How to Practice the Piano: Learning Repertoire

How to Practice the Piano: Learning Repertoire

This is a continuation of a series. See previous installments here: How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part I—Preparatory Exercises; How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part II—Etudes and Scales; and How to Practice the Piano: Selecting Repertoire.

Repertoire is the collection of pieces a musician is able and ready to perform.

Always start your practice with warm-ups (see the posts referenced above). I’m an old lady with arthritis in all my joints. It takes me fifteen to twenty minutes of warming up before my fingers are agile enough to do some serious playing.

Piano 9So that you don’t just put in your time without making any progress, think about what you want to accomplish during your practice session. Be specific: “play pages 30 and 31 smoothly” is a better plan than “learn the second movement.” Mindfulness helps you become the musician you want to be.

When I’m beginning a new piece, I can tell by looking at it (how dense the notes are, how complicated the rhythms are) whether I need to start out playing just one hand at a time. I play the (mostly) “melody” hand first, then the (mostly) “harmony” hand. (That’s just my personal preference. It really doesn’t matter which hand you play first.) If there are sections I stumble over during my read-through, I mark them in pencil and go back and practice those sections until I can get through them pretty well.

Unless you are just beginning to learn how to read music, I don’t recommend that you write out your note names. It will slow your mastery of sight reading. (Unless there are lots of ledger lines. I give you permission to write out note names wherever there are three or more ledger lines.)Piano 3

I wish when I was learning to read notation someone explained to me that eventually I wouldn’t need to recite “every-good-boy-does-fine” to figure out what notes to play, and that I would just internalize the patterns on the page and know how they fit my fingers. Or maybe someone did, and I didn’t get it. Anyhow, I remember how much of my early practice involved deciphering those notes over and over again. How tedious, and how I hated to practice! The sooner you get past that phase, the better. After all, notation is just a pictorial representation of the sounds.

When you can play the piece with each hand separately pretty well, put them together.

From this point on, I practice in terms of the rule of ten. If the piece is fairly short, I play it ten times every day at a comfortable tempo. I keep a scratch pad and pencil on my piano bench and make a tally mark after each repetition.

Piano 13If the piece is longer, I work through it a page at a time, playing it ten times through; then two pages ten times through, then three, etc., until I’m playing the whole piece through multiple times a day. (If it’s really long, I’ll only play it through two or three times a day, stopping from time to time to drill a difficult part.)

I also keep track of the tempo. I have an old-school metronome—if you have a smart phone, you can probably find a free or inexpensive app. I start out at a comfortable tempo, and identify the number of beats per minute with the metronome. I write it at the top of the page of music in pencil. If it needs to go faster, over the course of days, weeks, and months, I increase the tempo in increments of anywhere from 1 to 10 beats per minute, until it’s up to the speed it should be.

Sometimes it makes sense not to practice from beginning to end. Sometimes it’s expedient to learn the ending first, especially if the ending is particularly spectacular. Your practice does not have to be linear. You may accomplish more in less time if you master the most challenging and unique sections first (for example, the B, C, D, and E sections of a rondo, rather than the A section that gets repeated over and over).

Also, if you make a mistake, don’t go back to the beginning of the piece and start over. Instead, analyze your mistake. Why did you miss that note? Did you misread it? Was your fingering awkward? Go ahead, experiment with different fingerings, and find one that you can execute smoothly. Write it down in the music. Mark the spot, and turn it into a mini-exercise. Remember the rule of ten. Choose a couple of measures around the spot, and play them ten times (or more, until they become more fluid). Next time you practice the piece, find that spot again and practice the snippet as part of your warm-up.

Piano 11In the olden days, I bought recordings of pieces I was serious about learning so I could listen to them over and over. I still do, but I also look for video performances online. Honestly, YouTube is my second home. I love it when I can find three or more excellent performances of the same piece and study them. If you look at my Pinterest page, you’ll see lots of my favorite videos saved there so I can find them quickly. It’s interesting to see how different pianists interpret the same piece. You hear things you didn’t realize were there. And you make decisions about how to make the piece your own. For example, I don’t play the fast part of the Rachmaninoff Prelude in c# minor up to tempo. I think it begins to sound muddy, and you miss the beauty of those Russian School arpeggios.

Keeping my repertoire up to “performance” level (I don’t perform!) is a daunting task. In January, 2014 I identified 12 pieces I wanted to concentrate on for the year. I’m still working on the twelfth, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (the third movement is such a bear!). I’ve worked on it nearly every day in 2015, and I’ve still got a long way to go.

Over the years I’ve collected lots of piano music. I’ve started photocopying pieces in my repertoire and putting them in a big binder so I don’t have to go looking through my books for them. That way I can systematically practice my way through the binder and keep my skills up on all those pieces.

How much time should you practice? And do you have to practice every day?

Piano 2If you want to get good, yes, you do have to practice every day. Oh, you can miss a couple days a year, but if you miss a couple days a week, you’re not going to play your best.

If you are younger than ten years old, start out practicing 15 minutes every day, and put in as much extra time as you like. If you’re ten or older and you’re a beginner, start with 30 minutes a day, and add to that as you get better. Read Sit. Stay. for a discussion of the relationship between practice and mastery. And just so you know, professionals typically practice four to eight hours or more every day.

I practice 60-90 minutes most days. If I don’t have a free block of time on a particular day, I’ll play less rather than not at all, but for me, playing a half hour or less just isn’t worth it—it’s like stopping just when you get going.

Do you have any tips about practicing piano that I didn’t mention in this four-part series? Please share in the comments below.

2 responses »

  1. Wow! What a great post! I sooo wish I lived close to you so you could give me lessons! When we’re moved and my keyboard is unpacked, I’m coming back to your posts for help and advice. Yay! I’ll finally make some progress!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Kitty! I actually don’t give piano lessons, but I’ve played since I was eight, and I have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in music education. I taught elementary general music for more than twelve years. All of that background gives me an understanding of what it takes to increase skill on piano. (Do I do it all? Well. . .maybe that’s why I’m not a concert pianist.) I hope the information in the four articles will help take you to the next level. Keep me posted as to how you’re doing.


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