PRACTICE is working on something for the sake of learning and improvement. A student who starts at the finish and plays through to the end is playing that piece, not practicing it. At lessons I often ask them NOT to start at the beginning; many pieces have small sections marked either by Post-It notes of by a pair of slashes on the score. Also, students should be looking for areas needing improvement, marking them or stopping to fix them right away as they practice. When you play a piece, you don’t stop for mistakes but do circle back to fix them afterward.
So much time is wasted by simply playing a piece. The portions of the piece that are in great shape get just as much practice as the difficult spots. As a result, difficult spots improve at a glacially slow pace – they only get played once per practice session. Imagine if each difficult spot was played 5 or 6 times each practice session before the whole piece is played! Much greater progress would be made, without much more time invested, and progress is our ultimate goal.
Piano Maestro’s Learn Mode is the perfect example of how to practice. I can’t emphasize enough how fantastic that app is (iPad only), and many students are ignoring my direct instructions in their lesson books to use Piano Maestro Learn Mode. If your child has Piano Maestro at home, please make sure they are using it for their Lesson Book assignments. The majority are just using it for fun - which is better than not at all – but they’re missing out on a great tool that can really help them advance their skills.
The Practice Zone is a space conducive to focused work, minimal distractions, with all the tools needed at-hand. It’s also helpful if the Practice Zone is not off in a remote corner of your home making practice time feel like an exile to Siberia! Distractions can be minimized if your family can adopt a collaborative spirit and agree to no TV while piano practice is occurring, eliminating the need for banishing your young pianist to that far-off piano location. Obviously every house layout is different and we only have so many options for where we can locate a sizable instrument in the house: just do your best!
One of my piano families noted that when they moved their piano from the basement up to the foyer, right at the base of the stairs to the second floor, the piano was practiced much more. It was centrally located in the house and in a place where the piano was just begging to be played whenever a student walked past (which was often!).
Another element of the Practice Zone is having all books and materials handy, including their practice pouch which is equipped with pencil, highlighter, Post-It notes and a variety of additional practice tools. A Practice Zone is a work zone, not a play zone, so having these tools is an important reminder of, and also assistance for, the work to be done! Every page that has a Post-It flag is requiring attention at home. Be sure to check their practice binder for a full list of assignments, and there will likely be Post-It flags on pages in their binder as well.
The last component of the Practice Zone is you! The more involved you are in your child’s practice, the more successful your child will be. For a younger child, it may mean sitting on the bench with them and helping them read instructions. It may also mean learning alongside your child…having them teach you their pieces is a fantastic motivator! Or just be in the room to keep your child from feeling isolated. For late-elementary and middle school students your presence may even not be in the same room but it should be close by and providing feedback – encouragement and suggestions. “I’m hearing real progress on that section, can I hear it again?”
What does a “normal” week look like for your family? Is there such a thing or is your calendar constantly in a state a flux? Meal planning is a big thing nowadays, and similarly we should be practice planning, too. Scheduling practice is the best way to ensure that gets done, and also gives you the opportunity to decide what time of day makes the most sense in your household.
At our house, practice before school has become the best solution, and for a variety of reasons it really does work for many families. We’ve always had a “no TV before school rule”, so we just set the alarm a little bit earlier and the free time we have before heading out the door has become practice time.
At your house, mornings may already feel chaotic enough. But if one of your kids was supposed to be at the piano for 20 of those minutes, would that increase the chaos or maybe even reduce the chaos? Only you can decide that.
Regardless of the time of day, take a few minutes to plan out your child’s week. Identify when they will get to the piano each day. Whenever possible, keep it consistent. Even better, tie it to another standard daily event: before supper, after homework, before you brush your teeth, etc. And don’t underestimate the value of two shorter practice sessions instead of one longer practice session. A little bit of practice is better than none!