It’s been a while since I sat down and chatted with you about piano player problems and challenges that adult learners in particular tend to face. Today I want to talk about the very common problem of practicing without feeling like you’re making any progress at all.
Here are four reasons you might not be progressing at the piano:
1. Only playing one piece at a time
Often when people feel stalled at the piano – as though they’re not improving on their pieces – it’s because they’re only working on a single piece, sometimes for months. You look back over a stretch of many months and see one or two pieces learned, and that’s it. You don’t feel any better at playing piano or reading sheet music, even though you might be spending quite a bit of time on these pieces.
2. The pieces are too difficult
Going along with the “one piece at a time” problem, there’s a tendency for piano beginners and intermediates to choose their favorite pieces to practice. Problem is, their favorite pieces are usually quite difficult. Sure, a relative beginner can grind their way through a Chopin nocturne in a few months, but it’s going to be piles of time and labor, and you’re not going to see the needle move very far forward.
3. Dropping pieces when you get bored
Another thing I see sometimes, which definitely gets in the way of your ability to progress, is having a trail of unfinished songs behind you. Maybe you learn a bunch of songs, but only about 50% of the way. You don’t get these pieces to the point where they gel and become natural – they don’t “sink in”. This is the dabbler approach, which can be just as problematic as only playing one piece at a time.
4. The pieces don’t “stick”
No matter how many times you practice something, it doesn’t “stick” in your brain. You return to the piano the next day, and it’s like you never practiced at all. Or the needle moves forward, but at a microscopic pace.
This usually happens alongside “the pieces are too difficult”. If something is way above your playing or reading level, it’s not going to stick. It’s just too far away. Sometimes the issue also relates to having an underdeveloped ear.
Four remedies to start progressing at the piano
1. Have two or three pieces on the go at any given time
Practice sessions tend to be much more productive and efficient if you switch modes between several pieces instead of going all in with just one piece. I’ve actually time-tracked myself in the past, and it seems to take me longer to learn a piece if it’s my sole focus (unless it’s a very long piece with a lot of different parts that I can bounce between).
If you have three pieces and you spend, say, fifteen minutes on each, you’re fresh for each one. If you spend 45 minutes on one piece, there’s a tendency to lose focus and concentration. Sloppy playing can come into play.
2. Play easier pieces
This is the most important remedy, because playing too-difficult pieces seems to be the most common problem. If someone tells me “I’m not making progress at the piano”, nine times out of ten it’s because their pieces are too difficult.
Scale it way back. Go back to basics. Learn some pieces that take you 1-3 weeks to finish, instead of many months. I know people resist playing “baby music” because it’s much more interesting to play “real music”. But what I see again and again are people who are surprised by how fun it is to play simpler pieces that they can accomplish quickly. It’s such a boost – and a skill-builder – to be able to quickly move through repertoire.
If sight reading is your issue, then you want to read as much music as you can. Cycling through 6-8 pieces each month is a great way to constantly expose yourself to reading music. Many people will spend three months on one piece, and since the piece is so difficult they have to memorize it as they go. So in that three-month period, they’re only really reading music maybe a quarter of the time.
But if you’re learning twenty pieces in three months, the volume of your sight reading increases drastically, and you’ll get so much better at it.
3. Stick with a piece until it’s around 75-80%
You don’t need to become perfect at every piece you play, but if you’re consistently learning a bunch of music and dropping them at around the 50% mark, you could really benefit from a bit of follow-through to see your skills improve.
Getting a piece to 75-80% is a bit subjective, but I qualify it like this:
- Mostly up to speed
- Mostly accurate rhythm; perhaps a few minor slips, but an overall consistent sound
- Mostly accurate notes; the notes are well-known, but the odd mistake can happen
- Expressed reasonably well (incorporating dynamics, details like staccato, etc)
- Knowledge of the piece is strong enough that you could play bits of it from memory
4. Work on your ear
If pieces aren’t sticking (ie you feel like you have to re-learn them every time you practice piano), it’s probably because your pieces are too difficult. Go back to remedy #2 and see where that gets you (this is almost always the solution).
However, sometimes pieces don’t stick because your ear isn’t very strong. Your ear helps to create a “memory” of a piece. We remember a piece visually (how it looks on the page and keyboard), tactilely (how the hand movements feel) and analytically (chord structures, patterns). We also remember a piece aurally – how it sounds.
This seems like such an obvious point, but if you can’t “hear” a piece in your head without playing it, then it’s somewhat like trying to learn a piece without any sheet music. If you’re learning a phrase of music, for example, and you play through the melody a few times, the sound of that melody should stay in your head. Without pressing the keys, it should have left an imprint of sound in your mind. If that doesn’t happen for you, it means you need to do some ear training, stat.
Practicing piano is way more fun when you’re accomplishing things and making progress. It seems counter-intuitive to most people to learn easier pieces in order to progress – won’t learning difficult pieces be bigger accomplishments?
It’s better to walk before you can run. You need to get some momentum and build some skills before learning that nocturne won’t seem like a Herculean effort. And learning multiples pieces a month feels amazing – even if they’re way, way easier. You don’t have to struggle!
Enjoy practicing. 😊