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Practicing Efficiently

Hello all!  After a enjoyable and much-needed Christmas break, I’m officially back to blogging.  I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and are enjoying the new year.

Over break, I had limited access to a piano (I don’t currently own one – I both teach and practice using the pianos on campus).  It felt good to be back at it over the last few days.  Today while I was practicing (Liszt’s Waldesrauschen, among other things), I was thinking about concentration and its role in learning new music.  Why is it that on some days, I accomplish a great deal during practice sessions, and on other days, I feel as if I just wasted the last hour as I practiced?  

Brain Space

I think a large part of it has do to with the ability to temporarily clear my brain of all the stuff floating around, vying for attention:

I need to buy milk from the grocery store once I get out of class tonight, but I need to get gas first else I’m bound to get stranded on the side of the road.  After lunch, I have to remember that Jessica is coming at 1pm for a make-up lesson since she was on vacation last week.  Oh, and I have to send that reply to Professor Smith’s email before the conference registration deadline, so I can get the form to fill out and mail in. Oh bummer, I miss the Db in that measure every time!

Sound familiar?  It seems like my brain is full all of the time.  Practicing effectively involves being able to leave this brain clutter outside of the practice room door, so you can focus on learning the music.  It’s kind of like freeing RAM space.  I find that making “to-do” lists helps.  But more importantly, establishing a specific practice routine is essential for getting into the practicing mindset.

This concept is important not only for us as pianists, but as teachers.  Our students need to be practicing efficiently too.

Warming Up

Going through a specific warm-up routine helps me a great deal in telling my brain to get in “practice mode.”

  1. Get out music books and materials.  Read assignment notebook.
  2. Practice (penta-)scales, arpeggios, cadences, and other technique-related pieces or exercises.  Try to do them in the same order each time you sit down to practice.

Practicing Repertoire

In order to stay focused while practicing repertoire, it may be a good idea to find ways to avoid thoughtless run-throughs of each piece.  The approach will undoubtedly vary depending on the piece, but here’s a suggested routine for students:

  1. Clap the rhythm.
  2. Check the key signature, find your starting hand positions.
  3. Play the piece through once, no stopping.
  4. Identify problem areas, and practice those in small sections.  Be sure to try practicing hands separately.
  5. Play the piece through again, to see if those areas have improved.

Establishing a specific routine can be helpful, especially for young students.  They need to be taught how to practice, instead of simply being told to practice.

Thoughts?  What’s your practice routine?  What have you found to be helpful when teaching your students how to practice efficiently?

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