How to set yourself up for success in your piano practice
When it comes to learning to play the piano, regular practice is essential in achieving long-term success.
And to practise, you need to set up your environment to make it conducive to do some serious work.
If you don’t create an inviting practice space (whatever ‘inviting’ may mean for you, and it can mean different things for different people), you’re less likely to make practice a part of your daily or semi-daily rituals.
Similarly, your mindset and attitude also need to be right to ensure your practice will be effective and help you achieve your goal of learning a new piece.
Let’s discuss how you can set up for a productive practice session!
STEP 1 – Create a dedicated practice space
It’s vital that when you sit down to practice, you can do so uninterrupted, with a single focus.
Think about your instrument’s location and what this may mean for your daily practice moving forward.
Ideally, your practice space is easily accessible, temperature-controlled and both private and quiet enough for you to be able to practice to your heart’s content.
This can mean different things for different people, depending on your personality and household makeup.
For some, it means putting the piano centre stage in the living room; for others, it means setting up a separate practice room.
It’s a good idea before you purchase an instrument that you think about where you can practice. My blog post about which instrument is right for you actually considers this the first decision to make when choosing an instrument.
Besides the location being accessible, make sure the instrument itself is easily accessible. Don’t cover the piano with washing or knickknacks. Keep the area clutter-free and organised.
Step 2 – Single-task
When you sit down at the piano to practise, make sure that practice is the only thing on your mind. Single-tasking is not exactly something we get to do very often anymore these days, but it’s crucial in complex skill-building.
Single-tasking or mono-tasking: Doing one activity at a time without any disruptions or interruptions or giving all your attention to one task until it is completed.
You can take some extra steps to ensure you can mono-task properly. Turn off your phone when you practise. Do not let yourself be interrupted by emails, messages, phone calls or social media alerts.
If you use apps on your phone while practising, close all other apps and turn off notifications.
Planning a regular practice regime is also helpful in single-tasking, as having a dedicated time each day means you’re less likely to get caught up in the day’s inevitable chaos.
While practising here and there throughout the day is fine on occasion, it rarely produces good results as it requires too much task-swapping in the brain.
Swapping from your “work mind” to your “piano mind” back to your “work mind” is not only tiresome but more and more research is being published indicating attention-switching is the number one productivity killer.
Step 3 – Be prepared
Keep your learning materials close by or even ON your instrument for each session. Nothing so annoying than having to stop what you’re doing and go hunt for a pencil!
I keep my books and manuscript paper in a document folder that I pop next to me as I practice. I have my iPad on the piano, as well as my phone and my Bluetooth speaker. I ensure all devices have enough battery life too.
I also keep some stationary ready – my practice diary, pencils and erasers, my removable highlight tape.
That way, I have everything I need right there within reach.
Step 4 – Persist (and stop obsessing about ‘relaxing’ or ‘having fun’)
I get enquiries on occasion from curious people who say they want to learn the piano because they need something to relax after work. They figure: Oh, I can learn some songs on the piano and then ‘relax’ as I play them.
If this is you, let me set you straight: if you want to relax, get a massage, watch some TV, or listen to music.
Because learning an instrument takes effort. It requires high levels of concentration and focus. I’m not sure ‘relaxation’ is often part of it.
The difference between the musician who loves music-making and the non-musician who gave up because they thought it was all going to be fun and games, is that the musician has learned to derive satisfaction and even pleasure from the hard work.
Think about how some people LOVE to exercise. Most will tell you that they didn’t always love it, but they learned to love how it makes them feel over time.
The musician is the same. They love how they feel after a good practice session. After many weeks of hard work, they love how they have finally fully memorised a piece of music and can start performing it (for themselves or others). They love the deep work and flow state they achieve during a particularly focused practice session.
But I doubt many will say that they find practice ‘relaxing’. And it certainly isn’t always fun.
So if you have decided that you want to become a pianist, my advice is to persist even when it’s not ‘fun’ or ‘relaxing’ because ‘fun’ or ‘relaxation’ is not the point.
If you only practice when you want to have fun, or only practice when you feel it’s going to be relaxing, you won’t be practising very often – which means you won’t make much progress, and that will make next practice session even less fun!
Step 5 – Set goals and track your progress
Staying organised in your practice is essential – so you don’t start pieces you never finish or lose track of where you’re at with a particular goal.
Practising isn’t just about making sound – practising should also be about reflecting, listening, thinking and writing.
One of the most underused tools by adult piano students is the practice journal or practice tracker.
It doesn’t have to be fancy. Any notebook will work. Simply start each session by writing down what you intend to achieve that day and finish the session by evaluating and writing down what did and did not go well.
In my studio, all students use the Better Practice app – a browser-based practice app that helps students stay focused on their assignments each week. They can even opt to use the inbuilt timer function to track how long they practise and use the app to evaluate each session.
They can also use the goal-setting section to achieve longer-term goals.
If you don’t have an app, you can also just use the good old pen and paper method. If you need some help planning, I’ve created a practice planner here you can try.
Now that you’ve got the space, the mindset and the tools required, your practice sessions should be off to a much more productive start!
Now, what are you doing still reading this? Go practice!