The 4 Deadliest Practice Mistakes Ever

The Most Deadly Practice Mistakes Ever

We like to think that sitting down at the piano is good.

“Practicing is good.”

We think.

But it’s estimated that 93%+ of pianists don’t know how to practice piano properly.

And about 70%+ of the time they spend at the piano is a waste of time.

Why?

Because they don’t know how to practice.

What’s Wrong with “Traditional” Practice?

Play, stumble, and repeat. For hours. Fingers, pull hair.

It’s a waste of time.

And it ruins your technique.

It’s like running. You’ll be slow and awkward if you just move your legs.

To be a fast, efficient runner, you need to shift your weight forward, move your eyes up, propel yourself with your pumping arms, and much more.

Competitive runners have these instincts almost ingrained.

It’s the same with playing piano– playing piano means doing much more than just moving your fingers.

Most of the time, you forget about your other organs and focus just on your fingers.

You’re built on a system; your brain churns, your heart pumps– your hidden organs aren’t working any less than your fingers.

In fact, they’re hidden because they work harder and they’re most important– they need to be protected.

And you need to work with them.

The key to practicing piano is to practice holistically, as a whole person, instead of just with your fingers.

And to use psychology.

Stop wasting time– here are the 4 deadliest practice mistakes ever, and how to fix them.

You’re Not Curious

When am I going to be done practicing? Am I done yet? When are these memory slips going to end?

You’re not asking the right questions.

Asking “when” questions will focus you on just speed instead of quality. Your results will disappoint you because you rushed towards your goal.

For example, consider learning to play a scale for the first time.

If you keep asking yourself:

When am I going to be able to play this scale up to tempo?

You’ll be focused on just speed and miss everything else, like control, tone, evenness, dexterity, and clarity.

In the end, your scale might be up to tempo, but the notes are probably unclear and uneven, and the tone will probably be shaky at best.

What to Ask

Instead of “when” questions and “am I…” questions, ask yourself “how” questions.

Set a goal by asking “How am I going to [insert goal here]?”

Finding this goal sets the tone for your journey because everything you do will be geared towards this specific goal, rather than just blindly ‘improving’.

  • Guide yourself through practice by asking “How am I going to achieve this?”
  • Gauge your progress on the piece by asking “How am I doing?”– “how” questions focus on process and quality over quantity.

Everything will be much easier when you find this goal.

In the end, you’ll find that asking “how” questions will be more efficient because you’ll be spending less time fixing the mistakes that your “when” and “am I” questions brought on.

You Don’t Pattern-Interrupt

Playing piano is a brain game that forces you to use your muscles.

If you feel completely exhausted after practicing piano, then you need to change your routine.

Total exhaustion means you’re not experiencing flow and you’re not playing to your full potential.

How to Get Your Spark Back

Partway into your routine, get away from the piano for 10 minutes.

Don’t think about piano during that time, just do something else.

Then come back.

You’ll feel refreshed, your thoughts will be organized, and you’ll find new success.

New ideas will come.

It sounds like magic, but it’s just giving your body time to absorb and reorganize itself.

What the Pros Do

Studies show that the most successful professional pianists concentrate their piano practice in the morning and in the evening, almost always going into the ‘magical’ state of flow.

Having specific times for practicing piano means that these professional pianists’s lives are fairly laid back, as they can relax for the bulk of the day.

  • You can use the successful pianist mindset by choosing a specific time to practice everyday, and not spreading it out through the day.
  • If you feel exhausted when or before you practice piano, then take it easy; maybe even take a power nap. This exhaustion isn’t caused by piano practice and you’ll be up and running after a good rest.

You’re Not Your Best Critic

You need to really listen to your playing as you practice, as if you were listening to someone else play.

Critique yourself– don’t wait for the crowd to critique you on the stage.

How to Critique Yourself Properly

If it’s really too hard to listen and play, then record yourself and watch or listen to it afterwards.

It seems obvious, but very few of us actually do this and even when it happens, we do it very rarely.

Learning to really listen while you play is a an extremely valuable skill– and it does improve with practice.

Try critiquing yourself with the sandwich technique— a very long sandwich, of course.

  • When you practice piano, concentrate entirely on practicing piano. Unplug, unplug, unplug!
  • Remove distractions and stop thinking about anything but piano, because you won’t be making any substantial progress (and you won’t go into flow).
  • You shouldn’t be thinking about what’s going to happen after practice, and you shouldn’t be making any excuses– if you’re short on time, make sure you practice piano efficiently.

You Don’t Think…

This wraps everything together.

You don’t think.

Think about where you want to go, how you can do this.

Imagine you’re building a house: you need to lay down a solid foundation in order to build upwards and have a building that withstands the elements.

If you don’t have a solid foundation on the basics, then your building will topple over.

This is like learning a piece and learning to play piano in general.

If you’re trying to play a piece from memory but you can’t play the piece smoothly even when the music is in front of you, then you’re not going to have any of the finer details. Chances are, you’re not able to play much from memory at all.

If you’re pushing beyond your current abilities too much, then slow down. Progress towards your goal gradually.

Push yourself, but not to the point where you feel that it’s almost impossible.

How to Plan Successfully

The 4 Deadliest Practice Mistakes Ever

  • Write down specific goals. If your goals are vague, then you’re never going to know if you’ve really accomplished it. (How to Achieve Any Goal Once and For All?)
  • Ask ‘how’. Once you’ve set a goal, asking yourself “how” you’re going to achieve it will let you see the grand picture, where you’ll be able to plan out the steps you need to take towards the goal.
  • For example, if you’ve just chosen a new piece and you’re asking yourself “how” you’re going to memorize it, then you’re on the right track– you shouldn’t be thinking “When am I going to get this memorized?” because the answer is probably close to never, if you’re holding onto this attitude.
  • Your last question is “By when?”

Even if it’s a “soft” deadline, having one is super important because you’ll never motivate yourself to cross off items if there’s no deadline.

That’s why all store coupons have deadlines.

After you’ve chosen your goal, you’ll plan realistic steps towards the goal.

A sample plan for learning a piece might be:

  1. Sight read half the piece: 3 days
  2. Play the first half of the piece fluently: 5 days
  3. Fix up small errors: 3 days
  4. Sight read the second half of the piece: 3 days
  5. Play the second half of the piece fluently: 5 days
  6. Fix up small errors: 3 days
  7. Memorize the piece by quarters: 3 days for every quarter

*Make sure you set actual dates.

This makes your goal “easy” because all the steps are here and you can gauge where you are based on every step.

All you have to do is look and follow.

You can also adjust the timeline slightly if you’re not meeting the schedule, but make sure the timeline isn’t too flexible.

Here’s my FREE goals system cheat sheet, that I’ve tweaked over the years. Now it works great.

In a nutshell

  1. First, establish what your problem is or what you need to accomplish.
  2. Ask yourself how you can solve the problem or improve.
  3. Set small and specific goals leading up to the final goal.
  4. Ask yourself when each goal should be accomplished.
  5. Track your progress!

P.S. Bonus tip: Use muscle memory. It’ll probably double your chance of success.

6 Comments

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  • Suzy June 17, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Excellent post! Great advice for musicians who think they have to overwork themselves to reach their goals. It’s all about the balance!

  • The 4 Deadliest Practice Mistakes Ever | MYC Emily October 19, 2012 at 8:34 am

    […] article was brought to my attention because of MYC. I hope that you enjoy this article titled The 4 Deadliest Practice Mistakes Ever. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Practice […]

  • The Digest, Volume 3 « Sketchbook: Notes About Music and the Arts October 25, 2012 at 7:18 am

    […] The Four Deadliest Practice Mistakes Ever – And What To Do About Them, by Grace on Artiden. […]

  • Becca August 14, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    I agree with the above commenter…excellent post!! Really gave me something to think about for my own practicing…which I am struggling with. So perfect timing, actually. Thank you Tim.

  • Leah Coutts December 28, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Great post! Especially about asking the right questions. Questions direct focus, and focus directs actions. Positive practice actions = positive growth. Any challenge can be overcome with “how” questions, instead of “why can’t I” questions.

    • Grace Miles January 19, 2014 at 12:34 pm

      Yes! Positivity will help you grow. Negativity caves in on itself, into a vicious cycle.