By Chrissy Ricker, NCTM
One of my goals as a piano teacher is to help my students learn how to practice both efficiently and independently. Since most of the work of learning to play an instrument happens outside of our weekly lessons, I want my students to have a full “toolbox” of practice techniques they can use at home to help with any problems that may arise as they are learning their music.
Below are my top 5 favorite general practice techniques—the ones I find myself using over and over with my students. I hope they can be helpful tools for your students, too!
1. Post-It Practice
If students are having problems with a particular area of a piece, I pull out the post-its! Using post-it notes, we cover everything in that section except for the tricky bit. This helps students to really focus in on exactly what is tripping them up. After playing this section several times, we move the post-it back a measure and play again. We keep playing and moving the post-it note until the problem section is mastered.
2. The “Practice Cake”
I use the analogy of a “practice cake” to help students look for the different layers of information found in their music. Since even a simple piece of music is made up of many layers of musical information (rhythm, notes, articulation, dynamics, etc.), it is important that students understand how to break apart their music and practice each of these layers separately. This can be a great way to get students accustomed to goal-oriented practice sessions. For example, one practice session can focus on practicing the rhythm of a piece in several ways: counting and clapping, tapping both hands, counting out loud, using the metronome, etc. Another session could focus on dynamics: finding each marking in the music, mapping out the dynamic “high point” of the piece, and practicing sections with quick dynamic changes. I find that practicing with a purpose keeps the brain engaged and makes practice sessions more productive—and more interesting.
3. Backwards Practice
Do you have students that master the beginning of a piece, while the ending remains shaky? Enter the backward practicing technique! “Backward practice” doesn't mean we literally play the notes backward; rather, we choose a small section near the end of a piece to practice, then work our way backwards adding one or two measures at a time. This practice technique combines really well with the post-it technique mentioned above.
4. Starting-over Practice
This technique works really well for students that have trouble playing a piece fluidly without making mistakes. Starting from the beginning of the piece, we mark several “goalposts” in the music. Students must start from the beginning of the piece and play without mistakes until they reach the first goalpost. If they make a mistake, they must stop and start from the beginning. We work this way on each section until students can successfully play the entire piece without mistakes. This method of practicing may seem counter-intuitive since this is the opposite of what we do when we perform. However, I have found that starting-over practice really helps students to slow down and think ahead so they don’t make a mistake. It also prevents mistakes from becoming part of their muscle memory, because students are interrupting the “wrong” movement and starting over from the beginning of a section.
5. Performance Practice
The opposite of starting-over practice—performance practice means we keep going, no matter what! I ask students to get into character and perform a piece from start to finish, just as they would if they were at a recital. Sometimes we can get so caught up in practicing that we forget that the end goal of any piece is to truly perform it—and this takes its own special type of practice to do well.
Once your students have learned these five practice techniques, they will be on their way to building their own toolbox of problem-solving practice skills. Happy practicing!