We have all used the phrase practice makes perfect. We also know that we need to put in time in order to make progress. As a teacher I have been increasingly encouraging my younger pupils to think how they practice and to maximise the time they have available for their practice. In recent years I have noticed that children have many more demands on their time as they sign up for many activities. Learning a musical instrument, especially the piano, is a very time consuming business. It is hugely rewarding and advantageous in all sorts of ways but it is very demanding of time.
I have heard the advice ‘practice this passage 5 times before moving on’ which on the surface sounds reasonable. The goal of course is not to simply to plough through 5 times and it will be magically better. There is a kind of reassurance to know that a certain number of repetitions has gone into something, so therefore that must be a good thing. The assumption is that this will solidify skills and be a route to good discipline. Yes, repetition is necessary to develop and refine skill in many disciplines, but the key has to be the quality of the practice.
There has been quite a lot of research at different universities across the world looking into practice methods and the most profitable way to practice.
So, what is practice? In crude terms, it is getting the right notes with the correct rhythm of the piece one is learning. The next level is to figure out how to play expressively, in character with a good tone.
What are the conclusions of all the research? You may need to be sat down for this. I was very surprised at first but having experimented with it in my own piano practice, it really does make sense.
- Practicing for longer doesn’t necessarily lead to better playing.
- More repetitions also doesn’t make that much difference.
- Playing something correctly many times doesn’t necessarily help either.
The thing that matters the most is how many times something is played incorrectly. Or rather, the percentage of times correct over incorrect matters the most. The greater the percentage of correct playing in a practice session the greater the reliability in the playing.
Research identified a few strategies which will help focus practice.
- Errors need to be addressed immediately that they appear.
- Errors need to be pre-empted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.
- The location and reason for the error needs to be identified, rehearsed and corrected.
- Practice hands together as soon as possible.
- Practice with inflection, observe expression marks.
- Be thoughtful, sing phrases and make notes on the page
- Have logical tempo changes. Play slowly at difficult to play sections and slowly build up tempo.
- Target sections that are difficult to play.
Top pianists like everyone else make mistakes, but they manage to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid repeating the same mistakes. Usual methods include playing hands separately and playing short excerpts, however the most effective strategy is strategically slowing down. When making a mistake, stop, play the passage again but slow down without stopping just before the place where the mistake was made. This allows playing of the challenging section more accurately, helps coordination at a much more manageable tempo rather than crashing through and failing to notice the underlying problem.
Learning a musical instrument can be frustrating and making mistakes are normal and part of the process. Using time more effectively, figuring out where mistakes occur, avoid repeating them and therefore emphasisng the problem can help find success more easily.