We’ve all had those days where it feels like we hit a barrier. You’ve practiced for hours and hours, yet it feels like you’re running on the spot. So you continue to practice harder and harder, only to find yourself get even more frustrated and mess up on the same passage over and over again! Well you came to the right place. In this blog post, I will discuss a few reasons why you aren’t improving, and propose solutions to these problems that will help you break through this barrier and become the best piano player you can be.
If you really wanted to master a piece, you’d practice every single day for hours, right? Well, no. As hard as it may be to believe, over-practicing does exist. Just like how a bodybuilder would rest their muscles after a tiring workout, we need to rest our brains after each practice session. If your brain doesn’t get enough rest, it won’t be able to function fully and remain focused. This will lead to many problems, which can become bad habits if the over-practicing continues.
However, over-practicing can be easily fixed. First, you must first find your own limit when it comes to concentration—find out how long it takes before you start getting distracted and stop paying attention to your playing. Remember, no one’s the same, so it’s okay if the amount you can stay focused varies from your friend’s. After you figure out your optimal concentration period—let’s say it takes you 50 minutes until you start having trouble concentrating—don’t make your practice session any longer than 50 minutes! But, this doesn’t mean you can’t practice longer than 50 minutes a day. If you want to practice more, give yourself a 15-20 minute break in between each practice session. For me, I’ve found that 45-75 minute practice sessions work best, and I have at least one or two practice sessions every day. Having shorter practice sessions where you can remain fully concentrated will make your practicing more efficient, and make it worth the effort.
We all wish that we could play a piece flawlessly without having to practice any of that boring technical stuff. But, that’s never the case. Many beginners only want to learn songs as fast as possible and they don’t think too much about technique. As a result, they soon find themselves hit the “speed barrier” sooner than everyone else. In order to achieve consistency, accuracy, and speed, you must take at least 15-30 minutes every day to practice the fundamentals.
One of the best ways to approach technique in combination with music theory is scales, arpeggios, and chords. This is very helpful for your playing because it improves technique and dexterity while letting you incorporate the theory that you’ve learned into practice. This will get your fingers used to the chords and scales so that when you go to play by ear or begin improvising, all the keys will feel like second nature to you.
I recommend that you eventually learn all major, melodic minor,and harmonic minor scales in parallel and formula patterns along with their respective arpeggios and chords (video link to playing basic scales/chords here?). But, don’t get too ahead of yourself by trying to play them in every key on the first day. Start with the easiest key (C major/A minor), master everything in that key in the next few days, and then progress to the harder ones (the sharped/flatted keys). Also, I suggest that you learn the relative minor together with the major.
If repeating the scales over and over start to get a little tedious, try varying your exercises. Here are a few of the variants to the simple scale/arpeggio/chord exercises:
- Play it staccato
- Play one hand staccato and one hand legato
- Play it fortissimo
- Play it pianissimo
- Play one hand fortissimo and one had pianissimo
- Try broken chords
While you’re playing the scales, arpeggios, and chords, don’t forget to always check your technique. (Link to a section on proper technique/posture?)
Along with Missing the Basics, this is by far the most prevalent problem in self-taught players. Because self-taught players have the freedom of choosing their own pieces, they often begin learning a piece that is too difficult for them after they see an advanced player play it. You have to remember that it took the advanced player years of practice to build up the fundamentals to play the difficult piece, and unfortunately, fundamentals cannot be crammed and perfected in a short period of time. Although it’s always good to challenge yourself, choosing a piece that is too challenging (Flight of the Bumblebee, for example) will not make you a better player, and it will give rise to many problems that will a prevent you from truly enjoying the piano. While choosing a piece, make sure that your technical abilities are a little ahead or at par with the technical requirements of the repertoire so that you can focus on artistic expression and interpretation of the piece.
To improve as much as possible, it is essential that you use all the practice time you have effectively. In order to do this, knowing how to practice is crucial. Often times I find many players wasting most of their practice sessions just playing over the parts of the piece that they know over and over again. Although it is good to always review learned sections of pieces, doing too much review will impede your progress. I know that it feels nice playing the parts you know and sounding great, but if you never try to learn more, you’ll never make your next step into improvement.
Another common practice flaw that I’ve noticed is what a lot beginning/intermediate players do after they make a mistake. Most beginning players will make a mistake during a piece or an exercise, and then they will continuously play that passage over and over again thinking that if they play it a million times, the problem will be fixed. This is not true. Repetition is only good if you’re doing it the right way. Let me give you an example: you just missed a note or two on a passage, and you decide to play it again hoping that you’ll get all the notes this time. But, since you already made the mistake once, your brain just goes on auto-pilot and repeats the same mistake… well guess what? You just practiced how to make that very mistake, twice. The more you make the same mistake, the more your mind will get accustomed to it, and at this point, the one or two notes that you missed will become much harder to fix. So how do you prevent this from happening? Here are a few solutions:
l Practice hands separate and try to get it right the first time
l Break the piece down to manageable chunks and isolate problem areas
l Vary the rhythm of difficult eight note or sixteenth note passages (e.g. if you have a long line of sixteenth notes, play the first note as an dotted sixteenth, the second one as a thirty-second note, the third one as a dotted sixteenth, the fourth one as a thirty-second note, etc. After you master that, start the first note as the thirty-second, then the second note as a dotted sixteenth etc.)
l Practice slowly at first, then build up to your desired tempo
By putting these simple things into practice, you will maximize productivity and your rate of improvement.
All of these four problems mentioned above usually lead to or become bad habits. Bad habits are major practice time wasters and may even lead to injuries, so we want to avoid them altogether if possible.
One of the bad habits that I find most predominant in piano players is stuttering. This habit usually arises from the problem I talked about in #4, where players replay a section each time they make a little mistake. If this problem continues, they’ll eventually do this unconsciously every time they make a mistake, even in performances. This can sound very unprofessional in performances and it will not effectively fix the mistake in practices, so stuttering must be fixed as soon as possible. Although it is hard to break habits, the best way to get over this habit is to play through your mistakes in practice, and make a mental note to yourself where you messed up. Then, you can go back to that spot and fix it. This may take a while, but it will benefit you throughout your practices and performances.
I mentioned in #2 that you need technique in order to progress. Technique practicing is great and it is vital in piano playing, but you should never go on to play a piece like you’re practicing a scale or an arpeggio. Even advanced players can be too focused on notes and rhythm that they fail to play a piece musically. The solution to this habit is to start a new habit, called listening to yourself. Don’t concentrate only on your fingers, but concentrate on the sound you’re making as well. Always try to include the musical aspects of the piece into your playing after you finish mastering the basics of a piece.