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Playing vs. Practicing the Piano

Both are correct depending on why you are at the piano!.

Have you discovered the difference between playing the piano and practicing the piano? If not, let’s explore the differences together. If you already know the differences, then maybe you can pick up a few practice tips that will help you become more efficient and effective in your practice sessions.

Playing the Piano

What do we do when we play the piano? Usually, we play the whole piece from beginning to end without stopping. It may be the first time we play — or sightread — the piece in order to hear what it sounds like and to get an idea of which parts will be “easy” and which are parts may require a lot more practicing in order to learn and polish.

Performing a piece for others is also playing the piano. That’s one reason we don’t go back to make corrections! Or, it could be when we are playing pieces in our repertoire for our own enjoyment, or to keep them current.

Practicing the Piano

Practicing the piano is what we should be doing for most of a study session. It is when we are working on an assignment for a lesson or learning a new piece on our own.

Practicing requires many repetitions of disgestable sections of a piece of music. How big a section is and how many repetitions we make depends on level of difficultly. Difficult sections may be as short as one measure, or even only one or two beats, especially if you are working on a big jump between registers. And, that difficult section must be repeated at least three through seven times. It may need to be repeated more times than either you or your housemates care to hear! So, give yourself and them a break by splitting up these intense practice sessions or playing when they aren’t at home!

Over the years, students have asked how practicing this way squares with the saying credited to Albert Einstein that defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

If I may be so bold to agree with Al while still adhering to my assertion that practicing requires repetition. Here’s the key – if you repeat a section perfectly and expect perfection, then you aren’t insane – well, not for that reason anyway! However, if you repeat a section incorrectly and expect perfection, then you’ve got problems.

Each time you take a section to learn, actually learn it! If you have learned something, then,technically, you can play it perfectly on demand the first time. In order to do that, you must first know what you are doing correctly and what you are doing incorrectly. You do this by critiquing your result to find if you have any problems, then diagnose what the problem actually is. I say actually because sometimes a note is incorrect because the preceding note or fingering was the cause. Then, you must make the correction and play it at least three times in a row perfectly for a few practice sessions to delete the mistake and then implement the correction. That’s why it is so important to learn correctly the first time by learning slowly. If you mis-learn, you make more work for yourself and are less efficient in your practice. Sounds easy, but it’s not! If it were, every baseball player would bat 1000, every golfer would always play under par, and every pianist would never make a mistake! 

Tips

  • If you are making mistakes, slow down!
    • If passersby can’t recognize what you’re playing when you are practicing, then you’re practicing correctly!
  • If you are still making mistakes, shorten the section that you are practicing.
    • Some sections need to be only one beat or a measure!
  • When you practice, direct yourself in a positive way.
    • Positive: The second note is a G.
    • Negative: Don’t play an A as the second note. Guess what. You’ll play an A….not a G!
  • Practice your “trouble spots” in several sessions a day. 
    • This helps to learn how to recall or to play perfectly “on demand.”
  • Try playing your trouble spots just once as you pass by your piano during the day.
    • Again, you are testing your ability to play perfectly “on demand.”

How To Choose a Piano Teacher That is Right for You

Choosing a piano teacher should be easy, right? Just find a teacher that is qualified and then get started.

But, how do you determine if a teacher is qualified? It’s not so straightforward as with choosing other guides in life. If you need medical or legal advice, you look for someone with the appropriate license in your state and that determines a general level of qualification that you can be comfortable with. But, then you have to meet them, at which point things get more complicated.

It’s similar in the field of music, except you can be a qualified teacher or performer with or without a formal education. And, there is no licensing. So, you can’t choose a teacher based only on credentials — like having a music degree. In fact, there are competent teachers that have no degree but have learned to play their instrument at an advanced level through practice and have apprenticed with a master teacher.

Conversely, having earned a music degree would demonstrate that a teacher would be an expert in their instrument, but would it tell you if they are a good teacher of that instrument? There is much more to being a good teacher. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a piano teacher.

Competency. A teacher must be proficient enough to demonstrate concepts on the piano so you are able to hear the correct way to play. They should also be able to sightread well in order to go through repertoire choices with you.

Teaching Skills. If a teacher can play a piece of music beautifully, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they can show you how to do the same. They have to know all the steps that are necessary, be able to communicate those steps in a variety of ways until you understand them, and then determine if you are playing correctly and, if not, how to diagnose the problem and offer solutions to correct the problem.

Personality. No, a teacher doesn’t need to entertain a student, but a teacher needs to have a personality that allows a student to feel as comfortable as possible in order to encourage an open relationship that allows for expressive interpretations, comments, and questions with no personal judgment.

Patience. If a student isn’t understanding a concept, it isn’t the student’s problem — it’s the teacher that needs to find a different way to explain it. Or, maybe the pace of learning needs to slow down a bit or be broken up in smaller portions. Or, maybe the student needs to understand it through a different sense — visually, analytically, verbally, aurally, or emotionally. This takes patience on the part of the teacher to understand how each student perceives, understands, processes information, and communicates. Also, a teacher needs to teach students to be patient with themselves because mastery take time.

Motivation. Students need to be motivated at all times and that is why I believe most music should be chosen by the student with the guidance of the teacher, making sure the level is correct and the choice is a quality piece of music. A good teacher can teach music concepts through many styles of music, so why not engage a student’s passion using their favorite pieces? Adult students also need to use materials and techniques geared toward adults to keep them feeling confident and motivated.

Foundations are Necessary. All adult students need to learn the foundations of music. If they are beginners, the foundations need to be presented in an organized way so all new concepts are supported by previous learning and, if not, supplemental work should be added to the lesson.

If an adult is already a pianist, a master teacher will seek to find what foundations the student is missing or has forgotten, and then provide the necessary supplements to the lesson.

Student-focused Teaching. It’s all about the student. A master teacher will focus on a student’s goals and plan a curriculum that helps to reach the student’s goals while guiding the student to learn overall musicianship skills.

In summary, a master teacher will enable you to end a lesson with all of your questions answered and to be armed with the techniques to progress with the next lesson’s challenges.

If you have any comments or questions on this topic, please reach out so we can have a dialogue.

© 2021 Lory Peters Ph.D.

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