March Q&A Session: Hitting Plateaus in Practice (and more)

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In this month’s Q&A session, I’ve rounded up four questions that I thought a lot of you might get value from. As always, feel free to leave questions in the comments, and we’ll possibly take a look at them in next month’s installment.

Question 1: Hitting a plateau/getting stuck on a piece

Ely T asks,

Have you ever felt as if you hit a “plateau” in your playing? Kind of like you felt stuck on a piece? If so, how would you overcome this? 🙂 From, Elyssa

On piano plateaus

Oh yeah, I hit plateaus all the time, and so do my students. Basically, this is what happens: You work really hard on a piece, and then you hit a point with it that, no matter what you do or how hard you work, you can barely get it to budge. It stays at about the same level, which is frustrating because a lot of the time you’re putting hefty amounts of work into it.

I remember way back in the day when I was learning Chopin’s Valse op. 64 no. 2 – I was probably 18 or so, and hadn’t yet done my grade 8 exam. I was a late bloomer! I worked really hard on the first page, but kept getting stuck on the sight reading because of all the accidentals, and playing through it felt like wading through a pool of sludge. I just couldn’t seem to internalize it.

Flash forward a few years later and I learned it for my grade 9 RCM exam. The first page was a breeze. Maybe I got better at reading. Maybe I was just overall a better player. But something shifted in those few years that made a huge hurdle seem like a fairly straight-forward task.

Sometimes the only way to overcome a plateau is to shift gears for a while. When you hit a wall, stop banging your head against that wall. Go for a walk somewhere else – learn new music, let it be for a while.

This can be really hard to do – we work so hard on something, and it can be painful to set it aside. It feels like defeat. But remember, you can – and will – come back to it later. Maybe you’ll revisit in a few months, or a few years, or somewhere in between. But know that, by putting it aside, you’re saving yourself a lot of time and effort, since it’s going to be so much more doable in the future when you reapproach it.

Question 2: Amount of piano practice from beginner to advanced

Skux Master asks,

If you haven’t already could make a video on how much piano practice someone should do ranging from beginner to and advanced players. Thanks 🙂

Practice time ideas

I’ve touched on this question before in the video “How long does it really take to learn piano?”, but only in an indirect way.

The truth is that there’s no one right answer – there’s not a correct amount of time people should be practicing. Ultimately, 15 minutes of daily practice is better than 1 hour of practice sometimes. If it’s the difference between consistency and not being able to commit to 1 hour very often because it’s such a large block of time, then commit to shorter spans of time.

Sometimes people get really passionate and declare that they’re going to practice 3 hours a day – and that works for a week until they start to crash and burn hard. Soon, 3 hours becomes incredibly hard work, so they give up practicing all together.

The correct amount of practice, then, is the amount that you’re able to do every day.

But I’ll try to give a more specific answer than that by using my students as examples. If you take an ideal beginner, roughly around 8 years old who’s very bright and motivated, I might expect 20-30 minutes from them every day. This is almost always sufficient until they’ve been playing a couple years, or are around a grade 1 level.

Once they’ve been playing a few years, my practice expectations increase, but it’s a slow increase over time. They might start practicing 45 minutes on a regular basis once they hit that early-intermediate to intermediate phase. This is partly due to the fact that the pieces become longer, as well.

Once we start hitting the higher levels, like Grade 7 and beyond, they’re not going to really thrive unless they’re working about an hour a day. The demands just become too high for any less than that. If you’re at an advanced level and only practicing 20 minutes, that’ll barely scratch the surface of your repertoire. You’ll only have time to play something through a few times, and then – times up!

When I worked on my Grade 9, I was putting in 1-2 hours a day most days of the week. For my Grade 10, It was more like 3 hours a day most days of the week. But that’s only during active exam prep. My everyday practicing amounts varies wildly, from 15 minutes if it’s all I can sneak in, to 1 hour if I’ve got more time. I generally don’t practice more than an hour at a time – even in the midst of my Grade 10, I would usually divide my practice into 2 or 3 sessions – morning and afternoon, or morning, afternoon and night. That worked best for me.

Hope this gives you some insight!

Question 3: Theory book recommendations

Nana Naema asks,

I am an adult and have weekly private piano lessons. We don’t spend time on history or theory but I would love to know more about the theory behind (classic) music. Of course your video’s help in this category :). I was wondering what music theory books you would recommend? This can be a quick awnser or even a video maybe.

Theory book recommendations

Music theory and history are both so fun! Clearly I’m biased toward both subjects. Actually, to let you in on one of my long-term goals, I really want to design a comprehensive video course on music history with a particular bent to the RCM history exams. Because, not to brag, but I dominated those exams.

Okay, a little bit to brag.

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Let’s start with music theory books. I love Mark Sarnecki’s music rudiments series – which you can get as an all-in-one book, or split into three parts – Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. If you ever plan on doing RCM theory exams, these 100% correspond with what you need to know for them. Exams aside, they’re just great music theory workbooks. I personally studied with them and really enjoyed them.

Grace Vandendool also has a good series of theory books. I wasn’t very familiar with them until I started inheriting new students who had these books from previous teachers, and they’re quite good workbooks.

They have workbooks broken into multiple parts by letter, such as “Book A”, “Book B” and so on – these are the ones my young-ish students have used.

But she also has the Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced books just like Sarnecki.  I believe they correspond with RCM theory exams as well. These move at a faster pace, which is purely personal preference. Generally I find adults like the faster pace, but if you feel like you need lots of repetition, the lettered books would be a good choice.

Now for history – which you didn’t explicitly ask for, but I’m going to get into. All I used were the following 4 things:

 

  • The theory syllabus with the specific history requirements written down
  • The Explorations workbook
  • Wikipedia/other online resources
  • Practice exam books

 

I also took extensive notes and made a little binder of all the info I needed to memorize, based on the above list. Happy studying!

Here’s the theory syllabus online.

Question 4: Pinky straightens out and rolls

Sammy Tomp asks,

Hi! I’m currently learning minuet in D minor by Leopold Mozart (only grade 1 I know but I’m just starting)and my pinky always straightens out and my hand rolls to push the key rather than just pushing straight down on the key and I was just wondering what I should work on to remedy this. Thanks!

The Karate Chop Pinkie

For any postural/position issues, first make sure that the following are dealt with:

-Are you sitting far enough back? You should be on the edge of your bench with your feet flat on the floor. For many people, the knees should come up to about the edge of the piano where the keys begin.

-Are you at the right bench height? Too low or too high and your posture will be compromised. Aim for a straight line from forearm to fingers.

-Are you keeping your arms loose, or tensing up and hunching your shoulders and locking your wrists?

-Is your thumb staying in line with the white keys, or is it floating off the keyboard? Alternately, are your fingers too deep into the keys?

So if you’ve corrected all of these issues and your pinkie is still flattening out, here’s what you can do.

The biggest reason pinkies angle and “karate chop” the keys is because the thumb is flying out of position. It’s kind of like a see-saw or teeter-totter. Your pinkie chops down, and your wrist/thumb flies up. Keeping the thumb anchored is extremely difficult for some people at first, but it’s my best guess on the culprit.

Slow 5-finger scales could help, since they use the thumb and pinkie, and are simple enough that you can concentrate on your hand shape.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this monthly Q&A installment – these are always a ton of fun to do! Also check out some of the other Q&A sessions we’ve done:

Q&A: Polyrhythm and flying pinkies
Q&A: Hand exercises and more
Q&A: Proper hand position and more

And consider supporting us on Patreon as well.

Take care!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.