Six Practice Steps for Beginning Piano Students

Six Practice Steps for Beginning Piano Students

I love working with young, beginning piano students.

Our lessons are always full of imagination and creative exploration—their eyes wide with excitement and wonder when they make a connection or discover something new—and I always learn so much about myself as a teacher as we walk those first steps in their musical journey together.

That being said, we all know that when learning a new instrument, productive practice time at home is essential to learning and developing as a musician. 

Most of us see our beginning students for only 30 minutes a week, so time spent at the keyboard in between lessons can really make or break a student’s progress and the fulfillment they find in music-making.

How to Practice Efficiently in 30 Minutes Or Less

How to Practice Efficiently in 30 Minutes Or Less

We're a few weeks into the school year now, and I am starting to settle into my new routine.

This year, I'm accompanying four school choirs and a church choir, playing a service every Sunday, and teaching four afternoons a week. I love the variety this offers and I love being back on the bench (organ and piano!), but it requires something we never seem to have enough time for as professionals - practicing. As a student, I had anywhere from 2-6 hours a day to practice, and though certainly intense, I now recognize that time was a luxury. As professionals, we gig, we teach, we play, we write, we email, we manage, we coordinate, we network. When is there time to practice?

My new schedule for the Fall has pockets of time and I'm learning to be extra productive and efficient with my practicing.

Here are a few things I'm learning:

Building Musicianship - Part II


paradigmA glimpse at some of my notes from class

I am four weeks into the spring semester and four weeks into my "Keyboard Skills" class that I mentioned in my previous post.  Let me just say that this may be my favorite class ever.  I am learning so many practical skills for performing, improvising, teaching, playing church music, etc. and I'm learning so much about myself as a musician in the process.  Let me give you a little sneak peek into my practice time these past few weeks:

1. Paradigms Paradigms are a fancy theoretical word for short chord progressions, essentially expanding the tonic key.  Each paradigm has 3-4 chords, functioning as a building block in music (we've been practicing them in all twelve keys, major and minor).  Each week of practice assignments builds on the week(s) prior so as we progress, we're expanding our tonal vocabulary more and more.

Week 1: seven paradigms Week 2: seven paradigms Week 3: thirteen paradigms Week 4: three paradigms

This week, we're also working on diatonic scale harmonizations--or, in English--adding chords to an ascending and descending scale line (think vocal warm-ups). With a total of thirty paradigms, harmonizing a scale line (or really any melody) is just a matter of linking these progressions together in different ways.

2. Score Reading In addition to reading treble and bass clef, we're learning (or re-learning) how to read alto clef.  To practice this, we've been working on mostly two-part repertoire (alto clef in one hand, bass or treble clef in the other).  A few practice techniques:

1. Hands separately 2. Hands together 3. Hands alternating by measure 4. Hands together, stopping/starting

Practicing with hands alternating every measure trains your eye to move quickly between staves and trains your mind to translate the various clefs quickly and efficiently.  Starting and stopping (while you keep time in your head) gives you an opportunity to audiate what's on the page (hear something in your head without the sound being present) and again trains your mind to quickly recognize various clefs.

3. Transposition We've had three transposition assignments now--two hymns (4-voice texture) and the accompaniment to a Schubert Lied.  There are a few strategies here, as well:

1. Analyze the harmonic progression--think about function 2. For homophonic music, think about the intervals within the hand (practice hands separately in the new key) 3. Identify cadences (and tonicized keys, where necessary) 4. Use clef transpositions whenever possible 5. Practice hands together in the new key, staccato

Clef transpositions means looking at the stave as if it's in another clef.  For instance, if a piece is in A Major, and you need to transpose it to C Major, think of the treble staff as being in bass clef (the second space is A in the treble staff and C in the bass staff).  Use alto clef to help you, too!

4. Coordination We keyboardists tend to think of ourselves as fairly coordinated but let me tell you, reading a bass line with your left hand and conducting a 4-beat pattern with your right hand is complicated!  Here are a few ways to practice coordination (beyond what we normally do):

1. Sing + Play - For 2-part music, sing one line, play the other, then switch - For 4-part music (hymns are great), sing one voice and play the remaining three 2. Play + Conduct (play with one hand, conduct with the other) 3. Practice standing up

5. Sequences This is a prequel to reading figured bass but the practice of filling in chords aurally while reading only the melody and bass line is a valuable ear exercise.  Sequences are pattern-based so it also reinforces good voice-leading and keyboard-style playing (three voices in your right hand, one in your left hand).

Whew!  A lengthy post (props to you if you're still reading!) but hopefully it's helpful to some of you as you continue your own journey of building musicianship.  Next up in this series--harmonization!

Previously: Building Musicianship - Part I

Building Musicianship - Part I


IMG_1427 Musicians often talk about "developing their musicianship."  It's the artistry in performance, it's interpretation, it's an approach to one's instrument, it's the way we communicate without words.  Truth be told, it's something we're never quite done with.  You see, there are always new things to be learned, things that could be more efficient or more natural, different ways of thinking, bad habits to break, etc.  As musicians, we are all continual works in progress.

So, we find ways to develop our musicianship, our artistry.

For me, this means some of the things I mentioned in my list of goals for this year: become a better improviser, sightread and sightsing on a more regular basis, become more efficient at transposing and reading open score (4+ lines of music), and become a more competent listener.  How do I improve these things?  Practice, practice, practice.

I'm taking a wonderful theory class this semester called "Keyboard Skills" - essentially, a theory class at the keyboard.  More on this soon (sneak peek in the picture above!).  The assignments for this class go hand-in-hand with my musicianship goals for this year so yesterday, I sat down with my planner at the kitchen table and blocked off some time in my schedule (with striped washi tape, of course) to spend in the practice room.

Goal: Learn five songs in twelve different keys

This is one of my specific goals for building musicianship this year.  Playing simple songs by ear will improve my harmonic listening skills (listening to more than just the melody) and learning them in every key will aid transposition and improvisation skills.  Each week, I'll focus on a few keys, adding to the list with each successive week until I've worked through all twelve keys (major or minor, depending on the tonality of the song).  Here's how I plan to make this happen:

Week 1: Play song in C, F, G, and D Week 2: Play song in A, E, and B + review C, F, G, and D Week 3: Play song in F#, Db, and Ab + review C, F, G, D, A, E, and B Week 4: Play song in Eb and Bb + review C, F, G, D, A, E, B, F#, Db, and Ab

This week, I started Song #1.

This is the first of a few posts I plan to write about my strategies for building musicianship.  More in the weeks to come!

Creating Practice Plans with Beginning Students

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Last year, I spent some time observing at the New School for Music Study in Kingston, NJ (read my notes here, here, and here). 

This school, founded in 1960 by Frances Clark and Louise Goss functions as a keyboard pedagogy lab: pedagogy students gain teaching experience, community members gain instruction, and new teaching approaches are constantly being tested and evaluated.  One of Clark’s strong beliefs was that students should be taught to be self-motivated learners – this essentially makes the teacher dispensable!

In trying to develop independent learning in my students, I recently began introducing “practice plans” with my students during lesson time (an idea I observed at the New School).  Practice plans are 2-4 specific items or practice strategies per piece, neatly written on a sheet of paper that they can keep out next to their books to (hopefully) better organize their practice time at home.

Think of how much learning takes place at home during the week!  If a student practices 20 minutes a day, five times a week, that’s 100 minutes of solitary time spent on these pieces (as compared to the measly 30 minutes they spend with me each week).

Here is an example of what this sheet looks like:

practice plan

This student (age eight) is working out of The Music Tree, Part 1.  At the beginning of today’s lesson, we reviewed the last practice plan and checked off the completed items (she was very honest about what she had and had not completed!).

After reviewing the pieces in progress and performing her two recital selections, we wrote out a new practice plan together.  This is not a practice notebook where I sit and scribble notes while she plays and I hope that she goes home and reads them later.  Practice plans are collaborative. 

*As as side note, I do keep a lesson notebook for my own purposes – mainly, keeping up with student progress and repertoire assignments.

“What are two ways you can practice this new piece?”  I asked today. 

Erin made a suggestion, I made a suggestion, and I made sure she could demonstrate whatever it is we were writing down.  After all, writing “tap/count” is great but if she doesn’t know what it means when she gets home, it’s not a real practice item!

The exercise of talking through a practice plan for each piece doubles as an assessment tool for me: by having students make suggestions for their practice time (setting their own goals), I have a better understanding of what they’ve learned and how they are applying and reusing ideas and strategies from previous pieces we’ve studied.  Also, I find students are more accountable to me the next week when they have to report on the effectiveness of their practicing – they take more responsibility for their progress.

For more information on Frances Clark, visit the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy website.