The old saying, practice makes perfect, is surprisingly, a lie! Practice doesn’t make perfect – practice is the cement that makes whatever you play permanent. So if you want to play perfectly, you need to practice perfectly. But it isn’t as hard as you might think.
And I have to confess, I always loved playing piano, but I never felt like practicing. It’s hard work! Maybe you can relate – we love to play the pieces we know, but sometimes learning a new piece just feels hard and overwhelming.
Learning how to practice well makes practicing the piano much easier and more enjoyable. Also, once you learn how to learn, you’ll feel better about tackling new pieces of music and improving your technique.
In this article, we’ll talk about all the steps you can take to practice the piano efficiently and effectively so you can take a song from start to finish without the stress. This process works whether you are a beginner pianist or a seasoned musician.
What’s the Best Way to Practice the Piano?
Before you start, you must remember to be consistent in your practice and patient with yourself. I always tell my students that practicing a little bit on most days is much more effective than trying to do an entire week’s worth of rehearsing in just one last-minute session. Consistency over time will build strength, technique, and ability.
Ideally, you’ll set aside a consistent time each day to practice with a couple of days off each week. Make practicing a routine so you aren’t trying just to squeeze it in. You don’t need a fancy instrument, either. You can practice on an acoustic piano, a keyboard, or digital piano.
Make sure you are comfortable with your piano or keyboard. Good headphones and a good piano bench will help!
If you're just starting out, piano stickers and labels can help you learn faster. Learn how to label your piano keys here: How To Label Piano Keys
You also need to be patient with yourself. Mistakes are expected, and we learn more from our failures than we ever do from our successes. Take a break when you need to, but otherwise, a slow and steady practice will help you learn the quickest. If you are a beginner, just choose the steps that apply to you. If you’re more advanced, you can follow through with each step. If you don’t have much time to practice, focus on steps 5, 6, and 7 and then add the others in when you have the time.
If you need help improving your practice skills, try this process:
- Warm-up with something fun and easy. Play something you enjoy just to warm up. You want to get the fingers loosened up and get your mind ready to rehearse. Keep it fun and light. Practice doesn’t have to be all hard stuff!
- Practice any technical exercises your teacher may have assigned. It’s good to do these when you are feeling fresh and ready to go. Don’t force them – they take time to learn, but once you get them under your fingers, they will naturally transfer into your playing.
- Look at the music you need to practice. What’s on the agenda for the session? Maybe you have one piece of music to practice, or perhaps you have several. Figure out what you want to work on first.
- Read about the composer, style, and purpose of the piece. For example, a piano piece from the Baroque period will have different requirements than a pop song. If you don’t know already, take a minute to look up what the composer intended for the music, its style, and what it is or was used for.
- Examine the key signature, time signature, dynamics, tempo, and any notes made by the composer. It’s no fun to practice a piece of music in the wrong key and have to go back and relearn it correctly.
- Play the piece one time through, very slowly. Then, circle any spots that cause you to make mistakes, are complex, or need special attention.
- Find your trouble spots and practice them first. Look for any hard scale passages, spots with intricate fingering, or complex rhythms. Practice these spots very slowly, one hand at a time.
- Practice the entire piece slowly. Practice slowly enough that you don’t make any mistakes. If you are consistently making mistakes, you either need to go back over trouble sections again or just play the entire piece more slowly.
- Incorporate some of the specific practice techniques outlined below. You do not need to do each one every time, but incorporating a few at each session will help you learn your music more thoroughly, efficiently, and accurately.
- Practice one hand at a time so you can concentrate on flow, technique, and of course, dynamics.
- Practice the entire piece, hands together. Slowly increasing the tempo each time. If you begin to make mistakes, slow it down again.
- Reverse practice. Reverse practicing helps you break the cycle of always starting at the beginning of the piece. When you do that, you learn the introduction really well, but sometimes the ending gets neglected. Start with the last measure, and play it. Next, play the last two measures. Then the last three, the last four, and so on. If the measures are too short, you can practice the last phrase, then the last two phrases, etc., until you find yourself back at the beginning of the piece.
- Practice the piece with a different rhythm. If you struggle to get the right notes or remember certain sections, you may need to mix things up a bit. For example, if this is a Baroque piece, try playing it with a shuffling rhythm. On the other hand, if it’s a jazz piece, try playing the rhythm straight. This may seem counterintuitive, but it helps your brain overcome any ruts and blind spots.
- Attempt to play the piece from memory. First, look through the selection, then cover it over with a piece of paper and play as much of it as you can from memory. It’s ok to cheat and take a peek here and there, but this will help you cement the music in your mind.
- Test yourself, starting at random places in the music. When we always start from the beginning of a piece, we can have trouble recovering from mistakes that are made during a performance. To overcome this, start at random spots in the music and play through until the end. Even better if you can do this from memory!
- Play through the piece of music to see how you’ve improved! You can record your sessions with a cell phone and listen to them later to see and hear your progress.
- When you’re done working hard, do something fun and easy to cool down.
- When you feel you have it mastered, start playing in front of an audience. Playing in front of an audience helps your music to mature and reveals the trouble spots. Start with people who won’t mind your mistakes before you play in front of a more critical audience.
How to Practice Without a Piano
There may be a time when you need to practice but don’t have access to a piano. This is ok, too!
- Spend time reading the music. Make sure you know all of the notes, dynamics, and key changes. Write in any complex fingerings, mark any trouble passages to come back to later, and read through the music over and over.
- Practice in your head. Jimmy Amadie was a brilliant and instrumental jazz pianist with severe tendonitis. When the pain was too bad for him to play, he would practice in his head, for hours a day. Mental practice helps you to visualize yourself playing (and playing well!). Check out this article on how to use mental practice.
- Print out a paper keyboard. Even if you don’t have a physical piano to practice on, you can practice on a paper keyboard, such as this one.
- Practice on a digital piano or keyboard. It’s ok if you don’t have an acoustic piano to practice on! You can practice on a small keyboard or a digital piano, too. They are great to learn on and may help you focus.
Final Thoughts on How to Practice the Piano
When you have a structured plan for practicing the piano, the hard work becomes a little more enjoyable and a lot less overwhelming. Consistent, slow practice is the fastest way to become a better pianist, no matter how advanced you are or what kind of music you are practicing.
Practice slowly, deliberately, and enjoy the process of learning and gaining new skills.