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The "How-Tos" of Practicing

Probably the most important thing we can teach our students is how to practice.

And, one of the most challenging things we teach is how to practice well. When we teach practice strategies that instill attention to detail and develop problem-solving skills, we help students understand how to organize life's challenges into daily, weekly, and longer-term goals.

Experienced teachers have accumulated a set of practice drills to help their students practice more effectively, and we are always looking for fresh ideas to add to this teaching "bag of tricks." The following ideas stem from personal experience and ideas gleaned from teacher colleagues across the country (noted in parentheses).

Organizing practice: Upfront blueprint

Your student sits at his piano with his book opened to a new piece, ready to practice. What tools does he have that will help him color this blank practice canvas?

The best place to start sketching a new piece's practice plan is through an aural and visual analysis. As the student examines the score, play the piece for your student or lis-ten to the handy CD or mp3 performance available with many series. You and your stu-dent can learn a lot about his listening and visual awareness as he describes what he noticed (and didn't notice).

Kids love finding similar patterns and sections, their pencils in hand, bracket-ing sections and labeling identical or sim-ilar phrases or rhythm patterns. Seeing his own scrawls on the page—rather than your markings—will bring ownership to the practice-planning process, and will help him understand the piece's structure. He may also discover the piece is a "bargain piece," with lots of repetition ("if you learn line 1, you also learn line 5, etc).

Depending upon the student's level, his opening blueprint may include more details such as the key, meter, accidentals, and harmonic structure.1 I always smile when a festival entrant brings to my judging table an early elementary score with a rainbow of highlighted accidentals and scrawled fingerings. My thanks go out to the teacher who, from the start, brought the student into the learning process.

"Chunking" problem spots

Each lesson offers a golden opportunity for students to learn how to divide a piece into small, workable practice sections. The process begins by isolating immediate problem spots (a "bite"), choosing a small section that might contain these bites in context (a "chunk"), and determining a larger section ("telephone number chunk") that can be learned correctly in a determined amount of practice time (five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes).

Quite often, students work on practice spots that are too long. Establishing "bites" and "chunks" helps organize effective practice by highlighting problems to fix.

Practice bites: A practice "bite" is an immediate problem spot that can be solved in just a few minutes. A bite may be a few notes, a wrong chord, or a forgotten rest. Now that your student sees these bites on the page, you can guide him to appropriate drills for fixing these spots (see mm. 2–3, 13–14, and m. 18 in Excerpt 1).

Practice chunks: A practice "chunk" is a longer section, and it may contain several practice "bites." Chunks vary in length, depending upon the problem and the student's level. A young student's "chunk" might consist of two measures that contain coordination and rhythmic challenges. An intermediate student may practice a line of a sonatina to reach a certain tempo with the metronome. An advanced student may want to pull together the interpretive "long line" across a full page of a sonata. Effective practice results from "chunk" lengths that the student can comfortably conquer in a short amount of time (see mm. 1–4, 11–14, and 17–20 of Excerpt 1).

Telephone-number chunks: When we memorize a ten-digit telephone number, we may repeat the number aloud several times or write the number down to internalize it. If you have to learn two telephone numbers back-to-back, the task gets decidedly more complex.

A "telephone-number chunk" is one that can be mastered through drill and repetition during a five-to fifteen-minute practice session. The chunk's length and the practice time may vary in length, depending upon the task's complexity and the student's age and development (see mm. 1–8 and 9–20 of Excerpt 1).

The practice goal is to play the telephone-number chunk correctly, from beginning to end—whether it is four measures of a Bach fugue or the first two lines of a primary level piece. Carefully choosing the length of these chunks will facilitate the student's total concentration, securing these corrections for subsequent practice sessions.

Excerpt 1 shows two telephone-number chunks: the first statement of the A section (mm. 1–8) and the B section (mm. 9–20). The final A section is not labeled for practice because it is a direct repeat of the first telephone-number chunk. Within the A section there are "bites" (i.e. that notorious leap in mm. 3–4) and "chunks" (mm. 1–4).

A piano and a palm tree

Bring reality TV to your piano studio with an imaginative slant to goal-setting for a week's practice.  Begin by helping your student set a specific weekly realistic and reachable goal.  This goal might be memorizing a festival piece or fixing those nagging rhythm problems in a sonatina.  Then, have her imagine she is lone on a desert island equipped only with a piano and a palm tree. In order to get off the island, she has to achieve this goal—it is as simple as that. The task: "Exactly what do you plan to do in practice this week to get off the island?" This strategy encourages student responsibility to explain and carry through practice procedures to "escape the island."

Demonstrating this type of student practice procedure can show students how a short amount of time can yield great improvement. After discussing or writing down the practice plan to get off the island, leave the lesson for five to ten minutes while your student practices alone. By encouraging the student to take control of the task, you may both be surprised by the results.


Helping students create mini-goals encourages the mastery of specific details through concentrated, minimal practice time. The list below shows how a piece's section can be corrected through mini-goals which can be assessed easily by the student. Each mini-goal will likely require several repetitions, and you can write abbreviated mini-goals on sticky notes placed in the score near the problem spot.

Set the mini-goal: For example, a telephone-number chunk that encompasses the first four measures of the piece.

I will play all the correct notes in rhythm, RH alone.

I will play RH alone with metronome at 88. 

I will play all the correct notes in rhythm, LH alone.

I will play LH alone with metronome at 88.

I will play hands together, correct notes in rhythm, three times slowly. 

I will play both hands with metronome at 72 until comfortable.

I will work with the metronome to reach 88 hands together.

I will add dynamics to first four measures with metronome, securing rhythm and tempo.

Goal reached: First four measures of the piece are securely set in rhythm, notes, and dynamics. (This goal may be what is written in the weekly assignment book.)

Phillip Johnston suggests a similar practice strategy with his "Level System." Johnston converts the task of learning a piece into dozens of small comfortable steps, similar to the mini-goal strategy described above. He suggests working on the piece in small sections (similar to chunking), establishing levels of accomplishment for each section:

can play LH slowly

can play RH slowly

can play LH from memory

can play RH from memory, etc

Technical drills

"Stretching" the tempo in a rubato-like way to allow students extra time to arrive comfortably at a leaped chord...

There is no argument that technical skill development requires repetition of small problem "bites" to secure finger and hand coordination. In order for students to carry through with technical practice at home, they must realize the value of each repetition. If each repetition uses a specific approach that adds variety and specific mini-goals to the process, students will listen for improvement, rather than simply repeating for the sake of repetition alone. The technical practice strategies below suggest imaginative ways to make repetitive technical drills almost fun.

Finger grab: Our natural approach to a technically tricky, fast passage is to have students play it slowly with the metronome, gradually raising the tempo as it improves. The finger grab takes an entirely different approach.

First, isolate a technically challenging spot, reducing it to a group of notes that lies under a positioned hand or a bit beyond. Get the feel of these notes under the fingers. Play them out of meter, quickly and lightly, until they are comfortable—no effort or extra tone, just fingers. This establishes the idea of a comfortable "finger grab."

Repeat the finger grab in free meter, play-ing it lightly until it is totally comfortable. Slow down and place the finger-grab section into context with the sections before and after it, pausing immediately before and after the finger grab. In long passages that connect pattern to pattern, connect one finger grab to the next with a bit of a pause between, until each segment sits comfortably under the fingers. Slowly work these passages into the correct tempo and metrical feel of the piece, which will be slower than what was initially practiced with the finger grab. So, we essentially reverse our usual process—from a fast, free "feel" of the notes under the fingers, to a slower metric finger placement.

Stretch practice: This strategy uses the idea of "stretching" the tempo in a rubato- like way to allow students extra time to arrive comfortably at a leaped chord, slow down awkward arpeggiated figures, or se-cure tricky fingering passages in both hands. Students isolate these practice "bites," repeating the section with a stretched tempo until comfortably set. Then they place this section in context, playing the piece in tempo, but allowing "stretch-time" to listen for accuracy. Once physically secure, they can ease this section into tempo.

This strategy is especially helpful at a piece's climax points and chordal cadences. After students learn to use this "stretch" idea as a technical drill, they can refine it in performance as an expressive rubato at the climax or poco ritardando at the final cadence of a piece. 

Pause practice: This strategy is similar to stretch practice, but emphasizes a true delay and lifting of the hand between leaped chords, or the movement of hands over large distances. Students physically lift the hand and delay placement out of time until they can prepare and place the next chord or note correctly. This drill helps students avoid the natural instinct to grab any chord, even the wrong one—a reactive impulse that can easily become part of a practice routine. 

Initially encourage students to take as much time as needed to secure the second chord or note placement—often difficult for them to do because they are so eager to keep going. This approach can lead into the stretch practice described earlier. 3

Excerpt 2 shows how the ideas of Finger grab, pause, and stretch practice can be mapped out in a Haydn Sonatina.

Excerpt 2: Finger grabs, pause, and stretch practice in Sonatina in F Major, Hob. XVI:XX, mm. 1-16, by Joseph Haydn.

Repetition ad infinitum

Skill development requires repetition, repetition, and repetition. If we can season this repetition with manipulative props, games, and mini-goals, it makes practice fun for students and establishes a sense of accomplishment. My thanks to colleagues for these practice strategies.

Beethoven's beans (Carrie Wentz, MA): Start with a pile of five M&Ms. The student plays through a problem spot. If perfect, the student moves an M&M to a new pile. Repeat until all are in a new pile. If any mis-take is made, ALL must be moved back to the starting pile. 

Hmmm—I wonder what happens if all are moved to the "correct" pile. Yum!

Other teachers have suggested similar repetition-goal rewards: Jane Bastien (CA) uses pennies; Nancy Breth (VA) uses but-tons; Sharon Jaffee (VA) uses little toy animals. Take your pick—they all work. 

Beads on a pipe cleaner (Nancy Davis, VA): Have students put ten beads on a pipe cleaner and bend the ends. Students put the pipe cleaner on the music rack or top of the piano. With each repetition, they move a bead and then place the pipe cleaner back on the piano. This emphasizes placement of the hands in the proper position by returning to the keys after sliding the bead, as well as monitoring repetition. 

Games (Philip Johnston, The Practice Revolution): To promote greater focus, Johnston recommends games that have a consequence when there is an error. He describes several games on his website, including the "Seven Stages of Misery," the use of imaginary or real dice, tic-tac-toe, and others. The student plays against an imaginary opponent to reach creative goals, emphasizing accuracy in each repetition. Consequences of "losing" the game cause students to pay more attention to practice details. Use your own creative juices to develop practice games that provide the same incentive to "win" in practice.

Rhythm & note play

Playing around with rhythms and notes to make them look, sound, or feel different can intrigue students because they are doing something different from what is on the page. This "play" not only secures pitches and rhythms, but also helps prepare for memorization.

Blocking: Blocking chords in accompaniment figures, rather than playing broken arpeggiated chords, secures hand placement and harmonic awareness. Writing in chord symbols helps connect what students are learning in theory with what they are playing in their repertoire. Playing blocked harmonies under the melody, while saying the chord names aloud, prepares for memorization.

In more advanced repertoire, students can block arpeggiated passages to visualize and feel patterns. This is an excellent preparation for the finger-grab idea described earlier.

Expanding: Extending passages that have scales or arpeggios to another octave shows secure knowledge of the pattern. If the right hand and left hand have identical passage work an octave apart, try it two octaves apart. 4

Even-uneven: To secure even sixteenth-note rhythms, "play" with the idea of dotted rhythms. Using the metronome, play a different dotted rhythm with repetition of the practice bite or section. Follow this even-uneven drill by playing the original even sixteenths with the metronome (see Excerpt 3).

Excerpt 3: Even-uneven practice, Ballade, Op. 100, No. 15, mm. 1-4, by Johann Friedrich Burgmüller.

Forget the tie: Notation of syncopated rhythms can often be confusing, showing many tied notes over the bar lines. If tied notes are first played, rather than held, it helps align right hand and left hand rhythms (see Excerpt 4).

Additive rhythms: Bruce Berr (Chicago, IL) suggests adding extra notes within the beat to realize the correct subdivided rhythms. Students often mistakenly play a triplet figure when reading a dotted-eighth, sixteenth rhythm. Berr suggests using four repeated sixteenths as a starting point, leading to the correct duration of the dotted-eighth. 5 

Excerpt 4: Forget the tie, "Polonaise in G Minor" from "Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook," BWV Anh. 125, mm. 13-18.

Yes, it can be "perfect at home"

Our goal is to help students develop focused, deliberate practice that yields solid improvement. You may have recognized and used some of the above strategies, and perhaps you have been introduced to some novel ideas you can also use. Please feel free to share your own creative practice ideas by submitting them to my web-site,, clicking on Teacher Tips and "But it was Perfect at Home."

1. Nancy Breth refers to this overview as an X-ray in The Piano Student's Guide to Effective Practicing and a map in Practicing the Piano.

2. Johnston offers a wide array of practice and teaching ideas in Practice Revolution, Practiceopedia and through his website,

3. Nancy Breth includes a Countdown strategy that uses a metric approach (4, 3, 2, 1) in the pause between problem "bites." 

4. Breth's "Over the Top" idea is similar to this practice approach.

5 Bruce Berr, "Transformational Practice: Techniques for Piano," American Music Teacher (April/May 1995): 12-15, 93-95.

All excerpts in this article from FOURTH FINGER ON B-FLAT by Joanne Haroutounian. © 2012 Neil A. Kjos Music Company. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission

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