When you first started lessons, you were told to practice for about 15-20 minutes each day at the same time each day. From around Level 4 or so onward, a little bit more time will be needed to continue to accomplish as much, perhaps about 30-35 minutes a day. Either way, this daily practice time is to be spent on current projects.
Current projects include any pieces you’re working at the piano, i.e., any pieces that aren’t yet or are no longer alive and thoughtless. They also include particular kinds of assignments not tracked on the Playlist, such as improvisations, composition projects that aren’t yet named or in their final state, reading assignments, etc.
When an assignment is given during your lessons, information is provided for your Notes Book. When it’s time for your your first practice session after the lesson, get out both your Notes Book and Playlist. Add to your Playlist any new pieces for working the piano, along with a pencil dot in the margin to indicate each new piece’s status as a current project. Make sure when practicing to always refer to both books, since the Notes Book can contain assignments not tracked on the Playlist, as well as occasional important advice on particular projects.
You already know the nuts and bolts of how to practice an individual piece. If, however, you were to follow that process with a piece from the beginning until the point where it comes alive and even becomes effortless, it would be far more than the length of a single day’s practice session. And if you did spend the necessary time all in one block, you’d end up having spent far more time than necessary in learning the piece. We learn best when putting in a small amount of time each day, consistently over the course of time. The practice process must be spread out from day to day.
This leads us to the key principle in managing the time you spend on current projects. Call it incrementalism, call it divide and conquer. The point is to put just a few minutes a day into each current project. Why? Diminishing returns. Beyond a certain point, doubling the amount of practice on a project in a given session doesn’t double the amount of progress. Put in too much time on a particular project, and you start losing focus. This causes you to make more mistakes — and if you keep going at that point, you start learning the mistakes. This is what we want to avoid at all costs.
Further, if you were to work on, say, a single current project each day, you’d be reducing your progress even beyond the issue of losing focus. With this scheme, you’re ensuring that any given project might go ignored for days at a time. In addition to the reduced progress you had from pushing the bounds of focus the last time you worked on that project, now you’re rusty at even what you did accomplish, simply because you’re, literally, out of practice with that project.
It’s okay in any given practice session if you don’t feel you’ve gotten very far with a particular project, if you feel you didn’t get to a point that feels satisfying or complete. It’s okay if you had left off the day before still working on one particular part and still haven’t mastered it in the few minutes you’ve allotted for it in today’s practice session. Spend just a few minutes a day on a current project, check it off on your Playlist, and move on, getting to each project each day. This will ensure that you’ll be making progress on all your current projects, and that little bit each day over the course of time adds up to a lot of progress.
Think, perhaps, of “striping” your practice time. The first few minutes of a day’s practice on one current project, the next few on another, and so on, and the same thing each day. It’s as if each project has its own stripe running across your calendar during your daily practice time. Some projects will need a longer stripe, running across more days than other projects, perhaps even across several weeks. Some people will need a longer stripe for the same project than other people will. For each person, each piece must come alive in its own time. There is no deadline by which any particular person needs to learn any particular piece.
There is, on the other hand, a deadline for each stripe, i.e., for each individual current project practiced on each day. It’s impossible to advise a very specific amount of time for each project during a day’s practice session, but perhaps 3-5 minutes is a good guideline for the most to spend at one stretch.
You will often be tempted to keep practicing a particular project for a longer time. Resist! If you need to, get a timer, and set it for a few minutes each time to let you know when to move onto another project.
If you’re desperate to give more time to a particular project on a given day, come back to it after finishing the rest of your practice. Even better, finish practicing and then take a break. Get a drink or a snack. Do something else for a little while. Then come back and give just another few minutes to that project.
When you give appropriate and effective attention to a current project, it will move through the process and come alive. Upon realizing that a song is alive, erase the pencil dot that was in the margin next to its name in your Playlist. This is why you used pencil for the dot in the first place — so you’d be able to erase the dot when the song stopped being a current project and became part of your repertoire.
Take a look at how you’re doing in terms of moving current projects through that process. At any given time, the ideal is to have a relatively small number of current projects. There’s no one right number, but with 3-5 minutes per project as a guideline, you could fit 3-7 current projects into 15-20 minutes, and 6-12 current projects into 30-35 minutes.
If you have more than these numbers of current projects, you might have to divide your time up so that you give a bit less time than usual to each project. You may find that you’re able to pull everything through — or you may find that the current project list continues to grow and that you’re not able to get out from under the piling up.
In such a situation, ask yourself if you’ve been practicing effectively up until now. Be honest with yourself. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time failing to practice as much or as efficiently as you should have, you’ll need to make up for lost time and catch up if you want to get on track. How to catch up after falling behind, whether from a vacation or any other situation involving a prolonged period of insufficient practice, will be the subject of another article somewhere down the line.
If you have practiced diligently from the start but still find yourself with a too-large number of current projects, then perhaps you are proceeding too quickly through the curriculum. Let your teacher know that you think you may need to slow down.
With the right pace and your commitment to put in sufficient practice time, following the principle of consistent, incremental progress will get you where you need to go. Accept whatever small amount of ground you cover in the practice process for any given piece on any given day. Fail to do this, and you’ll spend more time than necessary on each song, practicing with more difficulty, and you’ll end up having a harder time managing things as your playlist grows in number and complexity. Follow this advice, though, and you will learn each song as quickly as possible, spending the smallest amount of time practicing each piece to the point of coming alive, and remaining capable of effectively managing your advancing playlist.
Luckily, once a song is alive, it starts to require less and less practice in order to keep it alive. However, if it doesn’t get enough practice, you’ll start to lose it. You’ll play with less confidence, perhaps making recurring mistakes, perhaps simply forgetting what to do. When any of this happens, it’s time to add a pencil dot again, putting that song back on your roster of current projects, removing the pencil dot only once that project becomes fluent again.
Of course, we want to avoid losing songs from the repertoire in the first place. Once a song is alive, we want to keep it that way. How to manage that for your entire repertoire is the topic of the next piece for the Lesson Line.
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