Archive for category The Practice Project

Practising on a Budget

It’s that time of year again.  Exams.  I’m sure I’m not the only piano teacher in the country seeing a sudden dearth in practice time in students who are in their final years of GCSE, AS, and A-levels.  But is there any need for practising to tail off in the way that it usually does?  In previous years, I have accepted the usual cries of, ‘I haven’t had time to practice!’ without question, but this year, I’m starting to think that there may be a way around this. So let’s start at the beginning; let’s assume that students in these critical school years genuinely do not have time to sit down for their usual practise sessions, which, depending on their playing level, will range from 15 minutes to over an hour.  But is that any reason to stop altogether? Mentally and emotionally, it can seem so.  After all, in can seem to students (indeed, this goes for most of us, I think) that they have already failed when they can’t spare enough time to do a ‘proper’ job. But what if that is a myth? What if a student  can  manage something really quite substantial in a much smaller amount of time? Take the example of an A-level student studying post-grade 8 repertoire.  Ideally, students at this level should be practising for an hour or more every day.  But that’s simply not going to happen at the moment, and any attempt to try is going to end in an awful sense of failure.  So what are the alternatives? Micro-practices! Micro-practices are ten to fifteen minute bursts of practising, as many or as few as are achievable, each one with a different goal in mind.  Here are some examples:

  1. Major, harmonic minor, and / or melodic minor scales, 1 octave only
  2. Single page of piece A, left hand only, concentrating on pedal
  3. Half a new page of piece A, working out new notation etc.
  4. Slow and steady practice of half a page of piece B
  5. First two pages of piece A, working on right hand alone, phrasing and projection
  6. Major and / or minor arpeggios, root position, two octaves
  7. Listening to both pieces on youtube, following with score
  8. Run through and individual section practise of single page of piece A
  9. Run through and individual section practice of single page of piece B
  10. Rhythmic improvisation of piece B, single page
  11. Try to figure out harmonic base / progression of piece A, single page
  12. Work on dynamics whilst only playing left hand accompaniment, piece A
  13. Double check consistency of fingering throughout, piece B

None of these are not achievable in short bursts, and looking carefully at them, they are really only one normal length practise split up into its individual components.  And with students playing at more elementary levels, these micro practices can be tailored for very short time periods (as little as three or four minutes each for beginners), with each goal worked out to roughly comprise of an individual component of the ‘usual’ longer practice session. And who knows, with achievable micro-practises to hand, busy and stressed out students might even manage to find that getting away from the pressures and strains of revision and coursework deadlines helps them to relax and cope better with their exam workload.

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to

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I Didn’t Know I Did That…

This is the second instalment of John Ireland’s Month’s Mind (recorded swiftly after the first one)

Again, my concentration isn’t fully there for serious ‘performance style practising’ and I got side tracked by a little improv halfway through (just enjoying the harmonies, really), but I came out of this practice with some incredibly useful musical information logged.

And I had fun.

As an aside, I had no idea until I recorded these sessions how much I switch or split the score between hands when practising to hear things easier and learn melodic lines and harmonic progressions.


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There’s more than one way to skin a proverbial…. 

This very short practice session, of John Ireland’s beautifully scrunchy Month’s Mind, was one from today when I had a spare few minutes during a day otherwise full of relaxing, cleaning, tidying, and generally not being terribly musical.  It’s hard to resist a quick practice with an empty house at my fingertips though, and because I knew I didn’t have full focus today, I decided to look at the piece from a different angle.

Those of you who have followed The Practice Project so far, or who are students familiar with my practice teachings, will already be aware of my firm belief that improvisation, creativity, and generally ‘mucking about’ with music is an excellent tool to understanding structure, melodic lines, harmonic progression, and musical narrative.  This video shows very little of the original notation being played as written, and there is a large section near the end where I learned the left hand notes and flow by splitting it between both hands then jazzing it up somewhat.  Whether this was out of sheer Sunday laziness or out of genuine musical creativity, I’m still not sure, but it worked, and I learned this section far quicker than if I had sat down and rigidly fixated on the score.  And in the flippant mood I was in, I doubt I would have had the boredom threshold for that anyway…  (and talking of flippant, anybody else hear a Clannad theme running through one of the sections? Herne the Hunter? Harry’s Theme? Anyone? It drove me to distraction whilst practising and I still can’t place it.  And that distraction was a minor one (ahem, bad pun, I blame late Sunday evening writing) compared to the the time I spent figuring out some really interesting harmonic displacement between treble and bass, where the bass chord is heard in the following beat in the treble, a sort of phasing of harmonies.

But it is these moments, these unintended distractions, which are the ones which can end up giving me the most joy when practising, as it is often here that the real depths of the composition can be really discovered during periods of free experimentation)

All of which neatly demonstrates that there’s more than one way to practice.  And practising the written notes exactly as they are written all the time (or slower) is probably the most tedious and useless method of practising ever devised.  The entire point of practising is to learn, and the point of learning is to discover and engage.  From this statement alone, we as teachers should be encouraging our students to be more creative in their practice, and less concerned about ‘doing the right thing’ or playing things correctly a certain number of times.

Because I don’t know about you, but I’d be bored out of my tiny little tree if I only ever did that.


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The Practice Project: Bach Fugue XVI in G minor

It’s been a while since I posted on the Practice Project.  Too long, really.   And the initial idea of posting and captioning all practise sessions of the Partita turned out to take so long to set up, it was an impossible task.

I haven’t given up though, just changed tack slightly.  I’ll be posting practice sessions as regularly as I can, so that students (not just mine) can see how practice works for professionals; how we make mistakes, how we don’t care when we do, how we work in small sections, how we sight-read through entire pages or pieces, how we laugh, sing, have fun, sweat, get annoyed and frustrated.

This is not the first practice session for this fugue, but it is very near the beginning of the learning curve.  This recording was taken after a brief preliminary session at the weekend where I worked out a few voices and got the gist of the melody (the subject, in fugue-speak)

My method of working fugues is to isolate the individual voices, then play them in pairs in whichever hands come easiest, then in trios, then in the full quartet.   At the same time, I am working out how to make the voices sound the same when I play them with the required hands as when I play them with ‘simple’ hands (i.e. when working with two voices, how can I make the right hand play two voices concurrently with the same balance as when I play the alto in the left and the soprano in the right?)

The catch is that I have a very low boredom threshold for working out niggly fingering, partly because I think my suspected dyspraxia makes this type of work excruciatingly difficult, so I need to skip about a lot between different practice techniques to hold my interest.

Unfortunately, the quality of audio is not brilliant; this was recorded on my iPhone, as anything else requires a fairly large shift of furniture to set up my laptop and mic.  The piano is truly beautiful, but the phone video function is its nemesis.  


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The Practice Project; Deconstructing Beethoven

Deconstruction is something that I find myself teaching more and more in lessons.

Deconstructing is the process of separating the various components of the music; a sort of elementary analysis. Although this video is showing how to deconstruct the 1st movement of the Moonlight Sonata (a deceptively complex piece), this technique can be easily applied to any piece of music. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that deconstructing is just as useful with beginners as it is to more advanced students. Although advanced students can (and should) be introduced to musical layers, voicing, linear progressions, harmonic sequences and cadences, beginners will also benefit from this type of thinking. Musical concepts are only as complex as the music allows them to be, and so simple music will restrict themselves to very simple structures and patterns.

So what is the point of all of this? On the face of it, it looks like teaching in this manner can only succeed in making more work for the student, not less. But, in reality, understanding the music is a shortcut to learning and memorising the notes, and understanding the dynamics, the performance directions, and ultimately the music itself.

After all, how do we as performers know how to balance the three parts in this sonata if we do not know how to play them and shape them individually?

How do we know the direction of the music if we do not know where the cadences lie, or where the music modulates?

How do we memorise it if we do not know which key we are playing in and which key we will be playing next?

How do we realise the relationships between the sections if we do not know precisely what is happening in each section?

How do we know how to colour the music if we do not understand what exactly what the music is doing at any point in time?

I have already posted a video demonstrating how improvisation can help in the learning process. Deconstructing Beethoven show clearly how a basic grasp of harmonic theory, analysis, and their practical applications are invaluable in practising.


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The Practice Project – Motivating Young Beginners with The Jigsaw

I teach many young children, and the vast majority of them would have problems practising if they were simply expected to repeat bars over and over until they have got the hang of them. So how do we, as teachers, motivate young beginners?

We know that young children learn best through the medium of play, and we know that the best way to motivate a child in lessons is to engage them with games and puzzles (the best theory books for youngsters are often full of sticker games, and puzzles, and the students barely know they are doing any actual work when they do the exercises).

But what games work for practising? And which ones work well enough to be continued independently at home?

As part of The Practice Project, I will be exploring different practice games for younger children.  The first in this series is The Jigsaw.

If we think for a moment about how we manage to do jigsaw puzzles, we can see a close analogy with learning music;

  • We look for the outline, or the corners
  • We put small chunks together first
  • We attach the smaller chunks to other smaller chunks, making bigger sized chunks
  • We attach the big chunks together by finding smaller connectors, or bridges

How would this work with music?

  • We can first make sure we know the outline of the piece (understand structure, identify any repetition, work through hands separately)
  • We then look at polishing small chunks of music (single bars, for example)
  • Attach those smaller chunks together (making 2 bar chunks)
  • We work on building up into larger and larger pieces, by practising the ‘connectors’ (getting from the end of one section to the beginning of the next)

But this doesn’t sound like much fun, it’s not a game!

Or is it?

Just doing the process doesn’t make it fun… What turns this practice method around is making a physical representation out of the piece, and then sticking it all together with tape, turning it into a massive jigsaw.

1)      Cut a piece of paper into small segments – as many as there are bars (or half bars etc)

2)      Number the bars (or half bars) on the score.  You can get engaged in discussions here about which bits are already easy enough to warrant them starting out as larger sections.

3)      Number the corresponding segments (1 segment for each bar, or half a bar etc)

4)      Put the segments in a pile, and gradually work through each one; when one is complete, put it in a separate pile (learning the small chunks)

5)      Pick 2 consecutive segments, practise them together, making sure the transition between the segments is smooth and solid (making a bigger chunk)

6)      Tape the 2 corresponding segments together

7)      Keep going like this, picking two segments, practising them as a single larger one, and taping the pieces of paper together as you go.


Eventually, your student will be left with 2 or 3 long segments, rather than the many individual ones they started with.  The challenge to get these last few segments into one becomes achievable and within the student’s grasp.  The final stage of taping the last segments together can often give the young beginner a massive boost of confidence, and a huge sense of achievement.  Get the student to show you their string of paper the following week, comment on the length of the paper, and how much they have done.  If they have not managed the whole thing, keep going with it until it is achieved.

I personally love this method. Unlike any other practice method or game, it gives a clear display of progress that is not only visual, but also tactile.  The child can literally see what they have achieved, and they can feel the length of their achievement, it is tangible to them.  “Look! It’s massive!” or “WOW! I’ve only got 4 BIG pieces to tape together now!”

Try it, I’d love to know how you get on.


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The Practice Project – Bach, Episode 4

This video is one I shot at RWCMD in between lessons. Although I have been doing these small ‘snatched’ practices for years, it’s only when I started this project that I realised a) how many of them I do, and b) how useful they actually are. This practice, for a ‘between lessons’ one, was quite long; often my mini-practices are less than ten minutes, sometimes literally only a minute or two.
I think this flags up a couple of really important ideas about practising;
The first is that although we all need some sort of practice structure, grabbing five minutes here and ten minutes there at our instrument is just as valid, and that these ‘snatched’ minutes add up over the course of a week.
The second is to do with the goals of these mini-sessions. When I know that I only have 5 minutes, I aim to do something with that time that isn’t too complex – perhaps just working on coordination, or trying to get through the piece without stopping, or doing a very small amount of very slow playing. This simpler style of practising leaves me with one or two smaller goals achieved that I can then ‘tick off’ my mental to-do list, (maybe some fingering that has been niggling at me, or a few bars played at speed) but also just the act of playing the music, for however short a time, leaves it slightly more ingrained than before the practice (the notes are slightly more ‘known’).

So yes, organised practice is excellent, invaluable even, but don’t forget to just wander over to the piano and spend a few spare moments playing some passages here and there, or running through a piece to see what happens.


For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to

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