3 simple yet powerful practice habits

Practicing an instrument for years doesn’t mean that you’re practicing correctly, but even if you are, there are still ways to hack your practice time to make it even more efficient. With these three hacks any student can turn 15 minutes into an effective session.

The 10 second break –

If you watch any great sports stars, they all find a brief moment to mentally collect themselves during events. Great tennis players mess with their racket between points, basketball players have a complete routine on the free throw line and golfers often have a chat with their caddy.

When you’re practicing and getting something wrong over and over, you try it slower, you change strategies and it’s still wrong – just take 10 seconds to relax.

It works.

When you practice, you’re mentally exhausted (which is great), but you need to take breaks to recollect and reflect.

Practice backwards –

The most common mistake that kids make during practice time is playing too large of a section. It’s like eating and putting too much food in your mouth – you can choke. But with music the side effect is different – you learn slowly. It takes time to “chew” all that music down into manageable information.

My favorite way to combat this is have students build their sections backwards. Within a four bar section that gives them trouble, simply start by playing the last measure only. Then add the previous measure until they’ve made it all the way back to the beginning of the section. It’s so effective when worked on patiently and can help students solve the most stubborn sections.

Conducting –

Before I moved to London and was at the RCM, I practiced conducting a lot. I was set to sit in with the conductor Gavin Sutherland at English National Ballet. I ended up working with Rambert (the national dance company) instead, but in all these places and even at the RCM – conducting was a required skill.

Conducting gives you a completely different perspective on the music and in piano that really matters. You must see yourself as a conductor and not a pianist. Once you shift your mindset to a conductor using the piano to create orchestral sounds and textures, you level up.

As a teacher, I now start my students at five and six years old with basic conducting skills. Even just tapping one hand and playing the other can be a helpful obstacle to give more control to students playing. This is especially true of the left hand – try having your students conduct their right hand in quarter note pulses and play a left hand passage with eighth notes.

Researchers have now found that “Disfluency” is a powerful educational technique that helps new skills stick better when the learning process is more difficult.

Overall, most students don’t use enough of a variety of techniques when practicing. Teach and encourage them to have a more diverse set of tools to solve problems during practice.


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