A few weeks ago I published a post offering basic practice tips designed to serve as reminders at daily practice sessions (or whenever you sit down at the piano to work). The post proved so popular that I’ve been asked for a few more! So here they are. My tips are certainly not finite, but they might provide food for thought during practice sessions (scroll to the bottom of this post for a downloadable PDF of the practice ideas mentioned in both posts).
Once you have implemented my previous 8 Daily Practice Reminders, here are 8 further ideas , you may (or may not!) like to include in your sessions:
1. Develop a practice schedule. It can be very useful to schedule your sessions, compartmentalizing your time. Whether you want to practice for 30 minutes or 2 hours, be sure to allocate your time wisely. Decide what you want to achieve. If you stick to a plan, so much more will be accomplished, rather than just sitting down at the instrument and letting your mind and fingers wander. Draw up a practice chart and tick off your goals as you surmount them, daily or weekly.
2. Always warm-up. This cannot be underestimated. Rather like an athlete, playing the piano is an essentially physical pursuit (of course it’s mental too!), but you wouldn’t necessarily go for a run without doing some stretches (or similar), so it’s best to do the same on the piano. Warming up is a personal issue, but a few ideas might include playing scales, or Hanon Exercises very slowly, allowing your fingers and arm weight to really sink into the keys. You may prefer to use other repertoire, but essentially keep your warm up patterns slow and deliberate so that your muscles have had a chance to get used to moving sufficiently before practice commences.
3. Lower your shoulders. Most of us have a tendency to raise our shoulders when playing, especially when figurations become more complex (counterpoint, big chords, double octave passage work etc.). Try to combat this issue by checking your shoulders at certain intervals during practice time (if you forget then chances are your shoulders will feel sore and strained eventually). Make sure they are relaxed (i.e. down in their natural position!) at all times and your upper body feels free. Tense wrists are another issue, and can also be addressed in this way. A relaxed body position will become a good habit over time, if constantly reminded.
4. Watch the sustaining pedal. Another habit which pervades piano playing is the constant use of the sustaining (right) pedal. We have a tendency to use it at every opportunity without really thinking about our actions. The sustaining pedal is a wonderful addition to the piano sound, but used all the time, it merely masks what we are trying to do with our fingers. It also encourages lazy fingers. If possible, try to put the right foot away for a while and listen to the sound and clarity produced by your fingers alone. The pedal can be added for extra timbre later.
5. Remember the pulse and rhythm. So much time and effort is spent finding the right notes and working at continuity generally, that tempo is sometimes side-stepped. One idea is to concentrate on rhythm first. Many don’t like working with the metronome, but it can prove very useful. Try to implement when practising. It takes a while to acclimatize to a regular pulse, but it is well worth the effort. Once you develop a feel for ‘sitting’ on the mechanical pulse instigated by the metronome, turn it off and find your own reliable method for time keeping. Using the metronome for a few months will have a positive effect on your ability to keep time.
6. Fingering. It will make or break your performance. If you are a beginner, your teacher will probably write the fingering (which fingers to use on which notes) in your score, but if you are more advanced you must become accustomed to writing it in yourself. Get used to the shape of your hand (how you write your fingering will depend on the size and shape of your hand), and don’t take any chances. Write it all in the score; this will prompt you every time you practice so you will use the correct fingers at every session. This will become a good habit promoting smooth fluent playing.
7. Bar by bar practice. Discipline yourself to work in small sections rather than continually playing a piece through. Playing through (whilst important), will not be advantageous after a while, but working assiduously in small sections, breaking a piece down and working on it all (as well as practising the challenging passages!), will gradually improve your playing consistently.
8. Always remember the music! Dynamics, phrase marks, expression marks; these will help to shape a musically considered account. Interpretation (how you play a piece), is the essential ingredient which will enable your performance to stand out. Start by asking how a particular piece makes you feel; why you want to play it. Is it a happy piece? Is it sad? Reflective? Atmospheric? Children may wish to draw pictures describing a piece. We become engrossed in technical challenges and sometimes forget the creative, artistic side of music making.
I hope these reminders are beneficial. Some are more obvious than others, but it’s easy to forget them all when practising. A few readers have requested a downloadable PDF version of these daily reminders for use either in their teaching studios or to give to students, so I have attached a printable list (complied from both posts) and I hope you find it useful (just click on the link below).
Image: © Melanie Spanswick
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.