Piano Practice Suggestions

Also see:

  • Nancy O’Neill Breth,  "The Piano Student’s Guide to Effective Practicing" (Tri-fold Pamphlet).  (Milwaukee, WI:  Hal Leonard Corporation, 2004)
  • Westney, William. The Perfect Wrong Note.  p. 95-97. 


1.  Check posture/seating position/hand position/arm and wrist position. If the pianist is uncomfortable, he will not be able to focus on the task at hand.

2.  Slow practice.  Everything is exaggerated, so that when performed at the correct tempo, it will come out with the proper expression, and will never be too understated.

3.   Hands separately.  At beginning stages of a piece, but also to check memory and accuracy on polished pieces.

4.  Be able to play a section/piece 5 times in a row with no errors.

5. Rhythmic accuracy:  Count out loud, play one hand and tap the other, tap rhythm on fallboard. 

6.  Play one hand and silently mime the playing of the other on the keys.

7.  Memory:  Divide your piece into sections.  Make a "memory card" to describe each section.  Pull a card out of the deck and start in that place.

8.  Memory:  begin playing your piece.  Have a friend say “Stop.” Keep thinking the music in your head.  When your friend says “Start” again, pick up where you are in the piece.

9.  Perform for a friend or relative/in class/in recital hour whenever possible

10.  Record yourself and listen analytically, as if you were your own teacher.

11.  Always play as if a great master were present (Schumann said this.  See his other Advice for Young Musicians at http://www.mediafire.com/?uxts1yvw191qi4b )

12.  Listen to recordings of others playing your piece, other music by same composer.

13.  Grade your own practice session (or lesson).

14. Take good care of yourself:  eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, get some exercise.

15.  Take a short break.  (about ten minutes every 60-90 minutes)

16.  Avoid distractions:  Turn off the cell phone.  Turn off the TV or music in the next room, if possible.  Keep pets out of the room.  Don't look up if the door opens or shuts.  Turn off the audibly ticking clock.  Keep a pen and pad next to the piano and if you have a recurring thought of something, write it down so you won’t forget it and so you won’t dwel on it.

17.   Make a practice plan for the day and week.  In a daily plan, STATE SPECIFIC GOALS and HOW YOU'RE GOING TO PRACTICE THEM. 

  • -What do I need to teach myself?
  • -What do I do to teach that to myself?
  • -Was I successful?

(from Edward Darling, ed.  A Piano Teacher’s Legacy:  Selected Writings of Richard Chronister.  Kingston, NJ:  The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, 2005, p. 143)

18.  Draw a "Board Game" that includes several of the items on this list.  Roll dice and do the thing on which you land. 

19.  Make practice flashcards, with each one listing several of the items on this list which need attention in your piece.  Select one at a time to do.

For example, the cards for one piece might say


a.      “Play 3 times at quarter note equals 88,


b.      “Play right hand three times,”

c.      “Play left hand three times,”

d.      “Count and clap rhythm in measure 8,”

e.      “Imagine an angry dragon and play the middle section.” 

20.  Listen very carefully to what you are playing, and critique yourself as if you were your own teacher.

21.  Don't look down at your hands; keep your eyes on the music.

22.  Change the order of your usual practice routine.

23.  When you find your mind wandering: 

?          - Listen more intently to the shape of the melody, phrasing, dynamics, character.

           -Focus on rhythm.

           -Jot down the thing that is bugging you so you won't forget to take care of it AFTER your practice session.

         - Write a check mark on a pad of paper each time you find your mind wandering. 

         - Slowly place your hands in your lap or listen to the last note or chord as it dies away.  "Interrupt the uncentered span without creating any negative feelings about it.  Recognize and accept it, and you will find yourself drawn right back to your playing."  (Mildred Portney Chase, Just Being at the Piano.  Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts Book Company, 1985, p. 41-42.)

           -Say in your head, "Be Here Now."

24.   Character/mood/dynamics.  Make up a story or stories to go with your piece.

25.   Focus on Note accuracy:  try to play each key in the middle (thinking left to right) and feel every finger

26. Pass-the-Ball:  toss a tennis ball from hand to hand to keep the metric pulse while singing the melody and/or counting out loud.

27.  Fingering:  Write in every number.

28.  Phrasing, musicality

29.  Marcel Tabuteau-style phrasing:  assign a number from one to ten for every note of the phrase, with ten being the loudest note (peak of the phrase) and one being the softest.

30.  Solfège the melody:  From article in The American Music Teacher, by Ken Johansen, “What Do You Think About When You Play (AMT 55, No. 5, [2005]):

a.  Solfège the score away from the piano

b.  Sing the melody in solfège syllables while playing

c.  Sing the note names in rhythm

d.  Sing counting numbers. 

e. Play one hand while singing the other, in solfège syllables, note names, or counting numbers, a good exercise in coordination and musicianship, especially when sung with good character and rhythm.

31.  Sing finger numbers in rhythm.

32.   Listen to balance between hands/voices


33.   Metronome:  Start very slowly with metronome.  Play the piece or passage again, and increase the metronome number by a few clicks.  Continue, gradually increase the tempo again, until the goal tempo is met.  If a plateau is encountered, try some other practice techniques or go back to the passage and repeat process the next day.  Write down the top metronome marking achieved each day, and try to surpass it the next day. 

34.  Micro-metronome:  Assign the metronome to the smallest unit of the beat in the piece and subdivide each longer note in relation to it.

35.  Think the first beat and begin playing on the next.  Think the first two beats and begin playing on the next.  Can be done with metronome.

36.  Play only the downbeats.  Then play the downbeats and the second most important beat of the measure.  Continue until all beats are filled in.

37.  Double bubble:  In 4/4, with 16 sixteenth notes per bar, do this at tempo, but with pauses after doubled notes: 

a.  double first note of each group of 4

b.  double second note of each group of 4

c.  double third note of each group of 4

d.  double fourth note of each group of 4

38.  Nancy O’Neill Breth:  Drop and raise the wrist on each note, relaxing the shoulders and arms.  Repeat, dropping the wrist on every other note.  Repeat, dropping the wrist on every fourth note, then eighth note.

39.  Add-a-note

40.  Measure-plus-one

41.  Grouping:  Divide a passage into groups of notes, not necessarily by strong beat, but rather by the shape of the line.   Similar to Double Bubble, but without dividing notes by measure. 

If notes in a passage are grouped in fours, group them in threes and vice versa.  Or, try grouping them in fives or sixes.

42.  Backward Chaining practice:  by measure, or by groups of notes.

43.  Play a passage in a different octave on the piano, or in a few different keys.

44.  Staccato in one hand, legato in the other.  Forte in one hand, piano in the other. 

45.  Draw a line connecting each pair of RH and LH notes that sound at the same time, to make it clear that they go together.

46.  For large jumps, as Nancy O’Neill Breth writes:  “Draw a vertical line separating two parts that are hard to connect smoothly.  Play up to the line, relax your hands, and float into the second part while counting up to 5.  Finish the phrase.  Repeat, but this time count to 4.  The next time count to 3, then 2, then 1.  Then play three times without stopping.”

47.  After practicing a difficult passage, play a few measures before it, then the passage, and a few measures after it.

48.  Chord practice:  from Nancy O’Neill Breth

In a group of chords, play one by one, first four times each, then 3 times, then 2 times, then one time, as written.

Play upper note of chord only.  Then lowest.  Then inner voices, one by one.  Then play different 2-note and 3-note combinations of these voices.

From one chord to the next, draw lines between common tones.

49.  Play a legato passage staccato, with very active fingertip motion on each note, as if scratching at the key.  First perform slowly, then gradually increase speed.

50.  If you make a mistake, write something in the score (finger number, note name, etc.) to help you avoid a problem the next time.  If you miss it once or twice, you’ll probably miss it again if you don’t take action.

51.  Nancy O’Neill Breth:  Make a hard spot seem easier by doing even more than you have to.  For example: 

  • If an arpeggio covers one octave, extend it to two or three or more octaves. 
  • Work a difficult passage up to a tempo even higher than is called for.
  • Put more distance between your hands.  If the music calls for hands one octave apart, practice it two octaves apart instead. 

For example, in the Musette of the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, begin with left hand one octave lower than written, and right hand one octave higher than written.

52.   Focus on Articulation

53.  Voicing:  Play the notes of the voice you wish to bring out loud and legato, and all others staccato.

54.  Pedaling:  Let your ear be your guide.  See what the composer wrote.  Check different editions.  Listen to different recordings.

      Play one hand at a time with the pedal.

55.  Analyze the music:  Key, time sig., structure, harmonies  Make a chart on lined paper or graph paper. 

56. Musical Mapping:  See Rebecca Shockley’s Mapping Music:  For Faster Learning and Secure Memory:   A Guide for Piano Teachers and Students, (A-R Editions, 1997, 2001).

57. Check inner voices of chords.  Play them separately, play outer voices and sing inner voices. 

58. Practice in opposites:  if the music says forte, play piano; if it says slow play it fast.

59.  Style, from a historical perspective.  Investigate ornaments, read about the composer and time period, look at art from the time period.

60.  Gesture:  Motion of fingers, hands, wrists, arms, body.  Think-listen-analyze-try again

61. Give yourself an appropriate incentive:  e.g. "If I can play this correctly 5 times in a row, I'll take a walk around the block."  Other incentives can include getting a drink of water, reading the day's newspaper comics, making a brief call to a friend, etc. 

62.  Look up some facts about the composer of your piece.  Use a book or the Internet. Write down the facts and bring them to your teacher at your next piano lesson. 

63.  Close your music.  Using a pencil and a piece of staff paper, write out a passage of your piece to see how well you know it.

64.  Using a Music Dictionary, look up all the terms in your music that you don’t know.  Write the definitions into your music.

65.  Make up movements or a dance to go with your piece.

66.  Play your piece and say out loud the chords you are playing.





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