In a video a couple weeks ago, we had a sit-down chat about how your headspace affects your practice. The video was called “Assume you’ll become a piano master” if you want to check it out.
It was all about deciding to become really good at piano, instead of what we usually say to ourselves – I’d like to become okay at piano.
This video is a bit of a follow-up to that one. How would someone determined to become really good at piano actually practice? What kind of things would they do to reinforce their habits and beliefs?
List: Making piano practice an enjoyable habit
I was contemplating this a lot after recording that video. I came up with my own personal list of 12 things I could do right now to change the way I approach practice, both in my mind and in my reality.
Your list might look different than mine, and that’s totally fine. I’m simply sharing my brainstorm to give you some ideas and get the ball rolling.
In no particular order:
- Pick a practice time and stick to it
- Log daily progress
- Commit to approximately 5 hours a week
- Listen to a weekly podcast/radio program related to Classical music/piano music
- Draft several sample schedules on how practice will fit into my days
- Draft a sample practice routine
- Make a list of pieces I could easily re-learn for repertoire building
- Post some of my practice on social media/YouTube (for accountability)
- Put together several pieces for my own Christmas recital (for family and friends)
- Read books and blogs about piano and practice (immersion)
- Subscribe to a Classical music magazine (Clavier Companion, or BBC’s magazine)
- Go to at least 1 live piano and/or symphony performance in the next 3 months
1. Pick a practice time and stick to it
I tend to be a little bit of a scheduling rebel. One thing I love about being self-employed is the ability to change my schedule on a whim – don’t feel like exercising in the morning? Do it in the afternoon!
If I over-schedule my day, it tends to make me feel constricted, like I want to mess it all up and break free.
With all that being said, I do best when there’s at least some consistency in my daily life. It’s helpful to pick a general time of day that will always be reserved for practice – for me, that’s the morning. If I can carve out half an hour in the morning to practice, then I’m golden. It’s the time of day I tend to have the most concentration, and the least time pressure for external events.
So for me, a scheduled practice would simply be “morning”. For you, it might be more specific (like 7-7:30am).
And then if I have the time and inclination, I can always practice more in the afternoon or evening. But it’s keeping my morning practice session that’s so important.
Interestingly, if I practice in the morning, I’m much more likely to practice at other points in the day, too. It’s like that morning session boosts my motivation. If I skip the morning session, I’m much more likely to blow off practice later in the day.
2. Log daily progress
I find that if I’m writing down what I’m practicing, I hold myself more accountable and have more focused practice sessions. I’m much more likely to actually accomplish something, instead of just playing aimlessly.
And it’s fun to have a record of how much you’ve practiced, and how hard you’ve worked!
3. Commit to approximately 5 hours a week
This number is going to be different for everyone. For me, 5 hours is a decent baseline (though if I’m heading into a performance or exam, I’ll do much more than this).
The reason I say 5 hours a week instead of, say, 1 hour a day, is because my piano brainpower tends to wax and wane. There are some days where 30 minutes feels like I’ve hit my daily capacity. But there are other days where I can go 2-3 hours (divided up in smaller sessions) quite easily.
Some people do well with very consistent daily practice – and my 30 minutes in the morning is no doubt important. But beyond that, I like to go with my available time and energy to make up the difference.
4. Listen to a weekly podcast/radio program related to Classical music/piano music
Immersion is absolutely crucial if you’re trying to build a new habit. For example, if you’re learning a new language, you’ll be much more successful to learn with others in a country the language is spoken than to learn in isolation at home.
By constantly exposing yourself to new music, and to people talking about music, you’re signaling to your brain that music is a high priority in your life. It’s a great way to keep your motivation high.
Here in Canada, CBC radio 2 has a good Classical music program, but if you guys know of any good podcasts, please let me know! I’m always looking for fun new podcasts to check out.
5. Draft several sample schedules on how practice will fit into my days
If you have a busy life schedule, it can help drawing out an actual schedule to see where piano practice might fit best. It’s also a good idea to draft several different versions, because most of us have very different schedules on weekends compared to weekdays.
Here’s a rough schedule of a regular teaching day:
8am: online/video work
11am: any food prep for lunch/supper
1pm: errands, exercise, chores
3pm: prepare for lessons/teach
6:15pm: supper break
7pm: more teaching
8:30pm onward: unwind and spend time with Michael
In drafting this schedule, I notice a couple possible openings that piano practice could fit into. Oftentimes my online/video work takes less than 3 hours, and I don’t always have to prep supper in the morning. That would make the time between 10-11am fairly available for regular practice.
There’s also time before 8am to practice if I’d like to have earlier sessions.
So I can clearly see that if I’m looking for a stable, secure spot for daily practice, it’s the morning. Any other time throughout the day would just be a happy bonus.
My weekend schedule is wildly variable, but mornings still tend to be the most stable time to fit in a practice session.
6. Draft a sample practice routine
So I’ve found that I can fairly easily fit 30 minutes of practice into my morning (and more throughout the day when possible). What do I actually practice in that 30 minute time-frame?
Again, I rebel against really detailed schedules, and this changes day to day.
If I’m in the beginning phases of learning a new piece, I might dedicate the full half hour to only that. If I’m struggling at the end, I might spend a few minutes working on a repertoire piece (something I already know).
I don’t do sight reading, ear training, and technique every single day, but I try to keep track of when I do them so I at least get to them a couple times a week.
If I’m developing or perfecting a piece, then I tend to divide my practice time up more and do a variety of things in one session. Maybe I’ll start with some warm-ups, do a little sight reading, and then work on the piece. Or maybe I’ll play a repertoire piece, work on my main piece, and then jump to the computer for some ear training.
7. Make a list of pieces I could easily re-learn for repertoire building
One thing that tends to happen is that we learn a piece and then forget about it once it’s done. We spend all this time on something, only to throw it away.
I think time away from a piece is a good thing! Absence makes the heart fonder, as they say. But I also think it’s useful to go back to some of those old pieces and re-learn them. The re-learning process is much easier, and I usually find that I play it much better the second time. I also tend to notice things I missed the first time around.
It’s sad to spend all this time at the piano, only to have nothing to play when the moment calls for it. Maybe you’re at a friend’s house and they ask you to play something. Or maybe grandma comes over. Having a list of pieces that you can easily play solves this problem (especially if they’re memorized).
It’s a big confidence boost to be able to play a variety of pieces at a moment’s notice! And it’s deeply satisfying, too.
8. Post some of my practice on social media/YouTube (for accountability)
I don’t do this very often, mainly because I forget. But sharing little snippets of practice is fun! Accountability is also a huge motivator for many of us, and I tend to try harder if I know I’ll be sharing something publicly.
Twitter makes it extremely easy to share a little video clip of practice. Same goes for Instagram. Facebook is a little clunkier (for me, anyway – maybe I’m just a crotchety old lady), but still a good platform for sharing.
Even if your audience is just your friends and family, it’s great to share music and get support.
9. Put together several pieces for my own Christmas recital (for family and friends)
Speaking of accountability, performances are inherently motivating. I performed and competed frequently as a kid, and did fairly well at it.
The thing is, performance opportunities are harder to come by as an adult. One thing I noticed when I was playing shows with my band regularly is that regular performances is what kept us practicing. Without regular performances, we tend to fall into practice slumps, jamming and writing less frequently.
Even small and simple performances can be really rewarding. What I’m planning on doing this year is preparing a handful of winter-themed pieces to play for my friends and family. There’s this perception that you have to be some amazing concert pianist to play a recital (which I’m not), or that you have to do it in some fancy venue. But what’s wrong with a living room concert?
I love when my musical friends pull out a guitar and share a couple songs when we’re hanging out. Why not do the same thing, but with piano? You could explain the pieces before playing them to give them context – if your friends aren’t into classical music and that’s what you’re playing, a little explanation goes a long way.
10. Read books and blogs about piano and practice (immersion)
I go through phases with reading, based on what I’m interested in at the time. Sometimes I’ll read a whole bunch of personal development books in a row. Or maybe I’ll binge on health books. Whatever subject I’m into at the time ends up becoming a big part of my life.
So if I’m reading all about achievement and personal development, I tend to have high energy and motivation, and prioritize things like:
- Detailed planning
- Ambitious goals
But if I’m in a health book phase, my priorities shift and look more like this:
- Optimizing energy levels by eating lots of whole foods
- Regular conversations about health and wellness with others
But unless I’m studying for an exam, I don’t tend to read about music. I’d like to do a deep dive into music literature – anything from practice habits to performance to history. I’d be interested to see how that immersion would alter my priorities.
11. Subscribe to a Classical music magazine (Clavier Companion, or BBC’s magazine)
I used to subscribe to Clavier Companion and enjoyed it, but haven’t received it for the last year. BBC also has a good music magazine that I want to go check out.
This comes back to immersion. If you’re immersing yourself in music, literature, and magazines, you’ll have this steady stream of input that is highly motivating. All of these things create a positive feedback loop to reinforce your practice habits and your identity as a musician.
12. Go to at least 1 live piano and/or symphony performance in the next 3 months
And perhaps most inspiring of all, live music!
Nearly any time I go see a live performance, I get this huge rush of motivation and inspiration. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rock concert or symphony. Live music is so much fun, and it always pushes me to try harder.
But I don’t prioritize live music very well, despite how much I love it. Other considerations sometimes get in the way (time, energy, effort, money). Especially because we live in a small town, going to live performances is always more of an endeavor.
So I decided that one big performance in the next few months would be a great source of inspiration. If we make it out to more than one show, great! But I want to get to at least one.
So there’s my list! I hope you’ve found some inspiration here. Two themes that kept coming up again and again were immersion and accountability. If you take nothing else away from this video, it’s how important those are for long-term success!