Piano Practice Tips to Improve Your Playing

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As I write this, we are about to turn the calendar over to a brand new year. This time of year always inspires me to think back on the great times and the lessons learned. It’s also time to look ahead to the new year and identify simple, specific goals to make even greater strides. One area which is always prominent in my goal setting is that of improving my pianistic skills. It is in this spirit that I give you my best piano practice tips to improve your own playing!

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Break Up Your Piano Practice

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks then starting on the first one.”

Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s timeless wisdom captures the very common block which often prevents us from moving forward in our pursuits. I am definitely guilty of building tasks up to an impossibly complex level in my head. After awhile, the task begins to seem completely unattainable and not even worth the effort.

But if you break the task up into smaller pieces, it suddenly becomes much more attainable.

This is true whether you are attempting to learn a new piece, improve your technique, or memorize a Beethoven Sonata. Unless you break these goals up, you will remain stuck.

Luckily, music is quite amenable to being broken into smaller, more manageable sections. This first piano practice tip may seem somewhat simplistic but it has propelled my playing further than any other. Taking one measure (or even one note) at a time allows you to block out everything else. It enables you to forget about the fast run in measure 43. Or the trills in 106. You can instead simply focus on tackling measure one.

Taking a piece mindfully measure by measure cements fingerings, dynamics, and rhythms into your brain. It does so much more permanently than 500 mindless repetitions ever will. Give yourself permission to really learn the music by honing in one measure at a time.

Play What You Love

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to remain silent.”

Victor Hugo

I love listening to the film score channel on Pandora when I write. There’s nothing that inspires me to add a touch of dramatic flare to my writing more than the Indiana Jones theme song or the ever heroic Pirates of the Carribbean soundtrack.

A couple of years ago while writing and listening, I became mesmorized by a hauntingly beautiful piece for solo piano that I had never heard before. I was immediately surprised to learn it was a solo arrangement of a piece from the movie “Anastasia.” Although I have always preferred to learn pieces within the standard piano repertoire, this particular piece spoke to me. Despite its exclusion from the criteria I typically place on the pieces I work so hard to learn, I absolutely had to get this piece under my fingers!

Which brings me to my next piano practice tip. What’s the point of exerting hours of effort into learning a piece if you don’t absolutely love it?

Look for pieces which are fun, speak to you on a deeper level, or inspire you to practice. Selecting pieces based solely on technical difficulty or because you think it’s “what you should be playing” is a road to burnout. Instead, find those pieces you can’t wait to get back and work on. At its very core, music is the expression of emotion. If you keep this idea central, you will undoubtedly succeed.

Improve Through Listening

“When you play, never mind who listens to you.”

Robert Schumann

Have you ever had one of those moments when something you say to another person is completely misunderstood? Perhaps you meant to express a different thought. Or maybe you conveyed exactly what you meant however the other person took it the wrong way. Either way, there was a disconnect.

Similar to a conversational disconnect is that which can occur when you play without truly listening to the music you’re creating. And yet, simultaneous playing and objective listening is nearly impossible. Artful expression of emotion through the piano demands your complete attention and not the type of mental chatter which occurs with objective analysis. And yet, there can be no improvement if you are unable to objectively assess your playing.

My next piano practice tip to advance your playing is to record yourself.

Incorporate Recording Into Your Piano Practice

Consistently recording yourself has so many benefits beyond simply obtaining the ability to objectively listen to yourself. One of the biggest is that you can track your progress over time. I find it incredibly inspiring to be able to listen to something recorded a year ago and hear improvement in my playing.

Recording yourself also gives solid evidence of your playing. I have often found that I tend to get in my own head about my playing and am too critical. When I play back the recording, I can immediately find positive and redeeming qualities in the music. For example, the note I missed in measure 17 is insignificant in comparison to the emotion expressed in the passage. Recording is useful if for no other reason than to provide objective feedback. It combats the criticisms our minds are sometimes too quick to throw back at us!

I have experimented with a few different recording modalities but this one is by far my favorite! This microphone plugs right into your computer and requires no complicated set-up. Simply plug it in and start playing! The sound quality is absolutely amazing and the price is very reasonable. Maximize recording quality by plugging headphones into the microphone itself. After figuring out this tip I couldn’t be happier with the quality!

You can listen to one of my recordings using this microphone here.

Piano Practice Resources

“You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Maya Angelou

For a long time, I felt stuck in my playing. I was not practicing on a regular basis. I also did not feel I was making progress on the pieces I was practicing. My attitude toward piano took a negative turn. I began to believe I wasn’t making progress because I simply wasn’t talented enough. And to top it off, anxiety overwhelmed me each and every time I played in public. All in all, the joy that I had previously found in playing piano was gone.

And then one day I realized that staying stuck was my choice. I could choose to remain in this headspace of negativity. Or I could find resources to help me move past where I felt stuck.

I chose the latter.

And do you know what? There are some amazing resources out there! Resources to help with anything from motivation in the advancement of your playing to improvement of piano technique. There are resources to help you practice more effectively and resources to help with creating your own music-based business. The number of resources waiting for you is absolutely astounding!

From podcasts to blogs to membership sites, there are so many resources out there! Here are the two which I have found most helpful:

The Inner Game of Music gives a different approach to tackling performance anxiety. Adapted from a book originally written for athletes, its timeless wisdom is simple yet highly effective. This book has given me an entirely different perspective on how to approach any performance situation. If you’re struggling with anxiety in your piano playing, I highly recommend this incredibly helpful resource!

Break Through Anxiety

And speaking of anxiety … this next piano practice resource is not music-related per se but nonetheless highly relevant. Headspace is an app which guides you through the practice of meditation. After realizing that anxiety was somewhat prevalent in my life and unfortunately not strictly limited to my piano playing, I began searching for solutions. Meditation was a modality which kept popping up throughout my research.

Although meditation has been practiced around the world for centuries to improve the mind-body connection, it is only recently that research has started to support its efficacy. Multiple studies have supported its ability to ease anxiety, depression, and even symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Meditation is also generally considered safe for most people and unlike medications, doesn’t come with pages and pages of side effects.

I have been using the Headspace app for a couple of months now and saw an immediate decrease in anxiety levels. For the first time in ages, I felt like I was able to push anxious thoughts aside and find a place of calm in my mind. It has helped me have a more positive outlook and enabled me to think beyond the anxiety of the moment. I wholeheartedly recommend this app whether you are looking to tame stage fright nerves or the stubbornly anxious thoughts of everyday life.

As much as I love and have seen a difference from this app, please do not hesitate to see your primary care provider if you are struggling with anxiety and depression. There is help out there!

Motivation and Piano Practice

“Your talent determines what you can do. It is your motivation that determines how much you are willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it.

Lou Holtz

For the longest time, I felt that a lack of motivation was holding me back in the practice room. I never felt like practicing and therefore equated this with a lack of motivation.

I once believed that motivation was required to start or make progress toward a particular goal. In my mind, motivation was a strong feeling which translated into action. Similar to the key which starts a car engine, I believed that motivation was required to pursue a goal.

In actuality, motivation is more an action than a feeling. Motivation comes from doing and if you wait until you feel like doing something, it will almost never happen. It’s very much a snowball effect in that the more you do, the more you feel like doing. But you need to take a step forward first.

My Secret for Improved Consistency

The modacity app has been pivotal in motivating me to take steps toward consistent piano practice. Designed by a musician, the app has incredible features which promote excellent practice habits. The app allows you to create practice playlists and input all the pieces you’re currently working on. When it’s time to practice, simply select the piece. A timer then automatically starts for you, adding up your total practice time. You can also put the amount of time you want to work on a particular piece in and it will alert you when your time is up. This is a great feature if you tend to lose track of time while practicing.

Modacity also has a built-in tuner and metronome. The metronome has the capability to capture subdivisions of the beat as well, a great feature when working on tricky rhythms. My all-time favorite feature however is that it keeps track of how many days in a row you’ve practiced. It also tells you how many hours of practice you’ve put in. I absolutely love seeing the hours and days add up! I also find huge motivation in being able to check off another piano practice session!

It’s Your Turn

The higher pursuit of any art requires incredible attention to detail and piano is no exception. Mastering the piano requires creativity and problem-solving. The daily challenge of figuring out something entirely new in the journey toward becoming a better pianist is what truly appeals to me.

Although there is always something to improve upon, it’s also important to stop and celebrate your successes along the way! Sometimes we get so focused on improving that we forget to look for the small wins. Wins such as mastering a tricky passage or learning to play with a greater sense of relaxation. Logging another day of practice is a win in and of itself as it means you’re saying “yes” to your goals.

Now get out there and try out a few of these piano practice tips for yourself! Don’t forget to leave a comment below about what you’re working on and which tip has been most helpful!

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