Practicing. A dreadful, scary word to music students the world over. But it doesn’t have to be scary. Practicing is simply conscious effort aimed at learning a skill through repetition (in this instance the many skills involved in playing the piano). The definition does provide a clue to the all too-typical association of practicing with unpleasantness. While it takes relatively little physical effort to practice the piano, it does take a certain degree of mental effort and concentration. But then, so does learning to read, ride a bicycle, play basketball, or progress beyond middle school, high school, or college. C’est la vie!
Practicing is not the same as playing. Playing is the unconscious reproduction of a piece you’ve learned, or the unconscious creative process of improvisation. It’s true that practicing is more work, but it’s what every pianist must do to become a better player.
The Golden Rule Defined
Knowing how to practice effectively is half the battle in becoming a good player (the other half is actually doing it). Fortunately, for mastering written music at least, there is a “Golden Rule” for practicing just as there is in life. The Golden Rule of Practicing is:
Stop before making a mistake!
It’s simple: as you’re learning a piece (or a scale or chords or patterns, etc.), don’t let your fingers play a mistake – either a wrong note or the right note with the wrong finger. You will find that you almost always know – if you’re going slowly enough – when you’re about to make a mistake, and can nearly always stop yourself in time. Why is this so important? Because it’s a physiological fact that the human brain (which is what you’re really training, not your fingers) doesn’t know the difference between right notes and wrong notes. The brain simply learns what you do. If you do something repetitively, whether right or wrong, it will learn that even better. But if you stop before playing a mistake, the brain will not learn the mistake. When you do make mistakes (and everyone makes some) it takes that much longer to undo the mistake and learn the correct notes or fingering. You will save countless hours of practice time, and master pieces, scales and other musical material much faster if you always heed the Golden Rule.
The Importance of Concentration
The key to applying the Golden Rule successfully is concentration. A few minutes of conscious and focused practice can literally accomplish what an hour of thoughtless and mechanical work would take. Fortunately, concentration is like anything else – the longer you practice concentrating the longer you will be able to concentrate. This will help you in your practicing and in many other aspects of life. If you find yourself losing concentration, take a short break before returning to practice. No one can concentrate indefinitely.
In Part 2, I’ll teach you three additional steps for successfully applying the Golden Rule.