About Practice: Why & How



Why Do We Practice?

We practice in order to understand a work, in terms of its musical content, its structure, its expression, its character and style. We practice to understand the little details of the work, the phrasing, the dynamic layout, the articulation, the movement of the melodic lines, the rhythm and tempo etc.

We practice to perfect our playing of the work. After we understand the work, we have to express it through our hands. We transfer what we know in our mind to our hands and through our hands to the piano. From the piano our understanding reaches the audience.

We practice to show others through the medium of piano how the work should sound like under our interpretation, through means of lessons, performance, exams and competitions.

How Should We Practice?

Practice is completely different than a performance or an actual rendition of the whole piece. When we practice, most of the time we do not go through the whole work. We do not hear the whole song all the time completely from the beginning to end all the time. Most of the time we merely hear bits and pieces, a phrase here and there.

Practice means drilling difficult bits and pieces of a song in progress. You can first play through once or twice to locate the problems encountered in the song. Then you mark down the areas you have trouble playing through, work on the each problem with concentration and patience, tackle it one by one, and eventually put the whole piece together to become a solid performance.

Practice Session: Time Allocation

Recently one parent asked me as to how specifically the time of each practice session should be allocated.
Now I shall take time to tell you all how is should be done in general:

First of all, students should practice five days a week at the minimum. If you or your kids can practice more (days and times), great. If practice less, do not ask me why you or your kids are not familiar with the songs and are slow with the learning progress. You should know why now. (However, I should add that parents should let younger students have one day off from practice per week.)

For beginners (young and mature):
20-30 minutes per daily session
Steps (in order):
1. 5(-10) minutes: scales- hands separately, together, contrary and similar motion, 1 octave or 2 octaves
2. 10 minutes: first song
3. 10 minutes: another song
We always start with scales to warm up the hands and brains.
Depending on how many songs I have given the student, s/he should spend the time left after scales equally between them. If there are one new song and one revision song, work specifically on the new one (15 minutes) and fine-tune the details on the old one (5 minutes).
I usually have marked down the phrases in numbers in each song. Practice each phrase one by one, especially in the new song(s).
Other than practicing 1 long session of 30 minutes, parents can break down the session into two shorter sessions of 15 minutes for young beginners (age 4-5), so they can practice scales and one song in one session, and another song(s) in the other session. You can read more about this at my previous post: “Young Children’s Practice Sessions” .

For students over 1-year training and lower-grade students (grades 1-5):
30-45 minutes per daily session (at least 30 minutes for 1-year level and at least 45 minutes for those preparing for exams)
Steps (in order):
1. 10(-15) minutes: scales
2: 15 minutes: first song
3: 15 minutes: second song
4: 5(-10) minutes: third song(revision or duet piece)

Same to the beginners, start with scales. All students should spend more time with the scales, with correct notes, correct fingering (MUST follow the directions), steady pulse, then accuracy and fast speed.
By this level students should know how to practice PHRASE BY PHRASE, as I have mentioned many times (and cannot be stressed more) in every student’s lessons and to each student’s parents individually.

For students of higher grades (grades 6-8):
45 minutes – 1 hour per daily session
Steps (in order):
1. 15 minutes: scales – go for speed and accuracy now! If I give you technical exercises other than scales, do it first in your practice session as well
2. 15-20 minutes on each song (solo)
3. 10 minutes or so on duet piece (if any)

You should know how to practice without me mentioning here! But let me stress again the importance of scales (and exercises specifically given to you individually). For pieces, PRACTICE PHRASE BY PHRASE, SECTION BY SECTION! Work on it bit by bit. Although I have said this many times, I know few of you do it. There is ABSOLUTELY no point to play through the song from head to toe 10 times and say you have finished the practice of it. If you are still doing it, it is because YOU ARE LAZY! And do not want to spare your brain to think about HOW to get the song fixed. Go through the problems one by one, fix them one by one, tackle them and do not be afraid of them. Spend more time on the problematic areas than those you already know so well! (Do you spend more time to revise on the subject or chapter you are good at? NO! Then why are you doing it in your practice??Let us do something that makes sense, shall we?)

Listen to your own practice, pay attention and effort to the little details. They are the ones that count.

Diploma students:
Hmm I should not be telling you this, as you should know HOW to practice!
But obviously most of you do not (sigh).

Now, same thing as everyone. Do your technical exercises, etudes FIRST. 10 minutes or so. It is the quality of your practice counts, not the time here.

Next, the pieces. Sometimes there is only one big piece you are working on specifically.
Take time to learn the new piece at the beginning (as do everyone else from beginners to graded students). If you spend more time to understand the piece at the start, you will have a better luck at getting it done in the process of learning it. KNOW YOUR PIECE WELL. What exactly is each phrase doing? Where is each section? What is the music trying to say? And how is this done? (e.g. the music devices used)

Another thing is: spend more time on truly getting the specific techniques and polishing them. For those technical movements I have taught you, you have to work a lot to get it. It is not easy to get it and does take time to do so. With technique, it would be easy for you to get your performance to the next level. Without it, you might be stuck at the same level for the longest period of time.

But again, stay positive. Know that practice with devotion and dedication will always get you somewhere leading towards your goal. Do not rush your practice and progress. It cannot be rushed. If you only think about taking the diplomas, you will not get anywhere, only with much luck those empty certificates hanging on the wall. The papers are meaningless if you do not keep playing and learning and polishing. Stay in love with your playing and practice. Give positive energy in your everyday practice session. Give yourself hope and faith. We can do it together.

Teacher is responsible for teaching the students how to practice.
Parents are responsible for reminding their children to practice well before coming to lessons.

Without practice, teacher cannot do much with the students’ learning and progress. It is equal to academic homework and revision study for any school subject. Without knowing the alphabets one cannot learn words, and without words no grammar and sentences. Same goes to piano and music learning. Without knowing the notes and rhythms one cannot play go further to work on the pulse and speed, not to mention the character and emotion of the song.


Teresa Wong

More on Practice at :
“Piano Practice I”

“The Right Mindset”

How to Make the Most of a Practice Session

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