SMART tips for practice

I want to share with you some tips and tricks I have picked up over the years to help make the most of your practice time.  First of all the three S’s:  Slowly, Separately, Sections.  I talk to my students a lot about these three words and how to apply them.  I think in the lesson it’s easy to listen to your teacher and try these techniques while at home it’s easy to drift off into automatic playing and stop ‘thinking’ so much!  The goal is to apply the three S’s independently and get more out of your practice time.  Let me give you an example.  A grade 3 student is at home practicing a piece they have started for their exam.  They sit down to practice and start playing at the beginning of the piece.  They work their way through the piece making mistakes as they go until finally they reach the end.  Frustrated with how it went and the mistakes they made, they start the piece from the beginning again and play it through, making the same mistakes again.  It may seem obvious what is going wrong here yet the student tries to play the piece again in the hopes that they will improve by ‘practicing.’  This way of practice is a recipe for disaster.  I have done it myself back when I was a student and experienced the same frustration.

So a number of things are limiting this practice:  firstly, by starting at the beginning every time you will know this section very well and then progressively less as you go further into the piece.  Second, a mistake played is a mistake learned.  By repeating mistakes and not stopping and correcting them, you are giving yourself a bad habit of playing this part incorrectly.  It is no harm to play through a piece from beginning to end.  The best time to try it is once at the very beginning of your practice session to assess what needs to be worked on and then at the end to see how much progress you have made.  Using the three S’s can be really helpful:  Slowly, Separately, Sections.  Slowly is self explanatory but it is so common for students to rush early on and miss out on learning all the right notes and fingers that match those notes.  It is essential to play slowly and carefully and try to keep looking at the page and not down at your fingers at the keyboard.  This will develop your spatial memory – your fingers will learn the distances between the notes and where to find the notes.  This is also very important for sightreading.  Playing hands separately is another important rule to go by.  I tell my students to learn each hand really well at first and get familiar with the finger patterns.  Sometimes it is very good to pick two to three bars and try them hands together very carefully.  This can build to trying sections hands together slowly but do lots of hands separate practice first.  Sections is also a really useful tip for good piano practice.  Instead of playing big chunks of music and making mistakes, focus on one small section at a time.  Repeat a few bars 7 times until they are flowing better and then learn sections of music at a time.  Do not always work from the start of the piece.  Like I said earlier, you want to know the piece equally.

A really interesting trick is to start at the end of the piece.  I do not mean to go backwards!  Just mark out the last section – you can do this by measuring it in melodic phrases.  Once you have the last section identified (it could be 4 bars or 12 bars, ask your teacher for help), you can really work on this section and have a great understanding of the final part of your piece.  Sections really work, I find it extremely useful with high grade pieces and even with easier pieces too.  Think of your practice time as precious, make the most of it by using these tips.  SMART goals are Specific, Measured, Achievable, Realistic and Timed.  The Grade 3 student might sit down and make a SMART plan to use their practice time to the fullest.  They could set their goal that in the 30 minutes practice time they would work on two sections from their piece that is causing them difficulty.  They would use slow hands separate practice to achieve their goal.  This is an excellent way of tackling any piece and makes so much more of your practice time.  I will write about other forms of practice and preparation in my next post but these guidelines are all you really need to stick with for great results and real progress. Good luck!


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