How to Find Your Best Practice Style– and Love Practicing

How to Find Your Practice Style

How do you practice piano?

That is the golden question.

How do you get to a certain level, play a certain piece?

I talk about playing productively and practicing less to get more done— some people hate practicing and maybe it seems like I’m one of those.

I am and I’m not.

I’ve been through the tears and struggles of practicing wrong. Forcing myself to practice.

It is hard and stressful.

No one ever talks about this, just like no one ever talks about the number of times a gymnast falls off the vault before the Olympics, and what it feels like to risk smashing your own head to the ground in front of a million people.

I took several long breaks from piano because of this. Like the violinist Ji Hae Park, only without severe depression.

Sometimes it was a race against myself. “When will I accomplish this?” I’d think.

Here’s how to get through that.

How to enjoy practicing

There will always be things that you don’t feel like doing, but should be done anyways.

The same goes for piano– scales, fugues, partitas. We all have those.

1. Know your weaknesses. You know them instinctively, but you have to name them.

In music, my weakness has always been rhythm. I have to work at changing rhythms. When the music switches from triplets to sixteenths to eighths, I have to work to make it even.

I can play Beethoven very well because his music resonates with me, but his rhythm switches wear me down. They say he was a mad man who stomped around town.

2. Name your strengths.

Usually, this will be the type of music you like playing most, because it comes easily.

If you are good at keeping a steady rhythm and isolating voices, then you probably like playing Baroque music.

My fingers are quick but I have to figure out complex rhythms, so pieces by Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin take me less effort than pieces by Mozart.

Side note: quick fingers do not come effortlessly. You can have nice hair, but if you don’t ever wash or brush it, you’ll stink and frizz up all the same.

I also have good ears, I think. Once, a chord was chopped off at the edge of a Chopin score (a misprint) and I made up a chord because I didn’t feel like asking my teacher to look it up. She had a short temper, and I knew she’d correct me. It turns out, I got the chord right. It was a completely educated guess.

3. Peel away your practicing.

This is what I missed– and got pain and frustration instead, when my teacher scrunched up her eyebrows and raised her voice at me.

Start with the bare basics.

Last week, I was living in a forest, on an island, where the wild things are.

Creatures prowled around us throughout the night. They stole our marshmallows and graham crackers twice. The second time, we managed to get a ripped box and half a bag of graham crackers back. One girl got fed up and was brave enough to get it back.

The last time I lived in a forest, someone fired a shot in the middle of the night, with a gun, and started screaming, “Bear! Bear!” when all the other wild sounds died down. (This is still a forest in Canada– no one ever has a gun here.)

If he shot at a bear, he could’ve shot at anyone. And what if he couldn’t aim? I heard him loudly– he wasn’t that far from where I was lying, trying to sleep. To be fair, owls and coyotes were making noises before that, and one guy with a gun probably couldn’t beat an entire army of animals. I couldn’t fall asleep anyways.

This time in the forest, I had clothes, a journal, some emergency food which I wasn’t supposed to have– in case animals try get to it and destroy us in the process– a sleeping bag, and toiletries. Which, there wasn’t a washroom to use in anyways.

I didn’t bring my phone, because I’d forgotten it. It was charging; I thought I’d put it in my bag the night before. But I’d put my earphones in my bag, not my phone. And I’m not brave, nor careful, enough to bring a DSLR into the forest.

There was a small beach by the forest, a few cars. We were on an island, isolated for all practical purposes. (No wifi, except at the ferries.)

We thrived with all the bare basics. Granted, we had seasoned grilled salmon for dinner once (we shared our food, and other things, like tents and cars). But it was refreshing.

At night, it was like someone grabbed fistfuls of stars and sprinkled them into the sky. I saw the Big Dipper for the first time.

I didn’t shower for three days. I survived it by not thinking about it.

On the second day, I jumped into the ocean with a friend. When we dried off, we found ourselves dusted with an invisible layer of salt. I only had to lick my lips to find out.

“We get free mineral treatments,” I said.

“This better make my hair shiny.” She rolled her eyes. She had curly hair.

I enjoyed the forest and I would go again. The forest dwarfed me. I’m not very big but I like the feeling of exploring and being safe. There weren’t any bears on the island, and the deer roam freely, but I didn’t see any deer peeking from the bushes– I was hoping to see at least one.

I knew that I lived with too many frivolities in general, but coming home, I realized that I HAD to do something about it or I will suffocate.

I have nice clothes, but other people will probably enjoy some of it more than I do. My style is hard to describe, but it is comfortable. Sometimes simple, sometimes edgy. American Apparel, Lululemon, J. Crew. I will be getting rid of some fine clothes soon. But, I adore Donna Karan and I still wish some of her clothes would jump into my wardrobe.

And books, I need to get rid of books I never liked. My Mom brought a bunch of books a while ago. I went through them but I had to gag at some. They are New York Times bestsellers, but not my type. Maybe I should do a blog sale.

From being in the forest, I found out that I can survive with the bare basics. That I don’t need a bunch of prized posessions to be happy, at least for a short while.

I cannot say the same for everyone. One girl found out that she is a “city girl.” She likes the noise of the city and cars; beyond that, I don’t know what she means, but it was good for her to find out.

Peeling things away

By peeling down to the bare basics, you will find what you really need, and how you really work.

Once you know that, you will make better choices for yourself.

You don’t need to go into the forest for your music, although it would be nice.

To find how you practice best, first look at how you’re practicing right now.

Are you spending hours on the bench, with little progress? Are you taking a break every 5 minutes because you can’t concentrate?

Add something new– mix it up– and see how things change. Do you get better or worse?

If you’re practicing too much, then try practicing less— you will get more done. If you need to practice more, find a way to motivate yourself. (Here’s another article on accomplishing goals.)

Another challenge is finding pieces for yourself to play. Most teachers don’t have teachers telling them to play this and that anymore.

When you’re a student, your teacher does all the thinking for you– play this, fix this, don’t do this. When you don’t have a teacher, you have to think for yourself, and gauge yourself.

Finding your style

Some people have trouble finding their own style.

My fashion style is always shifting, but my piano style has stayed the same all this time.

It was easy for me to find my own style in piano, but I still can’t define a fashion style– and I’ve been wearing clothes longer than I’ve played piano.

So it’s alright if you can’t find a music style.

One way to find a style is to start with a bunch of music that you like, then branch off.

Another is to start with a few pieces of a certain style, then try a different style.

For example, you can start off with flowing, contemporary music. Then Romantic music (like Chopin). Then Baroque music (like Bach).

The key is to play music in styles that you are weak AND strong in, so you don’t feel like an idiot when you demonstrate things that you’re weak in. And you can groove out when you are confident.

How do you practice best? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

If you know someone who will find this helpful, feel free to send it to them.

3 Comments

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  • Tzod Earf July 30, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    I love the way you express yourself. Although, I like to be warned before an adventure in the woods, especially where lions, tigers, and bears prowl. Oh, my!

    I take that story is an example of losing focus while practising. I do that often. I’m supposed to be working out of the Jazz Handbook learning scales, voicings and what not. I do OK for a day or two then break out on a tangent of improv. In some ways I improve, in others, not so much.

    My goals are much less ambitious than Liszt or Rachmoninoff. I mess around somtimes with a couple of Bach preludes and fugues, slowing working through my favorite phrases. I’ve noticed better finger fluidity though I’ve yet to master one. But, I’m about one year into a five year plan to see if I can commit to daily practice and progress far enough to play functionally well.

    Regardless the outcome, I plan on having fun even if I remain forever a practice player.

  • Grace Miles July 30, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    There were coyotes and bears, no lions and tigers though. Not the whole kingdom in one forest, unfortunately. But it’s a different world out there– you don’t have things like trains and proper washrooms.

    My version of living a bare, basic life is being in the forest. I like it but I can’t live like that forever. So when I came back, I brought the best parts back with me, like trying to be minimalist, because it fits into my lifestyle and makes me work better.

    We can do the same with piano, to find the best parts of your practicing. Take away all the frills and techniques, then experiment with different ways of practicing.
    Like, you could vary your practice times and put in breaks. Or you could try something else for technique. I’ve played piano for years and I’m only halfway through the Hanon and Czerny technique books.

    I’d love to hear your five year plan if you want to share. Playing for a length of time is mostly about making a habit and it sounds like you’re well on your way!

    • Tzod Earf July 31, 2013 at 11:55 pm

      I took lessons as a child but rarely practiced (except the night before a lesson). I came across a couple of books ol’ Mrs Jablonski had me playing and realized she thought I could play better than I ever thought.

      So my plan is to redeem some of the value of those lessons by practicing consistently over a long period of time. I can read but not fluently. I plan to start taking music with me to read like it’s the newspaper.

      I also study chord structure and try to develope my ear. My goals are modest. I want to at least be able to take a fake book and make music. I’ll always attempt classical music but it’s more a tool to me. There are a lot of riffs and runs which translate well in pop, blues, and jazz.

      Mainly I’m satisfying my own curiosity but the least I can do is try to play well enough to be entertaining.