Effective Practice and Motivation

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Below are some of the many different aspects involved in learning how to practice the piano effectively.

Environment | Goals  | Musical Form | Rhythm | Fingering | Posture & Tension | Method | Memory | Pedal | Motivation


Small Sections or 'Chunking'
It often helps to take a small section of music and review it until it feels comfortable before going on to another section. It is also a good idea to start a little before the section and end a little after the section to avoid having obvious seams later on. If children continue to make mistakes, perhaps they are playing too quickly, the section is too long, or they are not ready to be playing it both hands together. We remember our phone numbers by grouping them into small 'chunks' of 3+3+4. It's the same idea with learning a piece of music. Focus on small sections and then gradually put them together. Increase the size of the sections to avoid 'seams'. We don't want to hear a series of sections. The ultimate goal should be a complete piece that fits together as one work.

Parallel Practice

Parallel practice means taking two similar sections, or passages within a section, and practicing them one after the other to become more familiar with their similarities and differences. Going back and forth between theses passages will strengthen the understanding of each of them.

Backwards Chains

‘Backwards Chains’ may very well be the most dreaded form of practice for many of my students. However, most children will return the next week and sheepishly admit that 'backwards chains' really help.

Decide on many different starting places within the piece or section and number them starting at the end and working your way towards the beginning. Working backwards, children should begin at the first 'starting place' closest to the end, and play to the end of the piece (or the particular section). Once they have mastered that, they can go to the second 'starting place' which occurs prior to the one they just did and play from there to the end. They can continue to work their way backwards until they reach the beginning of the piece (or section).

Being able to start at various places in the music helps the performer to feel more secure with the finished product. This also assures that the end of the piece will be as 'polished' as the beginning!


The act of singing various parts of the piece usually helps students to hear the melody and/or harmony better. Singing also facilitates the process of memorization.

Various ‘singing assignments’ can be given to students depending on their level and the particular piece of music they are studying. The most obvious place to start is to have students sing the melody of each of their pieces. My beginning students and I often make up lyrics for their pieces. A more advanced student once made wonderful lyrics to a Haydn Minuet turning it into a fun Christmas Carol! More challenging than singing the melody is singing the bass line. For beginners, it
usually makes most sense to just play and sing the melody and then play and sing the bass line. As students advance, they can try to play both parts and sing just one part. For more of a challenge, they can try to play one part and sing the other.

Improvisation and Transposition

Unfortunately, the study of music has become much more compartmentalized than it was in the past. Although today's jazz musicians improvise all the time, many classically trained musicians never have the opportunity to explore this medium.

As a classical musician, I am interested in using improvisation as a valuable tool for self growth and exploration. In the right environment, improvisation can be extremely fun and rewarding. An ideal environment would be a place where the student feels comfortable to experiment; safe from criticism.

Improvisation can also be used as a creative educational tool. In addition to the satisfaction of creating one's own compositions, students can develop a deeper appreciation of music by other composers when they compare alternative ways a particular section of music could have been written.

For beginning students, playing on the black keys is a great way to start improvising because everything sounds good. Parents (even parents with no musical training) can improvise duets with their children. If you don't know where to start, try choosing adjectives or story ideas and then create sounds using just the black notes that you think represent these adjectives or stories. Don't worry about whether or not it sounds good; just the act of creating something together can be rewarding and fun.

Students with some knowledge of theory and chord progressions might want to try improvising on a chord progression which has been extracted from one of their pieces. Perhaps you might prefer to make up your own chord progression. A great way to get the sound of a particular chord
progression in your ear is to transpose it into all the keys. Taking this idea a step further, as you become comfortable improvising on a simple chord progression you might want to try improvising on the same chord progression in other keys.

All content © by Donna Gross Javel