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I’ve taught students of all ages and skill levels since 2006. My focus was originally teaching children – I probably had one adult student for every five kids – but I’ve since switched gears to focus on teaching adults over the last couple of years.
Between these adult students, and the myriad of emails and comments I’ve received over the years, I hear a lot of the same issues cropping up again and again. Today I’m going to share some of those issues with you, in the hopes that you’ll be able to un-stick yourself and enjoy your journey more!
Let’s get started.
Problem #1: Playing Music That’s Too Hard
Playing music that’s too difficult is the classic mistake many beginners tend to make. How often have I seen someone with less than 100 hours under their belt attempting Chopin or Debussy? They spend months laboring over the piece, only to have a mediocre end result that can never be truly polished, because it’s such a challenge.
Looking at a year’s practice with a student like this, I might see three or four attempts at bigger pieces – and that’s it. Three or four pieces in an entire year!
I understand that challenging music is sexy and exciting and it’s what got you interested in learning piano in the first place. But reaching so high when you’re so new to the game means you’ll be missing out on fundamentals – effective pedaling and legato, subtle dynamics, sight reading skills and so much more.
Remedy: Balance a challenging piece with easier pieces.
What I recommend to all students is to master easier pieces as the main component of their piano diet. Two collections I particularly love (and my coaching students know it!) are Bartok’s Mikrokosmos and Kabelevsky’s op. 39. In these collections, you can isolate specific techniques in simple, beginner-level pieces and build your skills from the ground-up.
Learning easier exercises and pieces allows you to really master them – this is crucial. Challenging pieces can be fun, but if it’s all you’re doing, you’re going to be disappointed by your progress.
Problem #2: Learning Too Many Pieces
Problem #2, learning too many pieces, is basically the opposite of problem #1. Here’s how this usually plays out: I review what a student has worked on over the past year and see a huge list – often in excess of 40 pieces. I then look at what their weekly practice sessions contain, and it’s a massive portfolio of 5+ pieces (not including technique!).
There are a couple problems with learning a ton of pieces all at once. First, you might spread yourself too thin – making small gains on the pieces instead of making real headway. This could cause even simpler pieces to take a couple of months to finish to a satisfying level.
Second, it might be difficult to get any piece past a 75% level. I find people who have a huge amount of music on the go tend to get bored easily, and that’s usually a driving force behind having so much on the go. Getting the final polish on a piece requires detail-oriented work which many people find tedious. But it can also be unsatisfying to spend so much time on practice, with little to show for it in the end.
Remedy: Scale back to three pieces at a time
Josh Wright tends to recommend that students practice only one to two pieces at a time, assuming they have an hour a day to dedicate to practice. It’s hard to really excel at pieces without this degree of focus. I think three pieces is a good maximum, especially if you’re balancing a couple of easier pieces with a longer-term challenge piece.
Three pieces provide enough variety, while being manageable enough to still make meaningful progress on a weekly basis. This also gives you some time to focus on other elements of piano playing, such as ear training and technique.
Problem #3: Getting Halfway Through a Piece and Abandoning it Forever
It’s very common for me to come across a string of abandoned pieces when looking over what someone has been working on over the past year of practice. Usually these are pieces that are too hard (see problem #1), or because they became bored and avoided the detail-focused portion of practice (see problem #2).
Not every piece needs to be finished – I fully support abandoning pieces when they’re simply not worthwhile to complete. But a tendency toward unfinished pieces as the norm points to a bigger problem.
Remedy #1: Choose music that’s level-appropriate
A level-appropriate piece of music should take about a month (sometimes less) to get to an 80-90% competency. I usually recommend students play music that’s easier than they think they “need” to practice, since getting all the details in place for a simpler piece tends to be more challenging than people assume.
Remedy #2: Learn about the “polishing” phase of a piece and implement it in your practice
If boredom is your enemy, and you find it much more fun to sail through the beginning and developing phases of a piece, spend some time researching what it really means to put the finishing touches on a piece. Read “The Musician’s Way” and watch some relevant videos (I have one on getting a piece to performance level).
Not every piece you learn should be mastered (maybe 1 in 4), but I encourage to aim for competency (around 80%) with the majority of pieces you pick up – especially if you tend to avoid this phase of practice.
I hope this video and post has helped shed some light on some difficulties you might be facing in your piano practice sessions. If you’d like to continue this discussion, be sure to sign up for my free, live webinar which will be on Saturday, February 22nd at 3pm EST. Bring your workbook (free when you sign up!) and your questions, and I’ll see you then!