By Ugo Onwutalu
Practice (especially in music) is a dirty word. It conjures up images of going through drills, exercises, plenty of effort for little reward and frustration. While learning a new piece may be hard, the strategies don’t have to be. Remember there is a difference between effort and intelligent effort.
The major problem most people face when learning the piano is their own impatience – the desire for instant results has never been greater, yet it requires one to know exactly what they want and then a have strong determination to make plans to achieve their goal.
Too often I meet people who would like to play a piece from their favourite composer/songwriter/pop artist who think that they can get away with doing the bare minimum and still expect good results. Life as we know, doesn’t work like that. Ultimately, you can never be really good and excel at something you haven’t worked at consistently. And the key word here is WORK.
The process of going through the passages in a piece of music many times over, the recognition of mistakes, the repetition of it all until it becomes second nature – all this is effort and concentration-based. It would be easy for any teacher of any skill to sugar-coat the truth and tell students/pupils that achievement of that skill is quick and easy. It would certainly be more attractive and get more clients too! However, it is always best to recognise from the start that there’s no such reality as ‘something for nothing’ as long as you realise this truth, know what you want, are passionate about it and then make a determined effort to overcome any obstacles in your learning, you will see positive results.
Here are two common problems people face in practicing and some tips to keep you motivated and focused:
Procrastination (see my post on this topic): Yes, the problem is even before we set fingers on the keys! Most of us have at some point felt like putting off that task for yet another time even though we know in the back of our minds, it is important and must be done, sooner or later. In the case of piano practice, here is a tip to help you break down that psychological barrier: break it down. Aim to focus for just FIVE minutes on whatever you have on your agenda to work on. Focus intently doing as much as you can. You’ll soon find 5 minutes passing by quickly and you becoming immersed in whatever you are learning. Time management is important here.
Impatience: this is really the core of it. Getting to the piano and starting practice is one thing, but the ability to maintain a positive outlook when things repeatedly go wrong (as they sometimes do) is crucial. You must develop a focus by taking each practice section and asking yourself OUT LOUD what is was that went wrong. The reason for this is that hearing yourself comment on what you’re working on, concentrates the mind, more than thinking inside your head. It directs your focus if you need to make notes and corrections.
The other method is writing things down. Physical act of writing what you’re learning will help you retain the information. Too often, I’ve met people who’ve told me they ‘went at a piece many times and didn’t get anywhere’. The reason for this is what I call ‘unfocused repetition’. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, is (according to Einstein) ‘insanity’. In the case of piano practice, repeating a passage many times over and yet making the same mistake each time, only leads you to a) form the mistake as a habit and b) frustration. So make sure you are taking short pauses now and then to make slight corrections, notes and other insights when repeating a section of music many times – it’s the quality and quantity that counts.
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