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Remind Students How to Practice

20130107-022616.jpg Practicing is such an important and crucial part of music study. Many students, however, don’t know how to practice, or how to practice effectively and efficiently. I am constantly finding myself reminding students how to practice or what they should do when they practice. Sometimes what I have to say is so blatantly obvious to me, that I forget that students don’t always know these things, especially transfer students that are new in my studio. The following are my most frequently given tips to students to help them practice better: 1. Practice with the score – Obvious, right? You would be surprised how many students don’t do this! The most common excuse is “but I have already memorized the piece.” Well, students usually “think” they have memorized the music when they can more-or-less play their piece from beginning to end, but most often than not, they still make many mistakes. They keep practicing, but the mistakes do not get fixed? Why? They keep practicing from memory! I recently discovered that sometimes parents are the ones taking the music away, thinking the students don’t need the music anymore because “they have memorized it.” I also discovered that some students/parents think it is better to perform in a recital from memory, with many mistakes here and there, even though they can do a better job with the score. This is such a common misconception! Obviously, if one is playing in a competition or an exam where memory playing is mandatory, then one must play from memory. Otherwise, just use the score and play good, rather than try to look good by not using the score and play bad! If one wants to look good by performing from memory AND play good, then one must practice a lot, with the score! It never ceases to amaze me how many students do not realize this. A while ago I made a video on this topic so I can just direct students to the video without having to explain the same things over and over! 2. Practice with the correct fingering – Also obvious, right? If only students will follow the correct fingering on the page! Most of the time, correct fingering is what is printed on the page, but occasionally teachers can find alternative/better fingering to suit the particular student/situation. Until students learn to find the most natural, effortless and logical fingering on their own, they need to just follow the book or the teacher’s markings. If only I get a dollar every time a student commits the “fingering crime”! 3. Practice hands separately – Another obvious solution to bad playing. Students don’t like to do this, as it is labor intensive, and “it doesn’t sound good with just the left hand” or “it is too hard to play just the left hand!” 4. Practice slowly – Again so obvious to us teachers, but many students don’t do it! Most common excuse: “It says Allegro on top” or “It is supposed to be a fast piece.” Sometimes I try to make a point when students play fast and make many mistakes, I ask them to play extremely slowly, and I am not surprised if they actually get so lost that they can not play at all. My reply is “if you can drive at 70 miles per hour, surely you can drive at 20 miles per hour, too, if not, then you didn’t know how to drive to begin with!” 5. Practice with the metronome – You would be surprised how many students don’t have one. Most people have a smart phone nowadays, and there are many cheap/free metronome apps. No more excuse! 6. Practice from the end – Many students, especially beginners, like to practice from the beginning of their piece. They sound good at first, then it gets worse and worse. This tip also includes practicing from various different sections in the piece, instead of always the beginning. 7. Practice difficult sections first – This tip also includes practicing the most difficult piece in the student’s repertoire first, followed by revision of familiar material. The first part of any practice session is the most productive part, it is when the student is most focused, so that time should be devoted to practicing the tricky parts or newest pieces. Very obvious, right? Again some students need to be told this, or they always start their practice session with their most favorite old piece that they can already do very well and by the time they get to the newest assignment, they are tired! What tips do you give to your students to help them practice better? I would love to hear them!

About the Author

Yiyi Ku
Yiyi Ku is a pianist and teacher. Born in Taiwan, she grew up in New Zealand and obtained her Master of Music degree with Distinction in Composition and Piano Performance from the University of Canterbury. Yiyi also holds a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano from Music Teachers National As... [Read more]

9 Comments

  1. Lesley Goodman

    I love this blog! You reminded me that what seems so obvious to us is not so with our students. Your second point, on “Fingering,” particularly evokes a frustration in me, as I am forever pointing to the tiny numbers above/below the notes when a student asks for a reason to use the finger I instruct her to use. One thing you did not touch on is the amount of time a student should practice. I’m often asked by a parent how long their child should spend on the piano. I like to focus more on the quality of practice, but that is a difficult thing to measure, as we as teachers do not know what is going on at home. A student could be “practicing” a piece for 30 minutes with incorrect notes and fingering that would cause the hair on my arms to stand at attention. Do you have any ideas about structuring practice?

  2. Jean

    Good advice!

  3. Anton

    Hi, thanks for the blog, it was nice to find it.

    I am concerned about the first point on your list — practice with score. My problem is that I don’t read sheet music fast enough, so it actually stops me from playing if I try to follow it. I guess, it is my problem, but still — there are cases when playing from memory is the only option 🙂

    I’ll try to work on my reading, though, since I still believe that your advice is sound. Thanks again!

  4. Nancy

    To get students to practice slowly, I suggest they play in “slow motion.” They think this is really fun, so it gets the point across.

  5. Yiyi

    Lesley: I wrote an article “How Much Should I Practice” – you can read it here: http://yiyiku.com/how-much-should-i-practice/

  6. Yiyi

    Anton: Thank you for commenting. What you are describing is not uncommon. People who do not read music well usually have such good aural skills that they memorize the notes very quickly and easily. However, from my teaching experience, usually when such student says they have memorized a piece, they are merely talking about the notes – yes, they may have memorized the majority of the notes, but often they have neglected dynamics, phrasing, articulations, etc. I can not emphasize the importance of practicing with the music enough! Even if you find it difficult or it is slowing you down when you practice, keep doing it, as you will get faster with more practice – that is, more practice with the book!

  7. Yiyi

    Nancy – what a great idea, thanks for sharing!