With Piano Practice, Less Can Be More

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While success with piano comes from practice, more practice is not always better. With busy lives, we all want to know that we are using our time wisely and getting the most out of it. Efficient practice habits can help you get more done in less time — and sometimes less practice time itself can be more efficient than more practice time.

Incremental Progress for Current Projects

Practice a new current project for 35 minutes on one day and don’t touch it again for a week, and see what happens the next time you practice it — the results aren’t likely to be very good. Take that same amount of time and spread it out to five minutes daily on that same piece over the course of a week, and compare. You’ll get much, much better results with the latter approach.

When we sleep, our brains consolidate a great deal of what we experienced that day. Learning gets “sealed in” when we sleep. Practice a piece too much on a given day, you start to get drained, becoming less effective as time passes. There ends up being less real learning than you’d have hoped by the time your brain gets around to sealing it in that night. Consistent daily practice, in small amounts per day, gives your brain a chance for deeper learning because meaningful progress is sealed in every day, ready to be built up further each next day.

Decreasing Frequency for Repertoire Pieces

As your repertoire grows, managing your playlist can become more and more complicated. Repertoire pieces are supposed to be kept alive, since they serve as the foundation for many kinds of more advanced learning. Letting their quality slide will mean that much more work getting them back into shape. But keeping them in shape still requires at least some effort.

The key to minimizing that effort is realizing that with any given piece, once it’s alive, the longer you keep it alive, the less attention it needs to continue being kept there. When a current project first comes alive and turns into part of your repertoire, you may still practice it daily for a little while, since it is still fairly new to you, but a single daily runthrough should be sufficient. If it needs more than that, then it should still be considered a current project. Soon enough, you’ll be able to skip a day. Then two. Then three. Soon enough, a week. Soon enough, two weeks. Soon enough, even longer.

Consider your repertoire an experiment at all times. Take each piece on its own terms, seeing how infrequently you can practice it while still keeping it alive. Work incrementally. Push off one extra day compared to what you’d most recently done. If the piece then proves a bit tricky to play, back off again and plan to play it after a shorter time off. The one thing you don’t want is to get too eager about reducing frequency, only to find that you waited too long and now the piece needs a fair amount of work to get back up to speed. That work will be more frustrating and take more time than if you’d just practiced the piece a little more frequently while keeping it in good shape, and the soon enough you would be able to practice that piece less often anyway.

If you work gradually at this, you’ll always find that more and more of your repertoire pieces will require less and less attention. Then, instead of spending extra practice time playing repertoire songs more often than needed, you’ll have freed up lots of time. With this approach, you’ll be making room for your ever growing repertoire without needing much work to do so.

How to Practice More

It’s probably nice to know that you’ll actually improve your learning by paying attention to practicing for less time in the particular ways mentioned above. Working smart is always better than working hard. But don’t take these suggestions to mean that you should never practice more. If you ever lose ground on a piece, it will need extra time and effort. Other times, you may simply want to practice some songs more often — you may not even think of that as practicing, just playing for enjoyment. With songs that are in good shape, you can always feel free to play them as often as you like. The best recommendation is to first follow the above time-saving approaches, and then account for extra practice you want or need to put in.

If you want to practice a song more in a given day, once you’ve already given it a few minutes, your best bet would be to do some other things first before putting more time in on that song. Work on other pieces, or even take a break from the instrument altogether. Consider a break especially if you’ve already put in your regular full block of daily practice time — 15-20 minutes while in Levels 1-3, 30-35 minutes after that point. Instead of getting drained on any one project, you’ll be more likely to keep your focus through everything you work on.

For favorite repertoire songs you want to play more often than you’d need to simply keep them alive, just go ahead and play them on as many different days as you like. Whether or not you mark the playlist each day for those songs may not matter so much, if the song is definitely in staying in good shape. Just be sure to be rigorous about the playlist markings if you are ever purposely trying to practice a repertoire song less often or if you notice any particular repertoire song starting to lose any of its quality.

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