Do you have a clear set of rules you follow when you practice? It may be worth experimenting with this concept: think of practicing as a game. Here are some rules I follow. This isn’t a complete list, and you certainly don’t have to follow them. But I invite you to consider them, and to find your own rules.
Commit to the exercise
Everything I do in a practice session is an exercise. This might include:
- Playing a piece all the way through, noticing whatever comes up.
- Sight-reading a piece without missing a beat.
- Doing the waterfall technique for 10 minutes.
- Playing the piece while focusing on my breathing.
- Playing a fugue while singing the bass voice.
- and so forth…
Each of these exercises is a game, and has its own rules. It is vital that I do not change the rules in the middle of the game. If I am focusing on my breathing, and I play a wrong note, I cannot stop to figure out what went wrong (unless I plan on focusing on my breathing during that whole process). If I am singing the bass voice in a fugue and I suddenly realize I switched over to the tenor voice, I must continue on, doing the best I can. I cannot stop and start over in an attempt to correct it. Unless, of course, those are the rules of the game.
So, before you put your hands on the keyboard, make a decision about what the rules are, and commit to them. You can always change them later. A large part of figuring out good practice strategies is identifying those games you are hesitant to play, and giving them a try.
Do not correct mistakes
In one sense, the goal of practicing is to improve. So, it makes sense to pay attention to mistakes and work toward fixing them. I’m not arguing with that.
However, if too much attention is paid to fixing mistakes, how much is left over for playing? Specifically, my rule is against “stuttering”: a common behavior seen in beginning students where, once a mistake is made, the correct note is immediately located (sometimes even emphasized, as if to drive the point home). This must stop.
After you stop playing, feel free to investigate any mistakes you made. Just don’t do it while you are playing.
Accept that which you can’t control
While you are playing, you may run into problems:
- You play a wrong note.
- You aren’t sure what the composer meant by…
- You lose track of what beat you were on.
- Your fingers aren’t moving fast enough.
- You aren’t sure what fingering to use.
Some of these may be easily solved, and if you know how, you are free to do it. Some, however, may not have obvious solutions.
In our culture, we are often taught that if a problem exists, it must be solved. This can be quite devastating in practicing, though. Don’t let this stop you from playing the game. Remember that you must commit to an exercise, whether or not you know how to solve the problems that come up. You can always change the exercise if you feel this isn’t serving you.
- If you don’t know the correct fingering, play the scale anyway.
- If you aren’t sure how much of a crescendo to make, just go for it and see what happens.
- If your fingers aren’t moving fast enough, just fake it and make sure you keep the beat.
Yes, ideally we would like to have solutions to these problems. And in the long run, we should search for them. But if they aren’t immediately apparent, you can’t let that hold you up. Take your best guess for now, and we’ll figure it out later. For now, work on the problems you can solve.
Easier is always better than harder
My ideal in piano playing is for things to feel easy. When I find myself working hard, and I see a way that feels easier, I take it, whether or not it is correct. My attitude is that it is far more effective to teach the easy-but-wrong-way how to play better than it is to try to correct the hard-but-sorta-right way.
Don’t be both the student and the teacher at the same time
When I am playing, I don’t evaluate my playing. Everything I do is automatically correct, because quite frankly, I am the greatest pianist in the world. I know more about Mozart’s music than even Mozart does. And it doesn’t bother me in the slightest bit that I am an arrogant jerk. I just commit to an exercise and do it, and if anything goes wrong, it will just have to be somebody else’s problem.
When I stop playing, I can evaluate it all I want. I can completely tear it to pieces if I’d like (or not). I can look at the score and see exactly what went wrong, and try to figure out how to fix it. I can listen to a recording of myself and critique it. I can assign myself an exercise.
I just can’t do both of these at the same time.
Don’t stop out of boredom or frustration
The only reason to end a practice session is because you reached the end of an exercise and don’t feel like doing another one. Once you have made a commitment, though, try to keep it. If you’ve committed to playing twenty minutes of scales and you are bored 10 minutes in, you have either over-committed yourself, or this is a great opportunity to learn how to play scales in the presence of occasional boredom.
If you make a habit out of quitting every time you get frustrated, you are training yourself to get frustrated when you practice. Remember that these things come and go. Part of practicing is learning how to live with them.
I’m not saying you should push through it. Practicing should, overall, be fun and rewarding. If you find that this isn’t the case, it may be worthwhile to reevaluate how you approach practicing, and see if there is anything that can be adjusted.
These rules are not set in stone. All rules should be evaluated based on whether or not they are helpful. Even the preceding sentence. If a rule isn’t helping you, feel free to throw it out. As always, your personal experience should be your guide.
Exercise: Commit to an exercise and do it. For example, you might choose a piece you don’t know well and play it all the way through, stopping for nothing. It’s not so important what the exercise is. Just commit to something and do it, setting a timer if you’d like.