Effective Practice is not Easy Practice
Learning to play the piano should be both enjoyable and rewarding, however, it is never going to be easy. Even modest gains will only come through regular and persistent practice and the unfortunate truth is that without noticeable improvement many students get discouraged – making the thought of practising even more unappealing. However, no progress can be made without practice so it is important to make the most of your practice time. There are several simple principles that can be adopted to make your practice more effective. I should stress, however, that this does not make the task of learning the piano any easier. In fact, you could say that effective practice is in most regards more difficult than ineffective practice. The difference is that effective practice habits will allow you to make more progress in a shorter period of time.
The Four Principles of Effective Practice
There are four basic principles of effective learning and good practice habits. These are; Persistence, Regularity, Length of practice sessions, and Concentration. Let’s now discuss each of these four principles;
The first thing you need to realise when learning to play the piano (or learning anything for that matter) is that physical changes actually occur in your brain as it rewires itself to be better adapted to the task you are trying to learn. This phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity. What is important to keep in mind is that any changes that occur in your brain during the first ten weeks or so of learning are temporary and can vanish within a matter of days. After the first ten weeks, however, the changes that occur become more permanent – and the longer you practise after this period the more permanent the changes will be. It is these more permanent changes that reflect your actual ability. With that in mind, it should be expected that any new task being learnt at the piano will need about ten weeks before any lasting improvement is seen. Being aware of this should help the student (and the teacher) to cope with any apparent lack of progress in the early stages of learning. Even when it appears that no progress is being made you can rest assured that your brain is in fact rewiring itself to adapt to the new task. Provided you are persistent, progress is inevitable. I would also like to point out that playing the piano is not a single task. There will be something new to learn in every new piece of music you learn and even experienced concert pianists need to learn new things. So the principle of persistence is one that needs to be kept in mind throughout your musical life.
To say that no permanent progress can be made within the first ten weeks of learning is not to say that you can get away with practising only once every ten weeks. How the brain decides to make permanent modifications to its structure depends entirely on which tasks are being performed on a regular basis. It would be pointless, for instance, for the brain to take up valuable real estate adapting to a task that rarely gets performed. The brain is very scrupulous in this regard and it appears to operate under the principle of “use it or loose it”. Therefore, how frequently you practise is just as important as for how long, and the more frequently you practise, the better.
Length of Practice Sessions
Not only is the frequency and persistence of your piano practice important but also the length of each individual practice session. As you might guess, the longer a practice session, the better. Practising twice a day for one hour is, of course, better than practising twice a day for 30 minutes, but it may also be better than practising four times a day for half an hour. The reason for this is that longer practice sessions tell to your brain that you are doing something important (provided you are able to maintain your concentration, of course), and your brain responds accordingly. Short practice sessions may therefore prove less effective because they don’t give the brain the same incentive to adapt. However, just because two one hour sessions a day is better than four half an hour sessions, it doesn’t mean that one long but infrequent session is going to be more effective than slightly shorted, more regular sessions. The trick is to allow enough time for your brain to rewire itself during a practice session, while not giving it enough time to unwire itself between practice sessions.
Your ability to concentrate during a practice session will also determine the effectiveness of your practice. You should keep this in mind when deciding on the length of a practice session. If you can’t concentrate properly for more than half an hour at a time, there may be little point in practising any longer than that. You need to find the right balance.
In order to convince your brain that it is doing something important you need to concentrate on what you are doing as well as you can. This is a skill that is not natural to many people and may take some time to develop. It goes without saying, however, that practicing in front of the T.V., for instance, is a bad idea. Your practice environment should be as distraction free as possible and a real effort should be made to pay attention to what you are doing.
Of course, absent minded practice is better than no practice at all and if you are too tired or have too much on your mind to practise with concentration then simply banging away on the piano without regard to what you are doing is by no means out of the question. I say this with some reservation and with due caution because this is far from an ideal way to practise the piano. However, I stand by my assertion that some practice is better than none. Whatever gets you interacting with the piano is perfectly acceptable. You may also find in these situations that after a few minutes you will begin to feel more like practicing the way you should.
It also helps a lot if you are genuinely interested in what you are practicing and I have found that students who listen to a lot of music tend to make quicker progress than those who don’t because of they are better able to choose music that they like and want to play.
The Reality of Piano Practice
Of course, most of us can’t afford the ideal four to five hours of practice a day – in fact, I’d say the majority of music students may have less than an hour per day to dedicate to music practice – so a balance needs the be struck between frequency and length of practice sessions. For most adults, half an hour is the minimum amount of time recommended for a practice session. Younger students may get away with shorter periods due to their natural learning ability. Shorter practice sessions than these can be effective if they are regular and given the right degree of concentration, and as I mentioned earlier, some practice is better than none. In the end you can do no more than you can, and if you can’t afford much practice time then you need only to come to terms with the fact that progress may be slow. If you can accept that, then many happy hours may be spent at the piano even in spite of slow progress.
See Part 2 for some more practical advice on piano practice…