HOW TO PRACTICE

In piano playing you must repeat something several hundred times. But you must also alternate repetition with time for the unconscious to work it out. This means ultimately a night’s sleep. It is when you start dreaming with your piece that you know you are starting to learn it. Dreaming is a consequence of this integrative work of the unconscious.

This has the following awesome practical consequence: In order to learn anything in the most efficient way, work on it with full concentration for a period of time (15 – 20 minutes is more then enough) and then forget about it until the next day. The next day repeat the same procedure for the same amount of time and again forget it until the next day. Repeat this as many days as necessary to be able to play the passage in question is such a way that you cannot get it wrong even if you try. I assure you that you will get to this point in a maximum of seven days, usually much less. This demands incredible discipline and consistency. But it works like magic.

Now consider this extreme example. You decide to practice 5 hours every day. These five hours can be divided in 12 practice sessions of 20 minutes each plus 5 minutes break in between each practice session.

The worst thing you can do is this: “Today I am going to practice bars 12- 24 of piece x.”. Then you do that in each of the 12 practice sessions. For 5 hours solid. It does not work. It is a waste of time.

The brilliant thing you can do is to use each of these 12 practice sessions to practice something completely different in each.

You see, it does not matter if you work on a passage for 20 minutes or for five hours. Whatever you accomplished in 20 minutes is all you are going to accomplish that day. You need a night’s sleep in between. It is far better to work twelve days for 20 minutes everyday in a passage than to work on that passage for 12 consecutive sessions in a day. (You do not need to believe me. Just try it out!). Instead use the other eleven daily sessions to learn eleven new things. At the end of a week you will be amazed at the fantastic amount that you have learned.

But you must have a plan. You must make sure that everything that you are practicing in these sessions add up to something at the end of a week. This is the simple secret of all those pianists who were able to learn massive repertories in no time at all.

This also means that you do not need to practice 10 –12 hours a day. 20 minutes is plenty. But the amount you will be able to learn in 20 minutes will be 1/12 of what you could learn in 5 hours. Do you understand what I am getting at? Do not think in terms of hours of practice per day, but in terms of number of 20 minute sessions per day and stick to whatever you are doing for seven days (or until you master it - usually less than seven days).

Now let me say a few more words about 15 - 20 minutes, so that it is perfectly clear what I mean.

The important aspect is that you should have a passage perfect at the end of 15 – 20 minutes.

If it is taking more than that, then the passage you chose to work on is too big.

Cut it in half.

Most people select bits that are bigger than they can chew. This leads to practicing for hours on end without visible improvement, which leads to fatigue, discouragement and actually burn out in relation to the passage/piece in question.

Here is another approach to be combined with the 15-20 minutes one. I probably already said that in one of the threads, but I cannot remember where.

It takes 7 repetitions for the human brain to learn anything. So, choose a passage and repeat it seven times. If after seven times you have not learnt it, it is because it is too large a chunk of information.

So instead of doing what everyone who does not know this piece of information do, namely keep repeating endlessly the passage hundreds of times, do the clever thing and make the passage smaller.

Try again seven times. If you still have not got it, make it smaller again. Certain passages will require that you par it down to only two notes. But I assure you that anyone can learn two notes after repeating them seven times. Then you go to the next bit (make sure you overlap to avoid stuttering on the links later on).

So you must organize your 15 –20 minutes in seven time repetition blocks that add up to the passage you have to master in that session. Or make the passage smaller so that it will fit in the 15 – 20 minute session.


In the beginning this will be sort of overwhelming, but as you keep at it, very soon you will be able to look at a score and immediately know how long it will take you to learn it. You will know exactly how to break it down and the size of passage you can manage.

I. There are three basic stages in learning/practicing a new piece.

i. The first stage is exploratory. You sight read through the piece to identify the difficult bits, the motifs, the voices, you do analysis, you listen to CDs of the piece, you break it all down in manageable chunks to practice. You also figure out for each chunk the best fingering for the sound you aim to produce, the most economical and efficient movements. You spend time trying different movements, and fingerings. You also plan how you are going to tackle the piece; how many passages, how long the passages are going to be, how you are going to join the passages. A good part of this stage is done away from the piano. The end result of this stage is to have a thorough knowledge of the piece (theoretically) and to have a working plan to master it in as little time as possible.

ii. In the second stage, which is mostly technical, you have most of the parameters defined, and you go to the piano to teach your body (fingers, arms, etc.) to actually play the several passages in which you organized the learning/practicing of your piece. The main aim here is to ingrain the correct movements fingerings in your subconscious, and to smooth the movements so that they become not only automatic but also efficient and economical (and as a consequence elegant) This is the stage where you work with separate hands in small bits, ten join hands, and use all sorts of practice tricks (practicing with different rhythms, practice in chords, use repeated notes and repeated note groups, etc.). You will also develop hand memory at this stage. The end result of this stage is to have the piece learned as far as playing the correct notes at the correct time is concerned. You want to get to that magical moment where your fingers just know where to go, without you having to think about it.

iii. Finally on the third stage, you will be dealing mostly with interpretation and performance issues. The piece is learned and memorized at this stage, but you still need to work things like phrasing and dynamics, rubato and liberties you may take with tempo and rhythm, bringing out (or not) melodic strands in different voices. If you know where you will be performing the piece, you may need to adjust your playing to the piano and to the acoustics of the hall. If you are playing with an orchestra you may need to comply with the conductor’s suggestions.

These three stages are not separate as the descriptions above may imply. One stage informs the other. It may well happen that in the second stage, when you actually start practicing the piece on the piano, you find out that the fingerings and movements you decided on the first stage actually do not work. So you may have to go back and change them. Also, although the second stage is mostly technical, you should not leave interpretation completely out of it until you get to the third stage. So there is a great degree of interpretations and overlap on these three stages. They are not at all self contained.

II. Having said that, the 15 – 20 minutes practice idea refer to the second stage. What is this idea? In fact it is not an idea. It is a principle . in fact two principles.

i. The human brain learns by “chunks”, and then by clustering these chunks into larger chunks. Anything that can be learned by repetition will be learned after seven repetitions. If after seven repetitions you have not learned the “chunk”, it means that the chunk was to large for the brain to handle. You must break it down into smaller chunks. Let us say that you want to learn a poem with 200 verses. If you read the full 200 verses seven times, chances are that after seven times you will not have learned it. Most people who are not aware of what I am about to say, will just keep repeating the whole poem in the hope that by increasing the number of repeats they will eventually master it. Let us say that it takes 30 minutes to repeat aloud 200 verses. Repeating the poem seven times will take 3.5 hours, at the end of it you will not have learned it. So you repeat another seven times. You still will not have learned it. So you do another seven times with the same dismal result. Now you have been reading this poem for 10.5 hours. Do that for a whole month. I bet that at the end of the month, practicing 10.5 hours a day (21 repetitions) you still will not have learnt the poem. This is partly because you cannot fit enough repetitions in a day (the poem is simply too large), but also because if you have not learned after seven repetitions increasing the number of repetitions will not make any difference.

ii. So what should you do? You must decrease the size of the chunk of information that you are trying to learn. How much should you decrease it? Well, start by cutting the poem in half: 100 verses. Now this takes only 15 minutes to read through. After seven repeats, did you learn it? If you did, this is the chunk size you can cope with. If not, the chunk size is still too large. So cut it in half again: 50 verses, which you can now read in 7.5 minutes. Now let us say that by cutting it in half and trying to learn the chunk in seven repetitions you finally got to 1 verse. That can be read in 9 seconds. This is the exploratory stage of your practice: when you find out what is the larges chunk you can learn by repeating it seven times. With experience you will get this size fairly immediately. But in the beginning expect to spend sometime learning about yourself and your learning capacity.

iii. So you figured out that one verse is (for you) learnable after seven repeats. After seven repetitions you just know it. So it is going to take you (9x7) = 63 seconds to master one line of the poem. To master the 200 verses will take you exactly 3. 5 hours, the same amount of time it took you to read through the whole poem 7 times without making any progress whatsoever. The conclusion is obvious: Breaking your learning tasks into chunks that can be learned after seven repeats will save an amazing amount of time, as compared to the alternative of reading the whole thing seven times.

III. The second principle is this: You learn nothing until it is processed by the unconscious. Dreaming is one of the symptoms of this, so you need at least one night sleep in between learning sessions before you actually learn what you have been practicing. Usually you will need several nights sleep depending on the complexity of your task. This is the 20 minute principle.

Going back to the 200 line poem. It took you 63 seconds to repeat and learn the first line. That’s it! You do not need to do any more work on this line today. You can do, if you want, but it will not make any difference whatsoever.

If you do your seven repeats (63 seconds), stop and go to bed, next day when you wake up you will find that you pretty much forgot the line. So you must start again, and repeat the line seven times (63 seconds again). But you will discover that although you felt as ignorant as in the first day, this time it took you only 5 repeats to get to the stage you were in yesterday after 7 repeats. So you re-learnt the line in 45 seconds, instead of the 63 seconds. Never mind that, do your seven repeats again (even though you have mastered it by the fifth). On the third day, you wake up and to your dismay you realize you cannot remember a thing. However, this time by the second repeat it is all back in your mind. This time it took you only 18 seconds to get to the stage that in the first day took you 63 seconds. And in the second day 45 seconds. Again, even though you mastered the line by the second repeat , you do the full seven repetitions. On the fourth day. Chances are that you will not need to do any repeat. you simply know the line. I have never met anyone who needed more than seven days to get to this stage. Usually by the third/fourth day they have learned their chunk of information (provided that the size of the chunk could be learned after seven repeats).

The important fact here is this. If you repeat your verse 700 times (instead of 7), It will make no difference whatsoever to the speed with which you will learn it. It will still take four days. You do not need to believe me. Just try it. Get two passages of a piece. Size them so that they can be learnt after seven repeats. Do only seven repeats on the first one, and 700 repeats on the second. See which one is thoroughly learnt first. My prediction is that they will both take exactly the same amount of time to be learnt

In the case of a passage of music, you will probably do more things then just repeat it. Possibly (I would do that) after repeating seven times, I would work on hands separate and hands together. Depending on the passage I might use rhythmic variations, or play it in chords, or other practice variations. So it may take 15 – 20 minutes to go through all these routines, maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less. Then that is it for the day! Only go through that passage again next day. If you want to devote 5 hours a day to piano practice, use the remaining time to practice other passages, or even passage from other pieces.

So use the 7 repeat principle to define the passage you are going to practice. Then practice it only for the time necessary to master it (usually less then 15 – 20 minutes, but rarely a bit more). Then leave it until the next day. Repeat the same process again until you finally know it (should take 3 – 4 days).

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for such a thorough overview! It is interesting what you say about repeating the same routine day after day — I would usually spend most time on a passage at the beginning, and then polish it with the rest of the piece, yet I keep having the feeling that I haven't fully learnt it — so what you say makes perfect sense.

    Thank you, I'll try to follow this approach from now on!

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