Taking time each day to practice the piano doesn’t happen by accident, it is planned into the student’s week and day. If you refer to Getting IT (Instrument Time), it gives “practicing” a fresh feel, a new view, a new twist. Click on the link for the Getting-IT-schedule-page Practice Schedule. This form is necessary for each student to show me their commitment to finding time to be at the piano each day and actually doing it. Parents sign off just as I have to sign my son’s reading chart each day/week.
The first habit is to Get to the Piano daily. From the website Shiny Happy World I learned the phrase, “You can do anything. Just begin!” This applies to instrument time. Just get to the piano!
Sometimes it’s easy to track IT on an app like Done or Tally. These apps show consistency (if you remember to mark!). I’ve been giving my students a Piano Practice Pill. It’s a pill box with a place for each day. We fill it with Skittles or M&Ms. When students return, they show me how many days they Got IT by showing me how many days they ate.
Here are some of my favorite tools to use during IT (practice):
Beads to track repetitions
Stop watch to track seconds for drills or anything (how long does it take to do a page of theory?, etc.)
Post its to work on a specific measure; find the form and put each section on a post it; put hands together with whatever you see Play = hands together, R = RH, L = LH; covering up measures until the student can play the measures assigned (unveil the rest of the measures)
Blank business cards to keep track of memorized pieces to play at the end of a practice session/IT. Having repertoire to play gives a musician a chance to perform for themselves and enjoy playing pieces already in their fingers. Being able to “Play by Heart” is satisfying.
Practicing Article Click on this link for the best article I’ve read on practicing and motor skills. I didn’t practice effectively until I had to practice in front of one of my teachers. Unfortunately, I was 23 years old! I hope to help my students practice more effectively as they study with me to form good habits and problem-solving skills.
Just a few things you’ll learn from this article: 1) repetition is crucial for learning. It cannot be “mindless;” 2) cramming doesn’t work for long-term memory; 3) sleep is also important; 4) chunking or smaller segments are more effective than long strands.
Wakefulness is needed in order to pay attention. Here is my acronym for key points of wakefulness, LFON.
Light (Is there adequate lighting for study or piano practicing?)
Fuel (Have you fueled your body with food and hydration)
Oxygen (Sitting longer than 20 minutes restricts blood flow to the brain. Get up! and take a break)
Novelty (Adding some new element helps the brain to be interested in what is new. It could be a new practice tool/technique, color added to the page of music, etc.)
Four F’s of Practicing (Source Dr. Don Cook, Organ Tutor Workbook, Organ 101: Basic Organ Skills for the Pianist, 2007)
1) Find it (Where do I need to focus? Where is the glitch?)
2) Fence it (Only work on that spot. I use Post-its as blinders.)
3) Fix it (With repetition, 3 to 5 times correctly)
4) Fit it (Put it back into the phrase or section)
I tell my students that a repetition only counts if it has at least three items: 1) PWS play without stopping/pauses; 2) correct rhythm; 3) correct notes. Tone, articulation, and dynamics are also important, but the three listed above are the basic items needed.
Whether you use tally marks, objects passed from one side of the piano to the other, or beads it is important to have silence between repetitions so that you can evaluate, re-set, and execute.
My favorite method to use during the lesson is what I call “Bowling Pin Practice.” Using mini-bowling pins (or pencil-top erasers), you knock down or set up the bowling pins to keep track of repetitions.
I once gave a cup with 5 cotton balls to each student. This “cotton ball coach” didn’t sit well with one of my students. He came back with 5 army guys. I have a picture somewhere and I will attach it to this post when I find it.
Top Ten Practice Problems (Practicing Smart page)
Dr. Yu-Jane Yang from Weber State University presented a session to the Jordan River Chapter of UMTA and I turned her list into the “Practicing Smart” table (see link above) with the “problem” on one side and a space for the student to help find a “solution” on the other side of the page. Her presentation was based on The Practice Revolution by Philip Johnston. Visit http://www.insidemusicteaching.com for more information. There is a “shiny object polisher” in all of us. We just need to focus on different spots in order for the entire piece to shine and not just our favorite section.
Helen Marlais’ Pratice Strategies
In the series, Succeeding With the Masters, Dr. Helen Marlais gives practice helps in addition to combining great elementary through intermediate repertoire. Some of my favorites are the following:
100% Accuracy (Can you play a measure plus the next downbeat with everything correct? If so, add the next chunk.)
Chain-linking (I like to use Post-its with this strategy. It works well when putting hands together in polyphonic/Baroque music. You only play the chunk you see and move the Post-it to the next beat or spot where the other hand enters.)
Chord Count-Down (For linking quick chord changes and hand shapes together). Play the sequence of chord repeating each one 4 times. Go back and play each chord 3 times and so on until you get down to one chord after another.
Making Practice Time a Game
I attended a meeting of the Jordan River Chapter/UMTA and saw a Mary Poppins-like bag with practice helps from Corinne Hart. She has four children who have all taken string instruments from a young age (probably 3 years old!). While her family has a group called Hart Strings and performs at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, Corinne said that you can’t just wave a magic wand and have practice just happen. She also said that “Games rest muscles and give the mind a break.” Here are some of her techniques for practice from her bag of tricks:
1. Go Fish Game: Fish for different parts of your lesson such as exercises, scales, review, repertoire, sight-reading.
2. Toy. Set a timer. Whatever time is left on the timer is left to just play with mom/dad.
3. Earn a Book. Count the number of pages. Assign numbers to segments of your practice assignment. At the end of your session, read all the pages you earned during practice.
4. Puzzles. Every time you do what I ask you to do, you earn a piece.
5. Bean Jar. Get a mason jar and some beans. Put a paper inside with lines marking reward levels. Earn a reward by getting to that level. Ex: paint fingernails (for girls), go to a movie, etc.
6. Pick a card (flashcards). Have activities with breaks also written on each card (snack, cartwheel, etc.)
7. Crayons. Get a special coloring page before the lesson (princess, super hero). Earn a crayon for each thing they’ve done during the lesson.
8. Beads. Each bead visually represents the things to be done before the practice session or lesson is over.
9. White Board. Some students enjoy checking off or erasing what is accomplished. It provides a visual of how much longer until “I’m done.”
10. Charts. 100 days of practice. 3 sets of 20 minutes (5 min break in between). Practice with a smile (6 smiley faces can be turned in for a treat).
11. 3D Puzzle.
12. Play a board game such as “Guess Who.” After a set of 20 minutes of practice, play the game for 3 minutes.
13. US Mail. Letters in the mail have your practice activity.
14. Dice. Different activities written on the sides of the die.
15. Spin the dial metronome game. Find the ending tempo and go down 9 notches. You need to do the passage of music 10 times before moving up a notch. If you make a mistake you go backwards.
16. Your hand, my hand. Each person holds up five fingers. Do a practice activity from mom’s hand and then do one of the things from the child’s hand. Goal is no complaining. When fingers are down, practice is done.
17. Tortoise & Hare. 2 Tracks with finish line. If you win, you do (take out the trash). If I win, I get…