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Practice time vs. playing time

I’m going to share with you an idea that sounds obvious, but which my students always found helpful:


time at the keyboard


practice time


playing time

What’s the point of that sentence? It sounds too simple to be useful. Let me define what I mean by practicing and playing.

Practicing is isolating a tiny section of a piece you can’t play yet and repeating it until you can. It’s exhausting precisely because you can’t do it straight away, and feels boring and unmusical because you’re dealing with such a short section of music. For that reason you can’t do it for very long (I can practise for an absolute maximum for 3 hours a day). However you have to practise to improve.

Playing is playing something you can already play. It’s the whole point of learning the piano. If you never played, what would be the point of practicing?

So far, so obvious. The problem is that most students spend most of their time doing something between the two: they take a piece they can sort of half-play and repeat the whole thing with the hope of improving it. This gives them the satisfaction of playing something that sounds vaguely musical, but it also allows them to feel good about themselves because it sounds like like the piece is slowly getting better. However it’s a disaster from both a practice and a playing point of view.

The reason for that is because in almost every piece some sections are significantly harder than others, and the difficult parts tend to be really short. This means that if you can sort of half-play the piece you can play the easier sections – i.e. most of it – but not the difficult bits. So when you repeat the whole thing in the hope of improving it:

  • a) most of the time you’re not improving, because you’re mostly playing sections you can already play, and
  • b) you’re probably playing the difficult bits too fast, to keep them vaguely up to speed with the rest, and therefore playing them wrong and reinforcing bad habits.

This is a disaster from a practice point of view because you’re wasting almost all of your practice time: you’re either playing sections you already know or reinforcing bad habits, and it’s a disaster from a playing point of view because you can’t relax and enjoy the piece because you can’t play it properly yet.

Hence, divide time at the keyboard into practice time and playing time. Decide how long you’re going to practise for and how long you’re going to play for, and when you’re practicing only repeat sections that you can’t play yet, and when you’re playing only play pieces you can already play. You’ll progress much faster and enjoy your playing more this way.

cat playing piano