Posts Tagged piano

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.


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The Practice Project – Bach, Episode 3 (Co-ordination)

The third video is 20 minutes long, and is a first attempt to coordinate the two voices correctly (2 hands) into a rudimentary hands together ‘draft’.

I make many mistakes, (a great many.) But because my aim during this session is to learn the musical in its technical sense (coordinating notes), I correct every mistake as I go, making sure I can play each fragment before moving on.
You can clearly see, however, that although I achieve my goal of playing the entire piece ‘correctly’, I often slow down dramatically to do this, and am still unable at the end to play the entire piece through in one go without any errors.


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The Practice Project – Bach, Episode 2 (technicals & improvisation)

This video is proving to be the longest video I have shot to date. It is, however, I think one of the most interesting ones I have recorded.

The first section is purely technical – me working out and finalising fingering in each hand. Because my aim here is to get the Fantasia ‘note-perfect’ so that I can work out exactly what fingering I need to navigate the music, I am pretty much correcting every single wrong note or wrong fingering.

The middle section is mostly made up of improvisatory techniques; and this an extremely important area where I really do feel that too many students are too scared to delve into. Improvising, for me, is all about discovery and experimentation, and this is where I really start to find out about the structure of the music, the harmonic sequences, the direction and shape of the music, and the sounds that lie behind and underneath the notes. Students (and parents) are often worried that this is not ‘really practising’, that it is ‘just mucking about’, or that they do not know how to do it, or that it might be ‘wrong’ (just listen to the sheer number of mistakes I make whilst I am improvising; it often takes me 4 or 5 tries to find the harmony I am looking for!) They could not be more mistaken; discovering new things about music is never a ‘waste of time’, and there is no right way to do this, the process of experimenting is far more useful than the result itself. When I go back to playing the ‘right notes’ after improvising like this for a good session, I feel like I bring a new understanding and new knowledge to the music.

Improvising is never a waste of time, it benefits the performer in ways that ‘normal’ practice can’t even get close to.

The final section is another technical one; this one shows me attempting to co-ordinate the two voices and get my hands working well together (with varying degrees of success!)


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The Practice Flowchart

The Practice Flowchart was borne out of, again, watching students struggle with making enough progress from week to week.  I had many discussion with students, discovering not just how long they practice for, but how they practice, and whether they were working as effectively as they could be.

The flowchart was conceived when asked myself what I actually do when I’m practising.  To be more precise, I asked myself specific questions, and made a chart out of my answers…

  • How do I decide what to practice?
    • I sometimes have some ideas already in mind when I first sit at the piano, but if I don’t then I play through the music whilst listening critically, and make decisions then.


  • How do I decide how to split it into sections?
    • I very quickly work out how much I can manage at one time that would give me a reasonable challenge without making it feel like an impossible mountain to climb.   Sometimes that’s as little as a bar, or even half a bar.  More often, it’ll be a phrase or group of phrases, or a single hand, or a single voice.  Sometimes my sections can be thought of as horizontal sections rather than vertical (i.e. an entire left hand, rather than a single bar of something). 
    • Sections are often worked out on the hoof…. I’ll be playing through something, and when it gets to a point where I’m not achieving what I want to, I isolate the problem area and treat that as a section.


  • How do I know when something is ‘good enough’ and when it needs more work?
    • This is an interesting one because I wasn’t really sure of the answer until I sat down at the piano and practiced with this in mind.  The results rather surprised me; I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing.  Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one. 


  • What do I do when things are not going well?
    • Another interesting one.  I’d be lying if I said that I always achieve what I set out to do; sometimes (often!) things just don’t work. Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve.  So what do I do? I walk away.  I try something else.  I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance. This part, I think, is so important it’s worth mentioning twice…

‘When I cannot do something after repeatedly trying it, I walk away’.

Once I had these answers worked out, designing the flowchart was easy; it really is just a graphic illustration of these questions and their answers.

The ‘confidence score’ section is vital for a student to understand; that they are scoring their playing not on how it sounded, but on how they felt when they played it.  This is probably particularly important at the beginning of a piece, when the sounds we are making are so departed from the sound of a performance (because of slow tempo, or hands separate, or the tiny size of a section, or the isolation/separation of voices), that the student has to understand that they are rating how well they felt they knew what they were doing at the specific task they were working on.  For instance, if a student is working on simply getting the notes correct, they may play with faltering rhythm, but this does not matter, as the goal is notes, and nothing else.   You will also notice, that 8/10 is an excellent score; students should not feel they have to aim for a 10 (remember that Practice Makes Perfect is just a myth, and a destructive one at that.)

The walking away is a vital lesson for a student to learn.  Frustration is a horrible feeling, and isn’t helpful for anybody.  The flowchart has an escape loop slotted in – so if something isn’t working after 10 times of trying, a student should find something else to do…

You can always come back to something that didn’t progress, or that got better but was still not well enough ‘known’ to feel confident!


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The Practice Pie

This is the first instalment of The Practice Project, and I’m going to kick-off with the Practice Pie.  This is designed for students who don’t practice enough, or who practice a lot of one thing but never move forward with other skills.

The Practice Pie works by taking an average half hour practise session and splitting it into its component parts; for my students this usually boils down to one or two pieces, a study or two, and some scales & arpeggios.  The Practice Pie is meant to be flexible, not just for actual content, but length of content as well (for example. a young 6 year old beginner would not be expected to practice for a full 30 minutes, and probably would not have enough repertoire to cover that 30 minutes even if they were, whereas a more advanced student would need considerable more than 30 minutes to progress).

The idea of the Pie is to make a practice session as accessible as possible by seeing it as small do-able chunks rather than one enormous inaccessible pie.  Students who balk at the idea of 30 minutes hard graft are often more amenable to the idea of working for a timed 5 or 10 minutes on something.  (I advise students to use a timer here, so they can get a real sense of achievement when that timer goes off for their 5 minutes work – but it has to be set for each chunk, not the whole session as a whole… remember the importance of accessible, achievable and do-able).

  • ‘Chunk it down’ – break the practice into accessible sections
  • Time it! – Use a timer to stay motivated, and to give regular breaks and a sense of achievement
  • Be flexible – Adjust the Pie to suit the needs of the individual student
  • Break it up – Nobody set a law that says 30 minutes practice has to all be done in one go – use the Pie to keep track of a practice that is done in different sections throughout the day

Coming Soon –  The Practice Flowchart, and the first video of my own practice sessions.


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The Practice Project

I’ve been on a bit of a mission lately, as most of my students would tell you if they had the chance, to get students not just practicing more, but practicing effectively and efficiently.  And I think the mission, so far, is a success.  Or at least, it’s a successful start to an ongoing mission.

So what does that mean? ‘Practising effectively and efficiently’?

To explain this, we have to walk a few steps back to the beginning of the story – to the lessons, and the students’ progress (or lack of).

These are the problems I am confronted with every single day of my teaching….

  • Students who don’t practice enough
  • Students who practice enough without it appearing to do any good
  • Students who progress a huge amount in lessons then seem to almost go backwards during the week
  • Students who practice enough but practice the wrong thing

But for each of these students (and there are a great many that fall into one of these categories), most of their problems stem from this….

Students don’t know how to practice

And this is because….

Students are not taught how to practice

The solution has everything to do with the last sentence; that students are not taught how to practice.  This makes the problem, and the solution, my responsibility.

Hence the mission.

So what are the reasons why students don’t practice well?  (I’m assuming here that the students genuinely want to have piano lessons, they are playing repertoire that they enjoy, they get on well with their teacher, and they are not under any type of external pressure that is playing havoc with their self-esteem or confidence.)

Apart from the obvious lack of taught practice skills…

  • They are scared of making mistakes
  • They get bored of repetition
  • They have unrealistically high expectations of themselves
  • They have unrealistically low expectations of themselves
  • They believe the myth, ‘Practice Makes Perfect’
  • They feel frustrated when they don’t get something right first time
  • They feel upset and stupid when they don’t get something right first time
  • They think I always get everything right first time
  • They have never been asked to work autonomously on anything before
  • They got away with very little practice at the beginning and have not adjusted to their more advanced repertoire.

So, onto the Practice Project; a project that will see me blogging various articles on practicing over the coming months, posting videos of my own practice sessions, and posting resources to help students get the most out of their own practice sessions.

I have multiple aims here –

  • To replace the ‘practice makes perfect’ myth with the real aim of practise; ‘practice makes permanent’.
  • To not only post my mistakes via the video footage, but to actually highlight them,  showing to students how many mistakes we professionals actually make, and how we deal with them, and most importantly, that mistakes are okay!
  • To give as many different practice strategies as possible, including improvisation, and explain their uses.
  • To encourage breaking pieces up into small workable sections – making practice more accessible and ‘do-able’.
  • To post resources to help with practice timetabling and strategies.

I hope I achieve what I set out to do – to enable students of all abilities and ages to develop autonomous, effective, and efficient practising.


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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Bad Language



“There’s no such word as can’t”. *

How often did we hear this from our teachers when we were younger? Or from our parents? And how often were we left with a feeling of frustration and the knowledge that, actually, there is such a word as ‘can’t, and sometimes, it’s exactly the word we need?

  • “I can’t play this piece.”
  • “I can’t play it hands together.”
  • “I can’t get the fingering right.”
  • “I can’t voice the fugue.”
  • “I can’t improvise on that theme.”
  • “I can’t play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto.”

If our reply to all of the above is, “Yes, you can”, or “There’s no such word as ‘can’t”, we only leave a feeling of irritation and inadequacy in a student who is adamant (and quite correct) in their assumption that they ‘can’t do it’.

How do we change this around? By adding a single word – ‘yet’

Negative language such as “I can’t play this piece” is destructive. Telling somebody they have to say they can do something when they obviously can’t is just as destructive, only serving to reinforce a feeling of failure by not allowing a student to voice their concerns and feelings.

Insisting on the use of the word “yet”, however, can turn a bad situation around…

  • “I can’t play this piece yet.
  • “I can’t play it hands together yet.
  • “I can’t get the fingering right yet.

If we ask the student to also work in a “but”, and a solution, then we have turned a destructive situation into a positive experience.

  • “I can’t voice the fugue yet, but with some more very slow work this week, I will be able to manage it.”
  • “I can’t improvise on that theme yet, but if I spend a few minutes each day mucking about with it and not stressing out about being perfect, I will be able to manage something small by next lesson.”
  • “I can’t play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto yet, but I have only been learning for a year, so that’s fair enough! If I keep having lessons, keep practising, and keep enjoying the piano, I might be able to play it one day!”


Can’t is indeed a word. It’s a perfectly valid word. Sometimes it’s even the right word. But it should never be used in isolation.

*Disclaimer – Grammatically speaking, can’t is a contraction; cannot is the correct syntax. Congratulations and a grammar sticker to anybody who spotted this.

Ain’t colloquialisms just champion?


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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