Practice Archive

Establishing a Practice Routine

Practicing. Everyone knows it’s an integral part of learning any new endeavor, and learning to play the piano is no exception. Some days your child may be inspired to practice, and other days not. This is completely normal.

Even professional musicians have days where they are inspired to practice, and other days where they don’t feel like it. However, they realize that without practice they will not perform well; they will probably not get hired again, and then they will need to find another way to make a living. So they make practice a priority regardless of how they feel on a particular day.

For students learning how to play the piano the stakes aren’t so high, but learning how to establish a practice routine (for any endeavor) is a wonderful skill to have as they grow into adulthood. Here are a few ideas to help you guide your child with making a practice routine.

1. Have piano practice be a part of their daily routine. Just like they wouldn’t go to school without their shoes on, neither would they dream of leaving the house without playing the piano first.

2. Tie their practice to something in their day that they never forget to do. One parent told me their secret: Their child likes the ipad. So she gets her ipad time after she practices the piano. She practices nearly every day and doesn’t forget.

It may take a few weeks to determine a routine that works for your child, but it is well-worth the effort. Your child will grow in confidence and skill.

I would love to hear what you discover works for you and your child.

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How do you know when a piece is too hard?

Learning to play the piano can be rewarding and challenging. Finding just the right pace for a student, not too easy, and not too hard, is the key to their continued success. Overcoming challenges incrementally will build their confidence. When your child is confident, they are more open to learning and trying new things. And when they are open to learning, learning accelerates.

I recently had a student discover on her own how to know when a piece is too hard or just right for her.

When she’s learning something new, if it’s just the right level of difficulty, she can master it in about 2-4 tries. When it takes more than five tries, and even then she’s not really getting it, then she knows it’s too hard for her.

It made my day when she came to her lesson one day and announced that a piece I had given her the week before was too hard. The feedback from her helped me determine a more appropriate course of action for her lessons.

Several months from now when she has more skills, we can revisit that piece, and perhaps it will be just the right amount of challenge where she can get it in 2-4 tries.

Each student’s pace of learning is unique to them. Teaching them self-awareness so they can be actively involved in their own learning process will enhance their learning and develop independence. When a student is invested in their own learning, the sky really is the limit on what they can accomplish.

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Two Practice Tips to Help Your Brain

I recently talked with an acquaintance who had taken a few years of lessons as a child, and now as an adult was spending his spare time playing the piano again. Between juggling kids and work it was difficult to find a consistent time to practice.

He noticed that he could learn a part of a piece one day, but when he would return a few days later it was as if he had never learned it. He would then start again and go through the same process, only to have his brain seem to not retain what he was teaching himself. A nagging question began to lurk in the back of his mind, “Is there something wrong with me?”

I assured him, “There’s nothing wrong with you. This is completely normal when you’re on the upper threshold of your skills and you’re not able to practice every day. When I’m learning a difficult piece, the same thing happens to me if I don’t practice several days in a row.”

We then went on to a discussion of what does practice look like so that your brain does remember.

Here are two ideas to help your brain remember:

1. Visit the piano once a day, even if it’s only for five minutes. In those five minutes, teach yourself one new thing, no matter how tiny. The next day, review that one new thing. If you have time, teach yourself another new thing. Keep repeating this process every day until you have taught yourself the entire piece.

2. Get a good night’s sleep. Any time you learn something new, the next two nights of sleep your brain will finish processing what you learned. When you are able to practice several days in a row, every night you are processing what you learned that day and the day before.

If you or your child can identify with your brain not remembering what you previously practiced, try these two ideas and see what happens. I’d love to hear what you learn.

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Efficient Practice

When I was young, I loved piano. I played a lot, and sometimes I actually practiced. (I’m defining practice as working out a hard part of the music until I can do it easily). Not until I was an adult and being paid to play the piano at weddings and funerals did I start to really practice efficiently. I was hired to play music that wasn’t necessarily my favorite, but I had a job to do, and I needed to do it well. If I didn’t, no one would hire me again. As a result, I learned to practice very efficiently. No more aimless playing through the piece several times for days on end. I had to have a specific practice plan and clear goal in mind, which was learn the piece quickly and well.

One day, at my accompanying job I was handed a piece of music at the last minute. Usually I would inform the person that I don’t do things last minute. If they wanted the job done, then the music must be given in advance. This day, however, I glanced at the music, and knew that I had the skills to learn it in about 10 minutes. So I said, “Ok.” I gave myself the challenge of how quickly could I learn this piece and perform it and have it be a pleasant experience.

I excused myself, found a piano and sight read once through the piece. As I played I made a mental note of every place where I hesitated, got worried or held my breath hoping to make it through. Then I went back to each of those spots and broke it down to small concepts. Not until I mastered one concept at a time did I go on to the next concept. Here’s how it went:

1. What are the notes of the right hand alone?
2. What’s the fingering of the right hand alone?
3. What’s the rhythm of the right hand alone?
4. What’s the articulation/touch of the right hand alone?
5. What’s the tone quality of the right hand alone?
6. What are the dynamics of the right hand alone?

Once I mastered the right hand alone on each of the concepts above, I went and did the same process with the left hand alone. Once I mastered that, then I did the same thing again hands together. It ended up taking about 10 minutes to work all these things out. Once I did, I then played straight through the piece again to check and see if there were any remaining spots where I hesitated, got worried or held my breath. If I did, then I went back to those spots and repeated the process. Eventually I had no more spots that were difficult. They all were easy. That is when I knew I had mastered the piece, and I was ready to play it.

Efficient practice is a process, not a function of time. Every parent wants to know how much time their child should practice. While setting aside of certain amount of time every day for practice is helpful in providing consistency and a starting point, really effective practice comes from focusing on the process of learning. Fall in love with the process and the results will come.

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How Do You Know You Are Ready to Perform?

Question: How do you know you’re ready to perform in front of an audience? Choose the best answer:
a) You know the notes
b) You can play the piece perfectly from memory
c) You know how to keep going if you make a mistake
d) You know how to fake if you have a memory slip

The answer:

c) You know how to keep going if you make a mistake
d) You know how to fake if you have a memory slip

If a student can keep their composure when they make mistakes or have a memory slip, then I know they can handle a performance situation.

Choices a) you know the notes, and b) you can play the piece perfectly from memory, are important in learning a piece and should not be overlooked. Once those are in place, then start practicing performing in front of people.

Things will happen. You may make a mistake where you’ve never made a mistake before. You may have a memory slip. Knowing how to keep the beat going and improvise if needed until you get back on track is a skill. Those two skills are your backup system when performing. I do not recommend performing unless you have a backup system in place. Otherwise you run the risk of a negative experience.

Prepare well. Know your piece well. Then, in the moment of performing it’s a dynamic environment. Having a back up system at your disposal will enable you to have a good experience performing even when you are not at your personal best.

Need help learning how to have a good experience performing? Give us a call at 360-527-9626. We are happy to help.

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How Slow? Excruciatingly Slow

Last year I saw world famous classical double bassist, Alex Hanna, give a masterclass, and he described how he practiced.

His exact words were, “Excruciatingly slow.“

In going excruciatingly slow he is aware of every minute nuance, and can easily make adjustments where needed. Only in excruciatingly slow can he uncover problems and correct them before they become bigger issues.

The next time you practice slowly, consider practicing excruciatingly slow. It is what sets the world-class performers of any instrument apart. If you have the patience for it, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn without the help of a teacher.

I would love to hear about what you learn.

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I Love That Piece!

Five minutes before the end of one of my piano student’s lessons, his mom knocks on the door to come in. She finds us throwing a ball and trying to bare hand the catch. Her 8 year-old son is energized and really into this ball throwing. Sometimes we miss, and the ball bounces off the wall, but we’re both really trying. Even I get better at my throws and catches.

I explained to his mom that he just spent the last 10 minutes memorizing an entire piece that he thought he‘d never be able to memorize. I had him memorize one line, repeat it a few times, and then get up and play catch for about 10 throws. Then he would return to the piano, and see if he could remember the line of music he just memorized. He just now finished memorizing the entire piece so we were doing the final throws.

Then I suggested to the student, “Hey, why don’t you do a test, and see if you can play the piece from memory for your mom?”

Excited to show his mom, he sat down and played from memory. Sure enough, he could do it. He was thrilled; his mom was thrilled. I told him that when he went home to do the same process again, and maybe get his dad to throw a ball with him to solidify what he learned today.

The next week he came back to his lesson and announced, “I love that piece!”

Having fun learning, and being able to do things you didn’t think you could. It doesn’t get any better than that. If you or your child would like to experience the fun of learning to play the piano, give us a call at 360-527-9626 or email us.

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Owning Practice

Every year I encourage students to participate in the WA State Music Teachers Adjudications and the National Guild of Piano Teachers Auditions. Both are events where students prepare pieces to perform and receive feedback from a guest teacher. It’s a wonderful way to help students set and reach goals and learn from another musician.

One student participated every year, but always dreaded it. She realized she dreaded it because she didn’t prepare well. In the few weeks before the event, when I would see that she wasn’t prepared, I would find new pieces that were simple enough for her to learn quickly and perform so that she could still participate.

One such time, I told her, “When you come back next week you’ll be giving a mini-concert for the student who has a lesson just before you. So start preparing today when you get home. Do not wait.”

The next week came, and I knew her pattern of not adequately preparing and then having a miserable time. However, when she walked in the door, I was happy to see her, and said, motioning toward the piano, “Here you go. Go ahead and give us a concert.”

I didn’t give her an opportunity to say anything, or do anything except sit down at the piano and start playing. To my surprise, she did. Instead of playing the easy piece I gave her the week before, she played her difficult piece from start to finish, by memory. I had never heard her play the whole piece, let alone from memory, until that day. I was shocked.

What was her secret? After a short time practicing by playing straight through the piece at home, she realized she wasn’t getting anywhere. Adjudications were just around the corner, and the hard parts were still hard. She decided that she needed to practice a different way, the way I had been telling her for the past four years. She went back to her assignment notebook and looked at all the ways I had been telling her to practice. She made herself a plan on what she was going to master each day so that at the end of the week she would know the entire piece.

She practiced every day, about an hour each time, seven days in a row. She went slow. She practiced hands alone. She practiced transitions from one beat to the next beat over and over. She worked out hard parts, rather than just play through the piece. Her parents weren’t even sure she was practicing because it sounded different from anything she had ever done over the past four years.

At the end of the week she could play the entire piece. She got the results she wanted. She realized she could do it. She was happy. For the first time in her life, she now was looking forward to playing at the adjudications. She couldn’t wait to see what new ideas she would learn.

To see the transformation in her from dread to joy is one of the reasons I keep teaching. I am an eternal optimist, and believe that our abilities sometimes lie dormant. We may not even be aware of what we are capable of. A good teacher of any discipline sees the potential in the student and is willing to stick it out through thick and thin until one day it come to the surface. Once a student experiences it for themselves, they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Do you need a teacher to believe in you or your child? Give us a call today to get started with lessons and discover your own natural abilities.

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Falling in Love with Learning

“Fall in love with the process and the results will come.”

I recently saw this quote advertising a gym, and it reminded me of how true it is when learning to play the piano. In our culture of technology where information is instant, the experience of a process to achieve something can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

Children learning to play the piano are also used to learning all sorts of things at school, in sports and in other activities. Kids can have stumbling blocks, but they typically haven’t refined their competence to the level an adult has, and therefore, it’s not uncommon for adults to have difficulty “falling in love” with the process of learning.

This can be especially difficult for adults learning to play the piano for the first time. After spending years as an adult, becoming competent in work and life, who wants to feel incompetent trying to learn a new skill? Setting aside the judgment of incompetence and instead falling in love with the process of learning, is the key to success.

How do you do that? First, give yourself a break. You’re not suppose to already know how to play the piano well. That’s the purpose of lessons. Second, find a teacher you trust, where you feel empowered to take chances.

If you would like to explore the idea of lessons, give us a call at (360) 527-9626. You can even call and schedule your own introductory 40-minute lesson for only $50. It’s a great way to experience the piano first-hand.

A whole new world awaits you. You just have to take the first step.

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Playing By Ear and Counting Aloud

When students first begin piano lessons, one of the skills they learn is how to count basic rhythm. Meanwhile, they also learn how to read music. On occasion there will be a piece in their beginning book that is a familiar tune to them. It’s not uncommon for students to toss their rhythm skills out the window, and even their note reading skills, and instead play the whole piece by ear, (which happens to be another important skill). When playing by yourself, this seems to work o.k. However, if you try to play a duet, it falls apart.

One such student came to his lesson one day playing Alouette, the familiar nursery rhyme out of his book. He knew the notes and sort of the correct rhythm. We started to count off together to play the duet when he had a rude awakening. We were not together, at all. He was shocked. This had never happened to him before.

I told him he has such a wonderful ear that it wants to direct the whole piece, since it knows how it is suppose to sound. However, the ear doesn’t know how the duet is suppose to go, so I suggested that at home he count very meticulously and don’t let his ear direct his fingers. Instead, let his counts direct the notes.

The next week when he came back he played the duet perfectly. His counts directed his fingers rather than his ear. I was pleasantly surprised because it was unusual that such a young child could over-ride his ear with methodical counting.

A few weeks later this same student announced at his lesson, “Counting is VERY important.”

I asked him, “How did you learn that?”

“Well,” he replied, “It was Alouette. If I didn’t count aloud the duet wouldn’t work at all!”

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