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Strategical practice vs. playing once through on the piano

Mizue Murakami

Messy to Clean music notes

Often I see a lot of piano students (or music students of any instrument) play a piece from the beginning through the end at home and think they are "practicing" the piano. But that's not a "practice." That's just that you played the music piece or song. Whether you played it once or many times, it's still just "playing." If you want to "practice," you need to do these things:

  • Identify what spots are challenging in the piece.
  • Find out what is causing the technical problem. 
  • Come up with strategies to improve those spots. 

You may think that if you play the piece many times, you would eventually improve on that piece. But without any strategy or objective assessment, just "playing" could create more problems. It's because without addressing the challenges in the piece, you will end up keep playing incorrectly or keep making the same mistakes. And, not only that, if you just "play," the incorrect playing and the same mistakes will actually get stuck to you like glue. Your fingers will memorize those. That's called a "muscle memory." The muscle memory is hard to get rid of. 

So, what can you do? How can you actually "practice" to improve on the particular piece? I recommend you to record yourself playing the piece. If the piece is a long piece, just play and record a small section. But record it at least three times. And listen to the recordings. I'm almost sure you will find the same spots that you tripped over in all the recording you made. Other spots could be accidental and random. This is why it is better to record many times. So, you'll really know where the spots are that you are having difficulties with. 

After you identify those spots, work on them individually. Yes, it is tedious work. But you have to do them one by one. This is where having a teacher is very helpful. She or he can give you strategies and solutions. 

I'm not able to give you how to individually practice the difficult spot in this blog because each situation is very different. However, if it's a technical issue, it's most likely a tiny section of a small passage or phrase within a measure. If that's the case, work on that particular spot first specifically. For example, if you have a difficulty with the right-hand part in Measure-25, practice just with the right hand only in Measure-25. Then, try Measure-25 hands together. If you can play Measure-25 well hands together, now you have to flow into Measure-25 from Measure-24. So, play from Measure-24 through 25. If you succeed it, try starting from earlier measure through Measure-25. You'll notice farther back you start from, more difficult Measure-25 becomes. The tendency is that you may go back to the incorrect way you used to play Measure-25. If you see that tendency, keep practicing fewer measures earlier through Measure-25. And extend it very gradually. 

If it's a technical issue, you can not just "hope for the best" by "playing" and "playing" from the beginning of a piece through the end. That's not realistic, practical, strategic way. If you have been doing that until now, I hope you can switch to a more mindful way of practicing. Happy Practicing!

In this blog, I was talking mainly about practicing technically difficult parts. I didn't talk about artistic the side of practicing on a particular piece. I'll perhaps talk about that in a later blog. 



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