Practice is of utmost importance second to lessons. But if one practises mindlessly with no specific goals in mind, no matter how much time one has spent on, there would not be much improvement in one’s playing. Then just how should we practise? Here are a few points to consider:
1. Set a GOAL for each practice session –
Before you start to practise, always have a plan in mind. You cannot merely think, “I want to improve my playing”. What exactly do you want to accomplish during this particular practice session? Is it the notes? Right hand chords? Left hand rhythm? Fingering? Specific technique/motion (e.g. wrist, arm movement)? Tempo adjustment? etc. Knowing what you have to work on during each session keeps you focus on the practice and speed up your progress.
2. Practise SMALL sections of each piece–
Do not try to play the whole piece from beginning to end a thousand times and assume it will get better! Sometimes you can have fun just to play it through, but that is not called a practice. When you practise, you need to have something specific and small to work on. Mark out the phrases in the piece (if your teacher hasn’t marked them already, try marking every eight bars as one phrase). Number the phrases. You can start from practising each phrase, seeing if there is any phrase that has problem you cannot play through smoothly. Sometimes that is not even specific enough. Then you divide each eight-bar phrase into two four-bar sub-phrases. Try playing each four-bar sub-phrase only. Stop right there at the very last note and do no go any further-many students have hard time stopping and I don’t know why; playing more does not mean you are better, and the same goes for playing faster! Learn to control yourself. You have to stop, listen and check if there is anything you need to fix.
Another way to do it is to find a particular spot to fix, e.g. problem 1: measures 14-16, problem 2: measures 20-22. Fix the same kind of materials at one go. So, NOTES as one target category (measure 14-16, notes in the right hand part; measures 20-22, notes in the left hand part), RHYTHM as another, FINGERING and MOTION (technique) as yet another two, etc.
3. Check your TEMPO–
I can hardly understand why many students have problem slowing down. They think playing at a slow tempo means their playing is weak and bad, even the piece is supposed to be a slow one! Always work on a tempo slower than you think you can play at. Play and Listen. Listening to your own playing is completely different from merely hearing it: the first practice works with focus and mind, and you would know where goes wrong even without your teacher telling you so. It becomes a mindful and effective practice.
Use metronome at times to check against your own tempo: I don’t really like using metronome myself, but it does help and I do use it sometimes. You will find you are always getting rush at easier spots or slowing down at difficult phrases. Set a target tempo. Play under that target tempo and do not go faster than it.
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There is much more to say about practice and I shall write more about it later. Readers are welcome to suggest anything on this topic for further discussion.