Everyone knows they need to practice in order to improve their piano-playing ability, but a vast majority of piano students don’t quite know what to do, for how long they need to do it, and exactly what good it does (if any)!
Practising piano without a clear goal, process or schedule will result in minimal improvement and leave you feeling discouraged, hopeless and beyond helping.
In this post you’ll discover the science behind practice: how our brain responds to ‘quality repetition’ and how you can get the most out of your time.
Scroll to the end of this post for the animated video & quiz!
Familiar thoughts during practice:
“I’m never going to be able to play this bit / passage / song.”
“My fingers just won’t work that way.”
“I keep playing the same mistake over and over (and over and over).”
“I get bored/distracted before I’ve made any progress.”
“I just want to play the fun stuff because I’m not seeing any improvement.”
If practising piano feels more punishing than improving then you’re doing it wrong.
What is practice?
Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement. It allows us to improve in ease, speed and confidence and ultimately maximise our potential.
Notice how it doesn’t just say ‘practice is repetition’? Because it needs a goal in order to improve. Let’s start by how repetition helps us improve…
How does practising actually improve our skills?
There are two kinds of neural tissue in our brains: grey and white matter.
Grey matter is the tissue that processes information while white matter is the fatty tissue and nerve fibres. Nerve fibres called ‘axons’ take information from the brain to our muscles.
When we repeat any action with our body the axons in that area become wrapped in ‘myelin’. Myelin is a type of fatty sheath that covers frequently used axons in order to prevent energy loss and pass information more efficiently from the brain to the muscles being used most.
Like insulation on an electrical cable, myelin creates a ‘superhighway’ for information to pass efficiently without losing energy.
What about ‘muscle memory’?
Muscles don’t actually have memory, but our muscles can more efficiently make an action if the myelin ‘superhighway’ is already established. When we repeat an action, these uber-efficient superhighways of neural information make the action more natural each time.
How much practice should I do?
The time to master a skill isn’t about the amount of hours, it’s about the quality of the time spent and how effective that practise is. Practise needs to be consistent and focussed.
For instance, a marathon 4-hour practise session at the piano once a week will not yield as good a result as simply playing 20 minutes daily. Though the latter option is less than half the overall practise time, the daily repetition will strengthen those information highways more efficiently.
Forcing yourself to do anything for four hours is going to be frustrating! Your mind will wander and find any excuse to get off the piano so that four hours is easily watered down into just two hours of actual practise time.
On the contrary, when you only have 20 minutes to practise you need to be extremely focussed on a specific goal to get the work done! And because it’s only 20 minutes it shouldn’t be too difficult to commit to the session without distractions.
What should I practise?
Generally you should be playing through your assigned lesson material, pieces & exercises to identify where your weaknesses are.
Once identified, start slowly with quality repetitions of the weak passage and gradually increase speed. When you have suitably improved on a weak spot, continue to play through the material to find your next weak spot and hone in on that.
When will I see results?
You are not aiming to perfect a weak spot in one session.
Don’t spend an entire practice session on one weak point.
Instead, spend 5-10 repetitions on one weak point and then move onto the next. Then the following session you will repeat the same weak points in order.
Improvement comes from daily repetition, not in squeezing as many repetitions into one session as possible!
Top tips for getting the most out of practise:
Focus on the task at hand and minimise distractions. (Turn off the TV, put your cell phone on airplane mode.)
Start as slowly as you need to play high quality repetitions and gradually increase speed.
Practise little and often. Limited duration practises or longer practises with frequent scheduled breaks work better than marathon sessions.
Practise in your brain while doing mundane tasks or chores. Imagine practising in vivid detail and you’ll make real progress as if you were actually at the piano! (Works great if you don’t have access to your piano for a time!)