When students get serious about playing the piano, they tend to want to practice more and more. They seem to equate longer practice times with faster progress and better playing. Indeed, if you go into a conservatoire or music college, you’ll often find students who say they practice five, six or even seven hours per day and beyond. But do they know how to practice piano effectively?
Effective practice is what everyone should aim for. When I was a music major, I had time to do lots and lots of practice, but now that I’m working full time, I don’t have all that much time. So it becomes even more important for my practice to be as efficient and effective as possible, so I can get more done in the limited time I have available. This will strike a chord (pun intended) with many teachers out there with students who constantly say “I couldn’t practice much this week because of x, y and z.” How do you teach a student to make the most of the time they have available to practice?
This is what I’m going to try and answer in this article. The best ways to practice efficiently and effectively, so you can cram as much productive practice into the limited time you have available. And if you have lots and lots of time, then you can do twice or three times as much with the time you have available to you.
How many hours a day should you practice piano?
Firstly, the amount of hours you have in the day to practice doesn’t dictate how good of a pianist you are. It’s not how long you practice for that matters. It’s what you get done in that time.
Say for example I can learn a Mozart sonata in an hour, and it takes me another three hours to polish it ready for performance standard. This is really quick learning, because I’ve honed my practice skills to the point where hardly any time is wasted, and I can zone in on the spots that need attention. However, I only have an hour per day to practice.
4 hours total learning, with 1 hour of practice time per day = 4 days to learn this piece.
However, say I have a colleague who is of exactly the same ability as me, but doesn’t know how to practice as effectively as I do. Say it takes them three hours to learn a Mozart sonata, and another 9 hours to practice it to the point where it’s ready for performance. So in total it takes them 12 hours. However, they have more time to practice than me; they can do three hours per day.
12 hours total learning, with 3 hours of practice time per day = 4 days to learn this piece.
Myself and my colleague both achieved exactly the same goal. However, I accomplished it three times faster than I did. If I was able to dedicate enough time to practice as them, I could have achieved three times as much in the time I had available.
This is the power of effective and efficient practice. If my colleague only had one hour per day to practice, like me, it would take them 12 days to learn this piece, and not 4.
Efficient and effective practice is achieving the same things as your regular practice, but doing it in less time, without distractions. And I really want to stress that it’s not down to ability. Whoever you are, whatever your ability, you can learn to practice more efficiently, and as a result you will use your practice time better and significantly improve your piano playing.
The key to efficient, effective practicing and why most practice time is wasted
In my experience, there is only one thing you need to know about practicing effectively and efficiently.
Slow, deliberate practice.
What do I mean by this? Well, slow practice kind of speaks for itself. You should not be spending every practice session trying to play as fast as you can. When you start learning the piece, you need to ascertain your performance tempo. Do this with a metronome. Write down the tempo you want to aim for as a performance tempo, and don’t start practicing the piece at anything faster than half your performance tempo.
The reason for this is simple. Slow practice will help you identify trouble spots, where you either don’t know the music as well as you should, or there’s some sort of technical problem that you need to fix. It’s very easy to hide these things if every practice session just consists of you ploughing through the piece as fast as you can.
The next thing that’s important is DELIBERATE practice. This is a concept taught to me in university, and while I can’t say I implemented it all the time, when I did, I got infinitely more work done in much less time. Deliberate practice really comes down to your mindset; are you focused or engaged when you’re practicing? Do you know exactly what’s going on? All too often students switch off their brains when they’re playing a piece and their goal is just to get to the end without stopping. Deliberate practice refers to being in the moment; knowing exactly what your fingers are doing all the time.
For example, if you play something slowly, and you stumble on a particular phrase or passage, that’s a warning sign. Someone doing deliberate practice would stop, and play through this section giving them trouble very slowly, ensuring they know exactly what’s going wrong at what point. They then proceed to solve this problem. They do this for every technical issue they have in a piece, until they can play all the way through without these issues. Then they work on tempo.
All too often, students adopt what I like to call a “spray-and-pray” approach; they know there are technical issues, but they plough through them in practice and hide them with the pedal. Unfortunately when they come to perform, this doesn’t work, because the brain hasn’t worked out these passages properly and when under pressure the fingers don’t know what to do. This leads to memory slips and other performance problems.
Key advice; slow practice and deliberate practice.
How long should a beginner practice piano?
There’s no hard and fast rule about how many hours of practice you should be doing. A music major with several pieces on the go could be practicing anywhere up to 7 hours per day. Some of these pieces are likely to be very difficult, too. However, you should practice as long as you feel you need to, to reach your goals. For an absolute beginner, I’d suggest no more than 30 minutes per day.
The other thing you need to remember is that such a thing called “negative practice” exists, where you practice lots but you actually get worse as you practice. This is usually as a result of bad habits, practicing things incorrectly or practicing too quickly. More hours does not equate to a better pianist; better practice equates to a better pianist.
Should you practice piano every day?
If you are a beginner, I recommend practicing every day. This is because it’s very important to build up good habits. You will find that the more frequently you practice, the more you will want to practice. Playing the piano is a bit like exercising in this respect. The more you do it, the more you will want to do it.
However, if you're an intermediate or advanced student (practicing more than one hour per day) I’d recommend giving yourself a day off every week. This is what I used to do in university and I found it very useful to take a break, not only for my mental health, but it was always nice approaching the piano on a Monday morning with a fresh set of ideas and concepts that you only get from taking some time away from the piano.
It’s also worth practicing away from the piano from time to time. Sit down in a quiet room with your score and analyse it, get to know the harmony, try and replay the piece in your head. This sounds insanely hard, but it’s absolutely worth getting into the habit of doing this because it will improve your learning skills and note-reading tremendously. Imagine being able to practice anywhere, without a piano!
7 Tips to Upgrade Your Piano Practice
- Practice deliberately and slowly.
- Only practice for as long as you need to.
- Don’t waste time at the piano. Even a second wasted at the piano is a bad thing.
- Don’t play through pieces for the sake of playing through them.
- Don’t play through your pieces quickly.
- Regularly review your progress by keeping a practice journal. Challenge yourself. “What did I achieve in my last practice session? Was I successful? Did I waste time?”
- Most of all; have fun, and learn music you enjoy. Nothing saps the enjoyment out of playing a musical instrument more than playing a piece you hate.
Piano Practice Routines?
The internet is full of piano practice routines. However, I’m reluctant to recommend an actual practice routine for you, simply because your circumstances will be different to anyone else reading this. I don’t know how many pieces you’re learning, what grade you are, etc. However, I can give some general advice that might help you when it comes to structuring your practice.
- Practice your scales every day. I’d recommend you give around 20% of your time to this. Use it as a warm up. I’m assuming you’ve already learnt your scales and arpeggios prior to this, so if you haven’t, you’ll need to spend more time learning and perfecting them.
- Move on to practicing some sight reading. I think another 20% of your practice time spent this way is going to benefit you considerably.
- Spend the other 60% of the time on your pieces. However, depending on how many pieces you’re playing, you’ll need to adjust this accordingly. It’s always better to spend more time on one piece, than it is to spend a small amount of time on lots of pieces. Don’t spend 10 minutes each on six different pieces; spend 60 minutes on one piece. If you need to drop some pieces to accommodate this, I recommend you do so. It’s always better to play one piece really well than six pieces very badly.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and it’s given you some insight into how to improve your practice routine. Let me know what you thought of this article in the comments below.
Are you using a digital piano to practice? Check out my extensive articles on using and maintaining a digital piano.