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  • Writer's pictureWhitney Lee Moeller


Happy Independence Day everyone! Today I'm celebrating with some piano practicing and I'm sharing my practice approach with all of you. This applies to ALL instruments, so read on and see if it helps you on your musical journey!

Sometimes the biggest barrier to improving skills is learning HOW to practice. I often tell my students, "I'm not really teaching you how to sing/play, I'm teaching you how to practice." Here's what I mean: On your own, you can buy books and watch youtube videos and teach yourself to play or sing to a great extent. A teacher or practice coach is helpful because we can zero in on what is causing a student trouble and offer solutions for that specific problem.

Most often, I find myself telling students to slow down, break the music into chunks, and strip away barriers to focus on smaller pieces at a time. I will address each of these strategies and what they mean, then watch the video below to see it in action!

Strategy 1: Slow down

You simply can't fix mistakes while playing as fast as you can. Patience is key.

Just because you can play it faster, doesn't mean you should. First, take a look at the tempo marking. Is it even supposed to be that fast? If not, you are not doing yourself any favor by rushing the piece. However, some pieces are marked with a quick tempo marking and you might be anxious to get there. Slow down anyway. You simply can't fix mistakes while playing as fast as you can. Patience is key. In the attached video, I'm playing Bach's Invention No. 13. The tempo marking is "con spirito" and I'd like to take it a little faster eventually. However, it's not ready yet. You will see in the video that there are still too many bumps in the road to increase the tempo. In fact, I think I should have slowed it down a bit more. In conclusion, slow down and focus on the spots where you tend to fumble. You can gradually increase tempo as you iron out the problem areas. This leads us to the second strategy, breaking up the music into smaller parts.

Strategy 2: Break the music into "chunks"

It's okay (and a good idea!) to spend your entire practice time on a small chunk.

This is probably the most important strategy for any musician. For bigger pieces, you need to break it up into large sections based on the form. For instance, if the piece is in an ABA format, you can usually assume that the B section will need twice as much practice because it is not repeated when you go through the piece beginning to end. Within that B section there might be a few spots that tend to give you grief. Identify what exactly is tripping you up. Isolate a couple measures or even part of a measure and focus your energy there. Don't feel pressured to go on. It's okay (and a good idea!) to spend your entire practice time on a small chunk. Again, patience is key. In the attached video, I'm only playing 2/3 of the piece. You should be able to tell where I've marked different starting places so that I'm not always going back to the very beginning. You'll see me practicing chunks where my fingers tend to get tangled then backing up and practicing the transition into that section. Similar to breaking music into chunks, there might be additional barriers that need to be stripped down and then built back up. This is our third strategy.

Strategy 3: Strip down barriers

You might not be sure what I mean when I say "barriers," so here is a list of the most common barriers I see in music for piano, voice, and french horn. Basically, what I'm calling a "barrier" is any aspect of the music that is getting in the way of your accuracy and/or tone quality.

-text (especially foreign languages for vocalists)

-dynamics (particularly soft dynamics for singers)

-articulation (particularly slurring and tonguing patterns for horn players)

-playing hands together (for pianists)

Instead of trying to tackle all the aspects at once, strip down the problem passage. Just because you have started singing the piece with text or playing the piece hands together doesn't mean you can't go back and review a passage stripped down. In fact, I recommend starting your practice session with a simplified review. In the video you will see that I start my practice session with a review playing hands separately. You can also tell that I'm sometimes using great dynamics and at other times I'm totally focused on coordinating my left and right hand to work together. I believe it's ok to shift your focus like this. Sometimes it's just too much to try and do it all at the same time.

Happy Practicing!

Lastly, I will just remind you that this video is only a snapshot. For this practice session, I worked about 30 minutes total, but decided to share about 4 minutes that demonstrated these techniques. Ultimately, it's not about the time you spend, but how you spend your time. Beginning to end practice is usually not effective. Try these strategies and see how they make a difference for you!

Do you have any other practice tips that work for you? Did any of these strategies resonate with you? I'd love to hear from you in the comments or at or @moellermusictulsa on Facebook! Please like and share this post if you found it helpful or interesting. Lastly, if you are looking for music lessons on piano, french horn, or voice, I am now offering Zoom lessons so you can learn from anywhere!

As always, happy practicing!

Whitney Lee Moeller

Moeller Music Greater Tulsa

Below: Whitney practices Bach's Invention No. 13

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