Whitney's Music Studio

in Shallowater, Texas and Lubbock, Texas area

(806) 832-0531




How Do You Keep Students Interested in Practicing a Piece over an Extended Period of Time?

By: William Phemister

From: Keyboard Companion, Summer 1996

Young pianists generally want to learn things quickly and get on to the next thing. We want something more – that they play their pieces well. To accomplish this, we need to help them develop good practice habits.

Repetition, for instance, is one of the keystones of practicing. But repetition without focus can be a dangerous thing. As a young teacher, I once asked a student to play a passage again, thinking it would be good for her. “Why?” she asked. That taught me that I need to have a good reason for repetition. I now explain what to do differently the next time. Then I ask the student what it is that he or she is going to do when playing it again. After the student plays it again, I like to ask if we really heard what we wanted to hear.

Sometimes we may ask students to repeat a passage five to ten times when they practice. We set goals for these repetitions, such as increased speed each time, different dynamic levels, different rhythm patterns, or memory tests for a measure or phrase at a time. Since it is not wise to fix too many things at one lesson, we should prioritize the problems, concentrating on their fixing one or two of the biggest problems in their practice week.

Most of the things we want to fix aren’t as “wrong” as wrong notes or rhythms. They more likely involve questions of balance, bringing out a melody, shaping a phrase, pedaling, or breathing between phrases. These kinds of things all take longer to settle in. They are also things that have a more universal application, things that will have to be practiced in many pieces before students will begin to see them on their own.

When our goal is to help students prepare for a recital or a contest, we really are talking about an extended preparation time. Suppose we compare two pianists. One practices a piece for 30 minutes daily for one year. Another practices the same piece for 30 minutes daily, but for only two months a year for six years. Both spend the same amount of time working on the piece, but because the latter incorporates passive learning time into the maturation process, the final result should be better. Every great artist follows a routine of interspersing active learning with periods of dormancy. Every time the piece is revived, it is thoroughly overhauled technically and rethought musically and emotionally. During these down times, we live, read, travel, talk, laugh, cry, experience many emotions, listen to and play other music, and are affected by all of it. My early teacher described this as putting my pieces “on the shelf to age.”

Of course, a young student would not take six years to learn a piece. But, for those students who might appropriately spend a year on a given piece, we might incorporate the aging process into a one-year plan:

- Weeks 1-8: First learning: analysis, memorization, fingering, and big concepts like dynamics and form. If a fast tempo is required, go for a reasonable speed.

- Weeks 9-16: Don’t touch it, but think about it, sing it, hum it, read about it, including a composer biography.

- Weeks 17-24: Second learning: Set new goals for this time period. Re-memorize it. Perform it in a repertory class.

- Weeks 25-32: Don’t touch it. Listen to three recordings of it and do a comparison study. What were the similarities and differences? Which was most enjoyable and why? Which was least enjoyable and why?

- Weeks 33-40: Do a thorough review, get the rust out. Perform it before a large audience such as at a school or church or retirement center.

- Weeks 41-44: It’s close to the final deadline, but lay it aside again.

- Weeks 45-52: Set new goals. Polish every aspect. Perform in recital or contest with each week.




"Let us come before Him with thanksgiving and extol Him with music and song." Psalms 95:2

"Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music." Psalms 98:4