How long should you practice a piece? And other piano questions
Today’s episode of PianoTV is a Q&A session where I go through the many, many questions I’ve had. We’ll talk about how long you should practice a piece, and four other questions to boot.
(If you’re a beginner, consider joining our Complete Piano Path For Beginners group, as registration closes this week and won’t open again for six months!)
How long should you practice a piece?
This question depends on your level. If you’re a beginner – let’s say you’ve been playing for six months – then practicing a piece for 1-3 weeks makes sense to me. This is a high-turnover stage, where you’re exploring a whole bunch of music and building skills. You could easily pick up one piece per week at this stage (much more if you’re also using a method book).
If you’re keeping each piece around for 1-3 weeks, you’ll have anywhere from 1-3 overlapping pieces at a time. This is a totally manageable workload, and it’s nice when you balance learning a new piece with progressing with pieces you already know.
In my Complete Piano Path A for beginners course, we go through a similar process to this. There are 21 pieces assigned in the course – one per week – though students will sometimes practice those pieces for more than one week.
If you’re practicing a piece for more than a month at this stage, it’s probably too tough for you – UNLESS you’re not really practicing so much as reviewing. Some people like keeping pieces they’ve learned around for a while. But if you’re still actively working on a piece at this point, it’s likely going to slow down your progress.
Now, if you were an intermediate student – let’s say Grade 3, playing for around 3 years – the average piece will likely take 2-4 weeks. Most will take closer to 4 weeks to get very good at, but that’s not something we aim to do with every single piece we learn. You might want to learn a “project piece” once in a while (I’d do this once a year with my students) – a piece that takes maybe a few months, instead of one – but the bulk of your studies around this level should be turned over at a medium rate.
At an advanced level, you can likely get a grip on a piece in about 4 weeks or so, but it’ll take longer than that to get very good at it – say for an exam or recital.
In general, you shouldn’t be spending months and months on a single piece, grinding it out – even a “stretch piece” might take about three months, but isn’t learned by itself – there are other, easier pieces being learned simultaneously.
How do you perform in front of others without forgetting how to play piano?
I’m certainly not the authority on this one, as I get performance anxiety sometimes as well. Here are some things that help:
- Record yourself frequently (we do this with the CPP classes), as it can give you the jitters of a performance without the audience, allowing you to practice working through them
- Memorize a piece before attempting to play in front of someone. If it’s memorized, you’ll be less likely to blank out (it’s a bit counter-intuitive, yes)
- Make sure you’ve been playing the piece at least a month. It’s so normal to take a piece to a teacher after a week and bomb in the lesson where it was fine at home. This is because you haven’t had much time to sit with the piece.
- Learn an easy piece to perform. If you’re a beginner, maybe Moonlight Sonata isn’t what you shoot for right away. Easier piece, easier performance. Something that’s level-appropriate will be easier for you to cope with nerves during.
How do I strengthen my fourth finger?
Strap on some weights and do some lifting!
In all seriousness, students struggle with hand independence, especially the left hand 4th and 5th fingers. These fingers just aren’t generally very adept, and though experience will help, they’ll never be fully as strong as the inner fingers. The main thing that’ll help you is wrist-tilting. I did a video on wrist rotation discussing this, but basically, when playing fingers 5 and 4 in the left hand, you tilt your left wrist to the left. That way, you’re pressing the keys with your arm more than your individual digits.
How do I train my ear?
Start simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to discern 10 different types of intervals and chords. Take a look at the RCM or ABRSM syllabus at a Grade 1 level, and learn those ear training techniques. Once you’re very confident with these, move on to Grade 2.
If you don’t want to use any syllabus, start with interval training. Can you tell apart a minor third and major third? Can you tell the difference between a major chord and a minor chord? Once you’ve got that down-pat, add 2nds to the mix. Then 4ths. And so on.
Allow the ear to develop naturally, and let this process take its own time. A student isn’t expected to discern every interval, for example, until the advanced levels – generally after many years of playing.
Simply practicing piano trains your ear. You get better at internalizing and remembering melodies and harmonies, and you build your “musical intuition” this way.
How much should I practice?
This is a question I get a variation of quite often. My general advice would be “not too much”, as pianists can have a habit of over-practicing – even beginners. The idea is, if you’re starting at age 60, you need to catch up and practice for four hours a day in order to do so. But the vast majority of people who do this are going to be performing mindless repetition and essentially wasting time.
Focusing on practice is very resource-intensive. It takes a lot of focus and concentration. 30-60 minutes per day is enough, and I’d keep your sessions to around 30 minutes. And within a 30-minute block, try to think in 5-10 minute practice chunks so you’re always being mindful and deliberate. Let’s say you were to sit down with a piece you’re working on for 20 minutes. Maybe for this session, you’ll decide to spend 5 minutes reviewing lines 1-3, which you’re already familiar with, and 10 minutes learning line 4, which you’ll build slowly in 2-bar increments. Finally, you’ll finish with 5 minutes of line-by-line metronome work.
Taking 30 seconds at the start of your practice to make these decisions will save you so much time in the long run, and is infinitely preferable to playing something over and over, while your mind is checked out and disengaged.
I hope you enjoyed this Q&A session, and feel free to check out my CPP classes – the A class for beginners is open this week only, the B class will open in October (join the waitlist), and I’ll be starting a brand-new Grade 1 class around November.