How to Practice a Song

Potluck Creative Arts Lesson LineSimply Music

For the last few Lesson Line pieces, I’ve focused on some “big picture” ideas with the hope of helping you develop a constructive way of thinking about lessons and practice in general. Since all of that relies on getting each individual song as smooth as possible right from the start, let’s zoom in now and take a look at how you can best approach practicing each song.

I’m going to describe a basic approach for practicing Foundation pieces. Though some details would need to be modified for projects from certain supplementary programs, this basic approach provides a solid foundation for practicing any new piece.

With this approach, you’ll start away from the keyboard and gradually work toward actual keyboard performance. It may seem odd to go through so many steps before actually playing at the keyboard, but you’ll only be doing this in the first stages of learning a song. Further, you’ll be using the keyboard with each part of each song, so you’ll never be away from the keyboard for long.

For certain songs, it might make sense to do some of these steps in a different order from what’s described below, or maybe to not do some of the steps at all. There’s no one right way to practice that can be applied perfectly and specifically to every single song. For the most part, though, the more you use these learning tools in the way described here, the stronger and faster you’ll tend to learn each of your songs.

  1. CD: When you first get a set of Foundation Student Home Materials (SHM), begin listening to the CD. Never try to figure out the songs on your own from the CD — wait and do them according to instructions from lessons and the other SHM — but feel free to listen as often as you like. Hearing these recordings puts the “destination” in your head, helping you develop a sort of compass that will subconsciously guide your practicing to a smooth and even end result.
  2. Lesson and review: After a song is taught during your lesson, go over what you learned on your way home — describe it out loud to someone, or if there’s nobody else to listen to you, talk to yourself.
  3. DVD and Reference Book: At practice time, get the DVD from your SHM and start watching, using the Reference Book along with it according to instructions. Start with a single chapter, or if a whole chapter is too much to bite off at once, work on only however big a first bit of the chapter you’re able to. For whatever piece you’ve bitten off, as small as you need it to be but no larger than a single video chapter, review that portion of the DVD as often as you need while you go through as much of the following foundational hands-on practice approach as is possible and relevant:
    1. Vocalize: Throughout all the below hands-on steps, and until each given part you’re working on is fairly effortless for you to play, there are two ways you should use your voice. These will really help strengthen the necessary connections and reinforce all that you’re doing with your hands and fingers:
      • Say your instructions: If the part of the piece you’re working on has any instructions you can say out loud while you play — e.g., “together-right,” “1 2 and 3 and 4” — say them while you practice.
      • The “external speaker”: Especially in the earlier steps where you’re not hearing an instrument make music, and especially in cases where there are no instructions to say out loud, sing along as your fingers go through their motions. Consider your voice to be the instruments’ “external speaker,” letting you hear the music even though it’s not coming from the piano or the speakers in an electronic keyboard.
    2. Touch: When working on what a single hand will play, use the fingers of your other hand to point to the fingers you’ll use to play the part you’re working on. Control the events carefully to get it right each time. Only once you’re fairly comfortable, move on.
    3. Motion: Put your hands on your lap, or the back of a mounted practice pad, or a tabletop, etc., and play the pattern as if you were at a keyboard. Control the events carefully to get it right each time. Only once you’re fairly comfortable, move on.
    4. Visuals: Move to the practice pad and play the pattern, focusing carefully on keeping your fingers on the correct keys. Control the events carefully to get it right each time. Only once you’re fairly comfortable, move on.
    5. Three-dimensional touch: If you have an electronic keyboard, keep it turned off, get your hands in the correct position, and play the pattern. Control the events carefully to get it right each time. Only once you’re fairly comfortable, move on.
    6. Sound: Now try it at the piano or powered-on electric keyboard.
      • Control the events carefully to get it right each time.
      • Use your ear to double-check your progress. If something sounds wrong, go back to the instructions and any previous steps to get on track. If everything sounds right, remind yourself of the instructions and strategies you’ve used so far and keep controlling the events.
      • Only once you’re fairly comfortable, move on by going onto the next chapter or part of a chapter and doing this whole process over again.
  4. Daily practice: Once you’ve gotten through the entire song using the above process, continue to practice the song on a daily basis. It’s normal if you play very slowly. It’s normal if you need to take pauses at various points while you play. It’s normal if you find you want to go back to any of the above elements of the learning process. Keep practicing regularly, controlling the events carefully each time.
  5. Play for fluency: Once you can:
    • Put your hands immediately in the correct position to begin the song.
    • Start playing the song right away once in the correct position.
    • Play the song smoothly and evenly through the end.

    … you no longer need to keep working on the song as part of your daily practice routine. You know how to play it now. The song is “alive.” You’ve added it to your growing repertoire, and you can enjoy playing it anytime you sit down at a keyboard. If you can’t yet play it as fast as the CD, that’s okay. If it’s not yet totally second nature, that’s okay. These things will come in time as you continue to play the song on a regular basis, often enough to keep it alive.

  6. Play for musicality: Once you’re fluent with the song, i.e., it is up to the speed of the recording and fairly effortless, begin to pay extra attention to the finer points of your performance. Think about volume, speed and other ways you can bring new levels of musical expression to playing the piece.

Two important things to notice about this approach:

  • You use all the appropriate SHMs. The Music Book is irrelevant because that comes in only with the reading programs later on. The Notes Book and Playlist are used for managing your overall practice routine, so in terms of learning any particular song, they are also irrelevant — I’ll discuss overall practice management in a future piece. All the other materials, though, came into play — the CD, the DVD, the Reference Book, the practice pad. They each play an important role, and they all work together to achieve the results we’re after.
  • See how many times you were instructed to control the events carefully to get it right each time? See how many times you were instructed to only move on once you were fairly comfortable with what you were working on? When you go slowly, slowly, slowly, you learn the song as quickly and as well as possible. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true.

Want confirmation that you’ve learned a piece really well? Try to play it in the wrong position. This might not always be possible with songs that have black notes because of how those notes are laid out on the keyboard. But with some such songs and with any song that uses only white notes, you should be able to play your song with all the correct fingering even in a different position, even if the song ends up sounding different or weird or even terrible because of the position change. Try this on a practice pad or a turned-off electronic keyboard — and also with an instrument making sound. If you can play through the piece easily despite the changes, you’ll really know that you’ve got it. You may even want to deliberately learn/practice/play pieces in the wrong place on the keyboard in order to reinforce the learning strategies.

You might find that some of these steps seem tedious. Maybe so, but it’ll take you longer to learn your songs without them, so really, is it more tedious to use them or to avoid them?

You might find that some of these steps are difficult, particularly the use of the practice pad. The harder time you have using the practice pad, the more you’ve gotten away with learning songs without really using the learning strategies provided. Put the time into getting comfortable with the practice pad, and you’ll be that much better equipped for some of the more advanced material later in the curriculum.

You might find yourself using the DVD and/or the Reference Book fairly little. If you do and you’re still able to learn the songs, you’re definitely overusing some of your musicals tools, e.g., your ear, your memory, etc. Again, put the time into the above approach so you can learn the curriculum’s learning strategies, and you’ll serve yourself very well for advanced material later on.

You might find yourself forgetting to use the CD or just not listening to it because you don’t think it’s important. If you do, there’s a good chance that even once you’ve gotten all the fingering accurate, the song still won’t sound quite right, and you’ll have a hard time getting it to click into place. Listen to the CD and let it guide the accurate fingering into a smooth and even performance that sounds like the song you’re striving for.

Fail to use all these materials and techniques, and you’ll likely find yourself playing too fast, playing unevenly, making mistakes including repeating the same ones over and over, unable to play through mistakes and going back to the beginning of the song instead, hitting keys until you think you’ve got a right note instead of correcting yourself properly, forgetting songs, getting frustrated with practicing, etc. Use these materials and techniques, though, and you’ll be learning your songs quickly and well — and having a positive practice experience along the way.

Further, as much as it seems like all this may be a huge deal when you read about it here, it turns out not to be. You work on each new song for only a few minutes each day. With this approach to practicing, you’ll learn the whole song in somewhere from a few days to a few weeks at most, staying at the keyboard only from that point on. With not too much more time after that, the song will be alive. Even a whole month at a few minutes a day for a given song adds up to a fairly small investment when the payoff is adding a whole new title to your repertoire. And once you get in the habit with this approach, practice itself will be almost as effortless as playing the songs you learn so well through your practicing.

2 comments for “How to Practice a Song

  1. Mia
    April 29, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Good article! I like these very detailed steps in learning a piece.

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