One of the best ways to improve your child’s progress is to improve the quality of their practice sessions.
For many students, a practice session consists of simply sitting down at the piano and playing their favorite piece from start to finish as fast as they can. The secret to getting the most out of each practice session is to have a general structure for each session. You should discuss this with your child’s piano teacher to identify a structure that is consistent with their approach to teaching.
To show you how this works, let me share with you the structure I recommend to my students.
ACTIVITY #1: Fun Warm Up
A good way to start a practice session is for students to play their favorite piece for fun. This is really just to get their fingers moving and to get the session off to an enjoyable start. You should not make a big deal of any mistakes made during the warm up.
ACTIVITY #2: Technical Work
Technical work consists of exercises that help a child develop the coordination and technique they require to play the piano. When a child is just starting out, these exercises usually consist of simple patterns which help children learn to move their fingers.
ACTIVITY #3: Focus Piece / Focus Exercise
Rather than playing all their pieces, I suggest that at each practice session a student selects one piece to focus on. In addition to focusing on one piece, I recommend that the student focus on one particular exercise for the selected piece. There are many different exercises that can be used to ensure that each session is different and engaging. Here are some of the exercises I use with my students:
Divide and conquer – This simply means that the student divides the piece up into different sections and concentrates on a particular section during each practice session. By practicing and perfecting small sections of a piece, students progress much more quickly than if they try and practice the whole piece each time they play.
Hands Separate – Another good exercise is to practice only the left hand or only the right hand of a piece. This is much easier than playing hands together and it is a good way to ensure that the child’s left hand is not neglected.
Vary The Tempo(speed) – In this exercise, the student plays the selected section at a slow manageable tempo in strict time with a metronome. When they can play the section without a mistake, they are allowed to increase the tempo by one notch. If they make a mistake the metronome has to go down a notch. This can become a bit like a game of snakes and ladders and is a lot of fun.
Vary The Dynamics – The dynamics of a piece relate to how the music changes in volume. It is an excellent idea to occasionally vary the dynamics of a piece so that a student becomes familiar with how it feels to play loud and soft. You can also ask a child to play a piece with different moods eg. Happy or Sad. This helps children learn that there is more to playing piano than simply pressing keys.
Record Your Child Playing – It can be a lot of fun for children to hear a recording of themselves playing. It is also an excellent idea to keep some recordings so that occasionally you and your child can sit down and listen to old recordings and appreciate just how far they have progressed.
ACTIVITY #4: Sight Reading
Sight Reading is the ability to pick up a piece of music you have never seen before and play it simply by reading the music.
Sight reading is a skill that students of all ages struggle with. I believe that much of this struggle is due to the fact that many students are not really taught how to read music.
Learning the note names and keyboard positions of the piano is not very exciting. It is simply a matter of rote learning — very much like learning the times tables.
This is why I developed ‘Piano Is Fun’. The idea was to make the process fun by breaking it down into easy to manage sections and then providing students with an incentive to progress by rewarding them with colorful rewards each time they complete a lesson.
When students are just beginning to play piano, I suggest that each practice session end with a game of Piano Is Fun.
This not only motivates students to concentrate during the practice session, it also acts as a reward and is a great fun way to bring a practice session to an end.
You will probably notice that I did not put a time against each of these activities. As you have probably gathered. I do not like to regiment practice sessions using a stopwatch. I simply instruct parents to ensure that each practice session contains the four previously mentioned activities.
Lets stop and have a think about this for a moment. Picture two imaginary students. One named Tim and the other named Melinda.
Each time Tim practices he sits down at the piano and plays his favorite pieces from start to finish for half an hour.
Each time Melinda practices she does the following:
(1) Warms up with a fun piece
(2) Plays some technical finger exercises
(3) Selects a single piece and focuses on improving a particular aspect of that piece
(4) Finishes off by playing a game that helps her learn how to read music
Which student do you think will progress more quickly? I can tell you from experience that students who practice in a structured manner generally progress much more rapidly than students who practice in a random fashion.
It is important to remember that different teachers will have different ideas when it comes to how students should practice. The ideas above are some of the things I have found useful over the years with my own students.
You may like to print this article out and take it along to discuss with your child’s piano teacher. That way you can ask them how they would like your child to practice at home.