has a book club that started reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Although this is not specifically a music book, Atomic Habits has many great ideas about how to build habits. I’m trying to adapt them to the habit of piano practice. One of his most interesting ideas applying to music is to create a motivation ritual to get to the piano bench.
The motivation ritual is simply a device that gets you to do something you want to do by tacking it onto something that you enjoy. If you want to get into the habit of doing a morning devotional, connect it with some kickoff activity. The kickoff activity could be preparing a cup of coffee, tea, or pouring a glass of water, plus preparing the coffee table. You sit down, beverage in hand, with your books nearby, so why not start reading?
You can create a motivation ritual for piano practice as well. That’s important since one of the biggest obstacles to progress is lack of practice. Even the site of the piano bench can become an object of guilt. If starting is an issue, then create a motivation ritual that gets you to sit down on that piano bench. It could be to sight-read a new Andrea Dow piece, or something from a pop book you like, regardless of whether it’s part of your lesson assignment. You could also play through some of your favorite previously-learned repertoire. If you’re especially stressed out or tired, maybe you just choose to listen to some music, seated at the piano.
The beauty of the motivation ritual is that it makes the difficult habit possible, without being heavy handed. There may be some days where practice doesn’t follow the kickoff activity, which got you to the bench in the first place. But, on other days, practice does follow. That practice may not have occurred if you didn’t start with some something that helped you ease into it.
Let me know!
If this approach appeals to you, give it a try. Let me know what you try, and how it works out for you!
One of the challenges of learning new music is that there are literally so many notes. When I look back on the four Chopin Scherzi that I learned anew (2) and relearned (2) this year, that’s 82 pages of printed music. When organizing, musicians usually think in measures. Even using measures, there are 967 measures in the 12-minute Fourth Scherzo. How do you tackle pieces that are so daunting in length? Keep pushing forward.
There are plenty of metaphors out there about facing Goliath, an 800-pound gorilla or a large elephant, but the concept is the same: Take small bites. I write in pencil a small date/time code to identify my latest stopping point. It’s something that I did years ago when reading books, mainly because I constantly lost bookmarks. My goal in each practice session is to move forward from that spot about 50 measures or so. Of course, I have to loop back to practice difficult spots earlier on, but I have to always keep pushing forward!
One thing that I’m careful to do on longer pieces is to front-load learning. Tackle the difficult parts first, then leave the easy stuff for the end. Even though each Chopin Scherzo has very different musical themes, the construction is remarkably similar. I start with the the measures from the beginning through to the beginning of the middle section. Then, I skip forward to the coda (at the end), which tends to have some new material that is typically indicated at a rapid tempo. Once done there, I make my way back through the recapitulation, which lay between the middle section and the coda. Then, after all that hard work, I get to learn the middle section, which is almost like the ice cream or cake at the end of the meal!
In addition, I’ve also sometimes used a practice notebook, much like the spiral notebook I ask my students to use for their lessons. Lately, however, I just make my practice notes in Trello. It’s really helpful to have some type of journal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s written or electronic, as long as its consistently used. The more music I have to learn, the more organized I have to be. Using the traffic light colors alerts me to how well I’m doing. I use five colors: red, orange, yellow, blue, and green to indicate my progress on each piece.
I’m sometimes jealous of my school-aged students, who have regular practice routines built into their schedules. I practice when I’m already around a piano. That’s typically after teaching or after my work at the church. I do have a very good Yamaha U1 48-inch upright at home, but I almost always find something else to do at home. Sometimes it’s good to be somewhere that you have limited distractions!
I wasn’t looking to buy a piano. Really! But I bought a piano anyway. The interest was sparked by a piano parent who was searching for an acoustic piano. But I was surprised when she emailed me an advertisement for a 48-inch Yamaha U1 upright, built in 1977. This is a top-of-the-line upright, which Yamaha continues to make in Japan, along with their tallest model, the 52-inch U3. They offshored production of all of their shorter uprights decades ago.
When it was clear that my piano parent was pursuing pianos in a much lower price range, I made the call. It’s tough to fairly evaluate resale prices for used instruments, but I knew that the asking price was correct if the instrument was in excellent condition. However, even well-loved instruments can develop issues requiring significant rework, so I didn’t want to take any chances.
I hired my preferred tuner to do an analysis of the instrument, since a $60 fee was well worth saving hundreds or even more if I chose poorly. I have to be realistic that this might be the last instrument that I purchase. Yes, I’d still love to have a Steinway B or Mason & Hamlin BB, but this is a practical decision for now.
Everything worked out, and I was able to find a new owner for my Knabe spinet that is old enough to have ivory key covers. It was a gift to me, so it is now a gift to a new piano parent. I never loved this piano, but that’s more a reflection on me than it; I have better instruments available to practice where I work. It still has more to give, and I hope it will be appreciated for years to come.
Adopt a new-to-you upright of your choice. You won’t be disappointed!
I was practicing after teaching this week, something I do whenever I have the chance. When learning new pieces, I sometimes find it difficult to get started. Once I get started, it’s sometimes difficult to keep making progress. Such was the case in trying to get through the entire Chopin Scherzo No. 2. It’s a new piece for me, with 780 measures over 23 pages that I’ll perform as a church postlude on February 10th.
It was really tempting to just practice the portions that I already knew, versus getting further into the piece as I must. One of the techniques I use is to mark the date at the furthest point that I have practiced. Then, I use that endpoint as a starting point for the next practice session. What was frustrating this particular evening was that I really needed to move forward quite a bit to stay on my timeline. And I was having a hard time doing it.
That’s when it dawned on me…was this fear or laziness? Or a combination of both? My particular challenge is one that I set for myself. I decided a while ago to commit to learning lots of difficult new music on both the piano and organ. Even if I’m the only one who knows I didn’t do my best, it bothers me.
I’m in good shape right now on that piece, and on the other pieces that are upcoming. But that will only remain true if I keep remembering to battle these two foes, fear and laziness, by continuing to push forward each time I practice!
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