Making the best out your (limited) practice time

Some of my students are not professional musicians, they are children or adults who want to learn to play an instrument. But most of the time, what they struggle with is finding time to practice. So one of the tasks I have as their teacher is to teach them to practice effectively!

Most of the time, if their practice goes unsupervised, my younger or more novel students have the same habits: They…

… always begin from “the top”,

… try to play all the way through,

… stick to the mechanical aspect of playing,

… play using indistinct fingering,

… sit at the piano before opening their book or binder,

… begin practicing without an agenda

… don’t keep track of the time they’re practicing.

 

So here are a few techniques I encourage them to try in order to make their time at the piano as effective as possible.

1. Practice in bubbles

My teacher a long time ago told me: “You have to use your bubbles to practice… open your music, take a good look at it, and wherever you see a passage that looks difficult, make a bubble!” So the idea is that after this, every time you practice your piece, you’ll begin with these most difficult passages. This way you’ll remain more focused in this more demanding sections. Even if it’s not particularly difficult, but it would benefit from some extra work, don’t be afraid to circle it, and make it one of your “bubbles”.

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2. Count your repetitions

Is very important to play a section more than once if you want to master it. Suzuki said that ability equals knowledge plus 10,000 repetitions! Czerny has a different take on repetitions, in his books we can find what some people think are ludicrous indications: Repeat 11 times or 20 times, etc. In the case of amateur students maybe 11 times or even seven is extreme, but I always ask them to set a goal along the lines of 3 to 5 repetitions an then count their repetitions, but be very careful when doing so, because if we don’t mark somewhere these repetitions, we might end up doing less repetitions, so take out your pencil (with an eraser) and mark next to the section each repetition you make, or even on a napkin if you don’t want to write extra notes on your music.

 

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3. Write down your fingering

You might think you’re writing down your fingering… you’re not. Really you’re not. Write everything down, and I do mean each finger, even if you think it’s repeating yourself or “you got it, no need to write it down” think again: The first two techniques involves beginning in a place that’s not the beginning, so when you begin this section you MUST do it with the correct fingering, you will save a lot of time writing down every single finger, BUT do it so with a pencil, because there’s always gonna be a day when you have your fingers a bit more agile than others!

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4. Plan your study time

Write down what you’re going to do. If you’re practicing multiple pieces map out your time, give more time to the more demanding pieces, and set a timer on your phone. After that STICK TO IT. If you’re working technique this should be the amount of time you need for the exercise. It does not amount to your scheduled practice. (Remember, even if it’s 5 minutes, it’s better than not doing it at all)

5. Read your music away from the instrument

One the sheer joys a musician can have is to read a piece of music and know what it sounds like. At first this is very hard, so don’t worry about it. But, just open your music read it and imagine how it will sound on the piano, without actually playing, this will help you enourmously wether you’re a seasoned amateur, a beginner or a experienced student.

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6. Don’t lose yourself in emotion

This might sound harsh or too “whiplash” but study with a cool head and you will get greater results than imagining that every time you’re playing a concert. It’s practice, so it needs work: Record yourself, listen and look at what you’re doing, ask for opinions, but don’t let people other than your teacher or coach linger. Concentrate and set your timer so you don’t have to look at your watch and break focus.

 

I hope these techniques are of use to you, and please if you have you leave a comment or write to me @manuelzazueta

 

Practice well and enjoy the result!

 

@manuelzazueta

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