Updated: Jan 2, 2020
Step I. Study the Score
Learning the piece AWAY from the piano can drastically improve the efficiency of your practice sessions. It is very important to have a good understanding of the piece so that you can 1) have clear goals in mind and 2) avoid learning bad habits.
Why? Knowing how the piece should sound from the beginning will allow you to have a clear goal in mind and you will more likely avoid establishing bad habits. More importantly, the efficiency of your practice session will drastically improve and you will be able to achieve your goals quicker if you study the score!
How? Here are some of the basic ways to “study” the score:
Research the piece that you are learning. Who is the composer? When was it written? What kind of style period is this from? (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, or Contemporary?)Listen to several pieces written by the same composer AND his/her contemporaries. This will allow you to get a better understanding of the style, touch, and character of the piece you are learning. Try to listen to pieces with different instruments, not only solo piano, like sonatas for other instruments, orchestra, or opera and so on.Describe the character of the piece you are learning. Is it calm? dramatic? melancholic? schizophrenic? Does this piece grow louder? softer? thinner? thicker?Now that you have a clear idea of what kind of touch/sound/character the piece should have, visualize yourself playing the piece with a beautiful sound and posture.
Step II. Supplement your technical weaknesses with regular technical exercises
Why? Learning a new piece is exciting. But sometimes it can be frustrating because of new technical challenges. When you encounter sections or phrases that make you feel uncomfortable, what should you do? Adult pianists tend to have too much tension in their neck, shoulders, arms, and wrists. Here are some of basic technical exercises that will help you to learn new pieces with proper technique.
How? 1. Exercise for Arm Weight (Playing a melody just with just 3rd finger supported by a thumb): When you are doing this exercise, your arm should feel completely loose. It should feel like you are hanging onto the key because of the firmfinger tip. If someone pokes your arm, it should wiggle without any resistance. This will help you to produce full rich tones.
2. Exercise for Flexible Wrist (Five finger pattern with dropping wrist - each note to bigger groupings): Wrist related injury is the most common injury among pianists. Your wrist should be IN MOTION at any time you are playing, never be locked into one position. This will give you rich tones in slow tempo pieces and makes light touch easier in fast tempo pieces.
3. Exercise for Finger Independence (Holding one note while playing other notes): This exercise will help you with your finger control and to produce tones evenly. Especially you are playing fast scale-like passages, you want to make sure all the fingers can have same sound quality. This exercise will train especially the 4th and 5th fingers to be more independent. Use this exercise only a small amount at a time because this can be straining to your muscles.
4. Exercise for Strong Fingers (Two note phrase slur + staccato exercise): You will not only need fast fingers but also strong fingers. This exercise will supplement the strong and fuller sound production. This can be a great warm-up exercise when you have cold hands in the winter.
Step III. Make a DETAILED Practice Schedule
Why? The more detailed the schedule is, the more clearly you can envision your goals.
Set your ATTAINABLE weekly goal then make daily tasks towards the goal. (See the sample schedule below.)Make the weekly schedule DOABLE. The key to successful practice sessions is to make sure you can complete daily tasks. If the schedule is realistic, you can achieve them. If you are able to achieve them, you will be more likely continue to stick with the plan. It is important to feel that you are making secure steps towards the weekly goal by completing daily tasks. Piano playing depends largely on muscle memory - a small portion but with frequent repetition is the key to fast progress. You can adjust the amount as you go if you feel you can do more or less based on how you did in the previous week. You feel you are too busy? Then plan 5-minute sessions. Maybe you have a bit of free time? Then do 30 minutes!Have a buffer time in between practice sessions and material. For example, when two days of practicing the same section are planned, have one day just for a review. Or in case you didn’t make much progress, you can use this extra day to continue improving.Have a day for mental practice. You can do any of the following: (1) look at the score; (2) look at the score and move your fingers as if you are playing the piano; (3) look at the score and listen to a recording; (4) (if you memorize the piece) close your eyes and visualize either the keys or the score and play the whole section in your head.
article attribute to Michiko Saiki