How to practice the piano – pt. 2

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In last month’s practicing the piano article we focused a lot on goal setting. In this month’s article we are going to dive deeper into what and how to practice. I will also be covering my 80/20 practice rule.

 

1) My Piano Goal This Week

We know learning the piano can be challenging, but setting goals for yourself at the piano can be even more challenging. “Should I work more on piano chords?” “Should I practice my Major scales more?” “Should I learn more music theory?” the answer of course is yes, yes, yes. But…you need to learn in phases. You must break your learning into smaller, more manageable chunks or parts.

Your piano goal should have these characteristics: 1) it is short, 2) it is to the point and 3) it is attainable. Let’s go through some example goals that would be a great starting point.

  • My goal this week: Learn My Romance, steps 1+2. Learn my F, Bb and G Major scales.

Now this goal might seem like a difficult goal to achieve. And, for some of you…it is. So, you might have to set an easier goal like:

  • My goal this week: Learn 2 licks from the 15 Blues licks lesson. Learn my C, F and G Major scales.

The point is to set an easy enough goal that can be accomplished within a week. It is always better to set a more simple goal that you are guaranteed to accomplish versus a goal that is too challenging that you may or may not accomplish.

2) Technique

I like to recommend that my students work on practical technique. Now this is very subjective and likely to upset some professionals or teachers alike, so let me explain.

Too often, I have heard from students that a teacher has asked them to do some exercise in all 12 keys before they can move on. Let me stop and say that learning exercises, songs and concepts in all 12 keys is a good thing. But, it might be unattainable for some. Or, if attainable, you might be so frustrated by the time you finish that you have a negative memory to the concept or never want to play it again!

Alright, so what is practical piano technique? Basically, practical piano technique is that which you will use…now. It is technique that you can integrate into your playing…now. See a pattern? It is about the now, rather than the later.

When it comes to practical piano technique, there are the “must do’s” which are:

  • Major scales
  • Chromatic scale
  • Arpeggios

Good piano exercises

These technical exercises never get old and can always be integrated into your playing. So, how do you figure out what practical piano technique is for you? Well, we can base all of our practical technique off of our Song Of The Moment or ‘SOTM’ for short. This is the song we are currently working on. Now this can be a jazz standard like Stella By Starlight, a rock song like Piano Man, latin, funk, gospel or even just a straight up 12-bar blues.

Now, let’s imagine for a moment that your Song of The Moment (SOTM) is a 12-bar blues in the key of F. Using that information, here are some practical piano techniques that you should practice:

  1. Play the F, Bb and C Major scales two-hands
  2. Play the F7, Bb7, C7 arpeggios both hands
  3. Play the chromatic scale hands-together 2 octaves
  4. Play the F Blues scale right-hand while playing the F7, B7, C7 chords (shells, rootless, etc…) in the left-hand

So, do you see how we are still practicing technique, but it is relevant to our SOTM. With this practical piano technique, once we decide to improvise we are already working within our key and practicing improvisation “fodder” which will help us create licks and phrases.

Another example: let’s say that we focused our technical practice on playing all of our minor 7th chord arpeggios. This would be a great exercise, but when will we apply this to actual music? If you’re like me, I want to see my practice “pay off” sooner rather than later.

Whereas, using the 4 steps I laid out above, now you can create an improvisation which uses notes from the Major scale, chromatic scale, Blues scale and chord tones from the 3 basic blues chords. This is what I mean when I say practical piano technique. It just makes good “practice sense.”

3) Song or Focused Concept

The Song or focused concept box is where you list the one or two songs/concepts that you want to work on this week. Anymore than 2 concepts and you are most likely setting yourself up for disappointment. Remember: it is always better to have an easy, attainable goal that you can reach than a goal which is over reaching.

Again, using a jazz standard and the blues, a good practice routine for your song/concept might be:

  1. My Romance – Steps 1 + 2
  2. 12-bar blues chords and improv in the key of Bb

Again, see how I linked the key of the SOTM and the blues together? The My Romance lesson is in the key of Bb, so practicing the blues in Bb makes perfect sense. This will allow you to see overlaps and even share musical ideas between the songs. For instance, when in the B section (measure 9) of My Romance, you can get ‘bluesy’ over the Eb – Ab – Bb chords by incorporating your Bb blues scale (Bb-Db-Eb-E-F-Ab).

4) Review & Music Theory

In this section, you write what you will practice for your repertoire review and theory review. Repertoire is the songs that you have learned and are now reviewing so you do not forget them. You will not remember all of the songs that you have ever played unless you have a very fortunate memory. So, don’t worry if you forget a song. This is why reading lead sheets comes in handy. It is always easy to go back and re-learn a song. Remember, if you are re-learning, it will go faster and you will ‘lock in’ the song even better the second time. The moral is: go easy on yourself if you need to re-learn a song.

“How many songs should I review?” Well, that depends on your time and your overall goal. If you want to play a 4 hour cocktail piano gig, then you might very well end up spending an hour a day reviewing your repertoire and adding new songs. I say for most students, you should have 4-6 songs memorized. Let’s talk about this…

Imagine that you go to a party with friends. You mention to someone, “Hey, I play the piano.” Well, what do you think the next question will be if they have a piano there? Of course they will ask you to play a song. You want to be ready. So, having 4-6 songs at your disposal (memorized) is great. Sit down, play 2 or 3 and see if they want more. If they ask for more, play another song or two…but always keep one more “up your sleeve.” If you play all of your songs right away, when they ask for another, then you’ll have to confess that you’re out of songs to play. This might be embarrassing for you, and this is what I want to avoid.

Remember the old adage: It’s always best to leave them wanting more. Same is true for you if you are asked to play. Play what you know well. Play some diverse songs if you have them. Play a holiday song if it is appropriate. But, save some of your repertoire while you gracefully get off stage. If the crowd is going wild and want you to play ‘just one more song.’ Well, you got one more up your sleeve and you can knock their socks off!

Now, on to theory. This should be pretty obvious. You should review your piano theory as well. Remember a few things:

  1. There is mental and physical theory. Mental theory is knowing the notes of a chord for example. Physical theory is actually knowing how to play those notes on the piano. You can practice mental theory ANYWHERE. So, on the bus, on a train…wherever
  2. Theory can and should include memorizing progressions, names of the notes of your scales, names of the notes of chords
  3. Visualizing the keyboard ‘in your head’ will help you see theory more effectively

When do I move on? The 80/20 rule.

Often students ask me “I’ve gotten down most of a concept, but I just can’t get down the rest. How long do I keep practicing this before moving on?” This is where the 80/20 rule comes in.

Getting down 80% of a concept is the ‘easy’ part. The 80% usually happens pretty quick and is the part when you are feeling really good about practice and you feel like you are making significant progress. Then comes the final 20%. For many of us, this part is drudgery. This is when we wonder if we will ever be able to do it and question our motives in playing the piano at all. This is when we say “so many players are better than me…will I ever be able to do this?”

You’re not alone. We ALL get to this point from time-to-time. The solution is to both understand the process and embrace it. Realize that the final 20% will take some time to master. This is both physical and mental. Your body just needs time to absorb the new concepts and to put them into practice with your fingers. This is the time to change your focus to something else.

“What? Willie, doesn’t it make more sense to focus harder on the concept rather than move to something else?” Nope. If you have been practicing with focus to begin with you will not be able to just buckle down and practice harder. Again, your mind and body need time to absorb what you have learned. Now, I am not saying that you forget about the concept and simply do not practice it. I am saying that you change your focus. Let’s go through an example:

So, let’s say you work on a song, let’s use My Funny Valentine for example. So, you can play the whole song, but you keep getting stuck going into the bridge. You’ve practiced it for days and you just can’t get it. You are getting frustrated and you want to stop. In this situation, I would have a student start working on a different song/concept and tell them to practice My Funny valentine for 5 minutes during each practice session, and then come back to the song 3 times through out the day for another 5 minutes. Not 10 or 20 minutes…5 minutes. This is important.

What you are trying to do is “surround yourself” with the song. Wrap the song around your everyday activities. Make it so that playing My Funny Valentine is a part of your day and not just something you practice. By playing the song several times throughout the day, you will keep it fresher in your memory without trying to force it by practicing ‘hard’ for 30 minutes….only to frustrate yourself.

The last 20% of learning can be accomplished more effectively if you incorporate it into your daily routine rather than trying to “make it happen” within 30 minutes of practice. So, move on to the next song or concept and keep your 20% learning for points within the day. If you can’t practice your 20% concept during the day, take 5 minutes in the morning, 5 minutes after work and 5 minutes after dinner. Remember, even thinking about the chords or singing the melody can help. This is practice that you can do away from the piano.

Conclusion

I have covered many practicing techniques in this article, yet there are still many more to cover like getting faster on the piano! I will cover this in next month’s article and will have some video too!

Hope you enjoyed the article. Please leave your comments below…

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Willie

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Responses

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  1. Dear Willie and Valerie
    Your written articles That I have just read is so real and practicle.Your students are so lucky to have such a profound eductation. Gosh! I wish you were here in London England. Since my last communication I have recovered from my spinal operation and other medical problems. Also my son returned from Afganistan; Injured but now recovering thank God. I wish you both well. Pablo my second son is playing Lead Trumpet with all the british great musicians. kindest regards Barron

  2. Hi Willie

    This message was right on and it was very useful for me. Keep up the good work and may God bless you to remain a blessing that you are.

    Kind regards;

  3. Willie,

    I am moving into a new home in about two weeks, the piano, a Clavichord,
    is ordered and will be delivered then, and I will be doing what I need to do.
    PRACTICE! I have signed up for the trial and will be working with it at
    first, but will certainly start paying you for all this valuable info. Thanks for
    creating this wonderful site!

    Regards,

  4. Thanks Willie. This is so real and practical. I never knew i have been doing it wrongly all this while. Thanks again this is trully mindblowing.

  5. Dear Willie,
    Its been a while! Thanks for the encouraging articles. I especially like the 80/20 concept and taking 5 minutes 3 times a day. How true – 80% of a SOTM is ‘sightreadable’ while a few passages cause regular stumbles. I usually isolate the passages and pound away 50 times if a have to till the fingers work by rote, I write out the exact fingering, and hum the passage. I find that to be sometimes mindless. I’m going to try the 5 minute 3 times a day. Thanks for all the work you and Valerie do. Your lessons are great. Keep ’em coming (eh!).

  6. Just like your teaching, your articles are excellent. You have such a knack for explaining the seemingly complicated in a clear, straightforward manner. I have printed out this article so that I can make the most of my practice routine. I am so glad to have you as my piano teacher!