When Piano Practice Is Too Much… Or Not Enough

Potluck Creative Arts Lesson LineSimply Music

When it comes to the amount of new project work, your teacher always strives to take the Baby Bear approach — not too hot, not too cold, just right. If new assignments seem to be either too much or too little for you, there are options.

The first thing you should do is optimize your practice routine. Are you practicing the recommended amount of time each day, ideally every day at the same time, and at least five days a week? Are you following all of your teacher’s instructions so that you’re practicing “smart” instead of “hard”? If the Formula for Success would identify any areas of possible improvement, this should be your top priority. If practice has seemed “too hot,” somewhat of a struggle, acting on the Formula will make life easier for you. If practice has seemed “too cold,” not challenging enough, you’ll set yourself up as well as possible to meet greater challenges later on.

Speaking of Baby Bear, when it comes to practice, strange as it may seem, too much or too little both add up to too much, while “just right” adds up to the smallest amount of practice that keeps everything in great shape. Finding the Baby Bear sweet spot for each one of your projects is exactly what the Play It Forward approach for managing your playlist is designed to do:

  • By using practice time to work new songs as much as they need to get in good shape, they get there as quickly and easily as possible. By using play time to give older songs what they need to stay in good shape, they never get weak or forgotten. Anything less that the needed amount for each project just ensures that more total practice would be required later to get things up to speed. That’s how too little adds up to too much.
  • By avoiding giving any more time than a song needs to get/stay solid, by playing solid songs less and less often, you’re exercising your memory while eliminating unnecessary practice. You’ll end up with more time available to work the pieces that really need it, and more play time for those pieces you do like enough to play frequently, which is totally encouraged.

Could anything be better than the least amount of work for the best result? Nope! Those students who use Play It Forward have a much easier time keeping on top of everything than those who don’t. If you’re not using it, why not?

Though it may be a big assumption, let’s assume that you’ve solidified your practice routine. With the Formula for Success and Play It Forward, you’re doing everything according to instructions and recommendations to get the best results with the least work. If things still seem too much, then let your teacher know, since there may be a need to simply move more slowly in introducing new material. If there still seems not enough for you, if you want more keyboard time but would get bored repeating songs too often, there are a number of things you can do. Many of these ideas are great even for helping those whose practice seems too much.

  • Review learning strategies — Pop quiz any aspects of the learning process for any past projects. Examples: Reproduce a piece’s diagram from memory. Identify elements of songs by how they were named in original instructions. Name chord shapes. List all pieces that use a particular note, chord, starting position, the Five Steps of Sound (FSS), or any other element you can think of. Anything goes. The more you remain aware of the learning strategies that get a piece to confident performance, the better that piece will stay there, and the more easily you’ll apply those strategies when they come up in future projects.
  • Improvise and compose — These are always fantastic ways to spend time at the piano. The possibilities are literally endless. At best, you’ll thoroughly enjoy fostering your creativity and self-expression. At minimum, every minute you spend making your own music increases many skills you need for your other pieces as well.
  • Create variations and arrangements — These have all the advantages just noted for improvisation and composition while also directly reinforcing knowledge of your repertoire.
  • Repertoire games — There are many ways you can review your repertoire other than simply playing the pieces as you learned them. Games, many of which we play during lessons, not only make repertoire practice more interesting, they also strengthen songs more than regular playing.
    • Practice Pad — According to the most experienced teachers, this is, along with controlling the events and speaking instructions aloud, one of the three most important aspects of the entire Simply Music program. If it’s hard to play any of your pieces on this at any time, then you haven’t been using it enough! The more you use it, the easier it becomes, and the stronger and easier all your practice and playing in general.
    • Duets — Two players can each play both hands, if positions allow. One player alone can play along with CD. These options and the duet/ensemble versions of other games below are excellent practice for rhythm and collaboration.
    • Pause Button — Whether someone else calls it out or you decide for yourself, freeze at random places during a piece, and then after a brief pause pick up playing right where you left off. Duet/ensemble version: switch off players at each pause for “serial duets.”
    • Tic Tac Toe — Play a song, stopping at the end of each identifiable (rather than random, as in Pause Button) fragment/section. Student gets an O for each one played correctly, “Mistakes” gets an X for each one with a mistake.
    • Play Midway — Start playing a piece at a point in the middle instead of at the very beginning. Getting good at the Pause Button game is a great way to make this game easier.
    • Break Down — See if you can reproduce performance steps in the learning process of a piece, e.g., playing right hand only, left hand only, just one section or phrase from the middle of a piece, just a set of positions, etc.. Anything that was involved in the process of building up a piece in the first place is fair game for playing this game of breaking things back down. Duet/ensemble version: two or more players each take a hand’s part, in any combinations — one left and one right, multiple players left and/or right, etc.
    • Fast-Medium-Slow — Controlling the events, maintaining accuracy and a smooth, even rhythm, is something you should do every time you play every piece. What’s the fastest you can do this with each of your pieces? Can you also do it much more slowly? How about in the middle? If a song is strong, you should be able to play it well at different speeds.
  • Lyrics — Write new lyrics to existing repertoire pieces. It’s a great way to review repertoire and to regain troubled/forgotten pieces.
  • Transpose — While there are times when we specifically take on transposition projects, you can experiment with this yourself at any time, seeing if you can make a repertoire piece sound correct in a different position. A highly engaging and valuable puzzle to play with.
  • Play By Ear — While you should never do this with any pieces from the Simply Music curriculum, since they should be practiced according to instruction so you can always be developing and strengthening your toolbox of learning strategies, figuring out other pieces by ear is totally encouraged. It’s a great way to exercise a valuable musical muscle, and it can be really satisfying working on pieces of your choosing whenever you want.

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1 comment for “When Piano Practice Is Too Much… Or Not Enough

  1. January 19, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Great post – and great blog/website too 🙂

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