How to practice the piano

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In this multi-part article, I want to give you some pointers on how to practice the piano. Practicing can be fun and when you have clear goals defined, I think you’ll find that it is satisfying and enjoyable!

Goals keep you focused

If you sit down to practice without a goal, you will most likely ‘wander’ through your practice routine without a clear path. I think we all understand what it means to have a goal. I’m sure you’ve all been asked that age-old question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” Questions like this often seem more like dreaming than a serious question. Let’s face it, who really knows where we are going to be in 5 years?

So, it is important to keep our goals based in reality. Keep your piano goals simple and short. For instance, here is what I would consider a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ or un-realistic goal:

“I want to learn 100 songs in a month.”


“I want to learn how to play jazz piano this year.”

With goals like that you are destined to fail. So…how do we create realistic goals?

  1. Break your main goal into smaller goals
  2. Be realistic with your time
  3. Be happy with small gains!

Let’s go through this list point-by-point.

1) If we take the goal of learning jazz piano and break it into smaller goals, we might come up with:

  1. Repertoire (songs)
  2. Knowing scales
  3. Knowing chords
  4. Mastering rhythms
  5. Active listening

2) If you set out to practice 2 hours a day, but you work a 9-5 job and have kids…well…you know. It’s most likely impossible! Remember this very important fact: It is not about time. It’s about quality. Practicing for 30 minutes per day can produce power results if you are focused and clear about what you should practice. So, practice less…but more focus.

3) I don’t want to bring you down, but we often make goals that are just unrealistic. I’ve made them myself and I know you probably have too. I’m talking about goals like “I’m going to workout 5-days-a-week starting in January.” We pull ourselves to the gym on Monday and come Friday we are rationalizing why we have stopped. We end up feeling worse about ourselves then when we started and are filled with a variety of negative emotions.

There is a solution: make your goal so easy that you are likely to succeed.

So, instead of ‘learning 100 songs in a month’ or ‘learning jazz piano this year’ I suggest that you shorten your goals and expectations. It is better to learn 5 songs in a year, than attempt to learn 100 only to come up short. Or, I’d rather a student learn all 12 Major scales in 12 months than try to become a jazz pianist…a goal that takes a lifetime to achieve.

O.K. I think by now you understand what I mean when I say ‘goals.’ Now, let’s focus on a mistake that almost every one of my students, myself and practically every other musician in the world makes…

Playing the piano is NOT practicing the piano

I honestly can’t tell you how many times I have heard from students that they spent 30 minutes playing songs that they know only to think they were practicing. Or, have you done this?

  1. Sat down at the piano
  2. Started playing a song you know
  3. Thought of it as a “warmup?”

Yep, we’ve all done it. Sat down for 20 minutes, played stuff we already knew and thought we were practicing. Well…we weren’t. We were playing.

You should sound bad when you practice!

Let me explain. If you’re like most, when you sit to practice piano, you’re time is most likely limited. If you start your practice session by playing the songs that you already know, you are not working on anything new. You’re basically just reviewing your repertoire. If the phone rings, or you get interrupted, it is easy to step away, only to never return.

However, if you get right into some focused piano practice immediately when you sit down, you can feel more confident that what you are doing is improving your playing.

In the next segment of the piano practice series, I will cover a new practice routine that I have created to help organize your piano practice. I like to break practice into weekly goals, piano technique, songs, review and theory. This allows us to basically break up our practice routine into three parts:

  1. Technique – getting faster, more accurate piano fingers
  2. Focus – zeroing in on the important concepts for this week’s practice
  3. Review – keeping what we have already learned in our memory.

I’ll go over those concepts and more in the next article. I’ll also tell you about getting faster in my Go for speed! section along with how to practice away from the piano.

In the meantime, try to answer this question: “What are my piano goals for this week, month, year?”

Till next month…keep up your practice!

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  1. Hi Willie

    Thanks for the post. I found it quite useful and will be waiting for the coming posts.

    God bless you.

  2. Willie, You have not heard from me in some time.Im still checking your news letter and e-mail feeds. Im practicing a lot and improoving tremendously. keep the info coming.thanks, johnny

  3. Dear Willie
    Great to hear the piano focus blurb so simple and to the point. I will work on it

  4. willie
    good article looking forward for a followup
    you described me exactly, been playing around with the piano for seven years. while i can do a few things, mostly i just wander around and end
    up doing nothing and call it practice and progress

  5. Hi,
    Thats a great article on practicing. I tell my students to look at a new piece as full of patterns. I then have them find the repeating patterns, the hard spots, the ending (most important) and the intro or beginning. Then I tell them to practice each part seperately. Then and only then are they to play from the beginning of the piece. Good luck if you can get them to do this!!!

  6. Hola Willie, mi nombre es Anibal. Hace poco vi unos videos en you tube tuyos y la verdad que me intereso muchisimo. a los 14 años empece a aprender teclado, hoy tengo 35 años y por no tener metas claras me estanque en un solo lugar. pero quiero avanzar en aprendizaje. Me apasiona escuchar y tocar piano y creo muy firmemente que Dios puso ese don en mis dedos. Te agradezco por compartir estas publicaciones y tus videos con nosotros.
    Te comento que vivo en Argentina, Río Grande – Tierra del Fuego. Te mando un Abrazo.

  7. Thanks for the great advice. I appreciate it, and I am enjoying the lessons.

  8. Willie,

    I enjoyed the article and you are so right! Ive restarted my practice and the jazz exercises (i.e. fourth progressions) have been really helpful. Keep up the good work that youre doing! Cheers!

  9. Hi Willie,
    I recently subscribed and think that your lessons are wonderful and you are truly a blessing, you have a gift from God, the ability to teach effectively. Praise the LORD!

  10. Well, I’ve been ‘playing’ like you mentioned and thought it was practice. I need the kind of structure that you’re proposing. So I look forward to the next newsletter! Thanks Willie.

  11. Great article I for one really need this advice and teaching!



  12. Right on with playing a song you already know and thinking this is practice. Scales are the guts of improvision boring as they may be. Learn the scales; the 12 major scales are all you need to really improve your playing.

    1. Thankyou very much Willie, for your tips to play faster, i didn”t know!
      Thankyou once again
      GOD BLESS YO Thankyou very much Willie,

  13. Yes scale practice in all keys everyday is a must and the basis of everything before i do any practise in a piano practise day which is everyday for me.But it always amazes me how slow progress does seem to be but i know it works.Just realise where you were at some point in your past practising to prove the point.Often i find myself thinking this practise session routine has become too easy so i tweak it up a bit in difficulty so that i am fully concentrating and not just going through the motions thoughtlessly.

  14. Hi,

    Thanks for this message! I really needed to hear it! Whenever I try to learn something new, I get restless with my slow progress and end up just playing something I know really well. So I don’t progress at all!

    Thank you 🙂

  15. i am a big fan of your articles. thank you so much for all of the great motivation that keeps me focused on the important stuff.

  16. Thanks for posting this article Willie. I needed this reminder. I have to say that when I work on pieces that seem hard in the beginning, if I keep at it, it really does become easier and easier, so I know what you’re saying works. Thank you for the encouragement.

  17. Guilty guilty guilty, yep thats me, scales and sight reading etc pushed aside and I play the same old stuff from memory that I think sounds good, trouble is I realise im copping out, I hate hearing myself playing awfully is the reason. Thanks to your comments I will knuckle down, I thought it was just me.

  18. […] piano gives her a “brain cramp”. On-line jazz piano teacher Willie Myett comments that your practice must be bad. What’s going on […]

  19. Willie what are your thoughts on practicing out of the Hanon piano excercise book for about an hour a day to achieve dexterity and power in the fingers and technique?

    1. Sorry for the late reply. I think that Hanon for 30 minutes a day is enough. An hour seems excessive. I’d rather see you do something else like practice tunes or compose. Hanon is great for dexterity but you still need repertoire.

  20. Hi Willie. Did you ever do a second part on “How To Practice The Piano”? If so, what was the date on that, I would sure like to read it. Thanks.

  21. Lopsided practise has always been my downfall: I used to focus so intently on technique, scales, arpeggios, chord inversions and voicing a, that there was no time for tunes, improvising and just enjoying music.

    Now I limit myself to 15 minutes per day of scales and arpeggios, changing the key every day, and 15 minutes of voicings.

    I have 1 to 1-1/2 hours to practise.

    Is this enough time to spend on these things?
    Thanks for providing this forum.
    Cheers Harry

  22. Actually, I’m totally bored with playing my repertoire, so I’m happy to have some exercises to work with. In addition to your “faster fingers” ones, I also enjoy playing through all the modes in all keys, because I can’t “zone out” when I practice them. I have to concentrate or I mess up.