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What Good Piano Practice Habits Taught Me about Effective Learning

Overview: If you want to be more productive, it’s worth taking a closer look at the areas where you already perform well. Ask yourself: “Are there ideas or tactics that can be adapted or repurposed for other areas in my life?” I’ve long believed that my piano practice habit offers valuable lessons that are applicable to other endeavors. This essay is a first step in exploring those lessons and habits and their potential relevance to other domains.

I’ve enjoyed learning and playing piano for a number of years. I mostly stick to the classical repertoire for solo piano (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, etc.). While I’m a middling player at best, I do have a good grasp of how to practice productively and learn new music. This approach to piano practice comprises a set of habits and learning strategies accumulated through years of music lessons, the wisdom of others, and self-discovery. When diligently followed, these “best practices” help me learn efficiently and proficiently.

Before I get to my practice principles, I have two foundational requirements. These are basic, but essential steps in the process. Consider them advance commitments or down-payments in the process of learning to play an instrument.

The two foundational requirements:

  1. Make time to practice (ideally at a regularly scheduled time). If you want to accomplish something, you must schedule time for it. This might seem obvious, but in my experience, many people (me included) fail to manage this critical step. Yes, motivation, passion and desire are all great to have. But without active effort, all the passion in the world won’t save you (don’t get me started on the topic of “talent”—that’s a topic for another blog post). Prioritize practice by scheduling time for it. Neglecting to do this all but ensures failure.

    How much time or when to practice is less important than having something on the calendar. My preference is for shorter, daily sessions over longer, infrequent sessions. But any time is better than no time. You can’t expect improvement if you don’t spend time and effort on the thing you’re trying to improve. Remember: if something is truly important to you, you must budget time and energy for it.

    Example: I aim to practice piano in the evening after dinner for 30 minutes at a time. I try to practice 4-5 times a week (typically weeknights). This is a minimum. Some weeks I do more, some weeks I do less, but on the whole I’ve been consistent with this habit as this is an activity I prioritize.
  2. Set realistic long-term goals. There’s no right answer here, but it’s worth asking and answering some basic questions about what you want to accomplish. For instance, what kind of music do you want to play? How good do you want to become? Do you want to become a professional? These decisions drive the choices you will have to make about how you practice. Mind you, these goals are not set in stone. They can be changed or modified as needed. The goal is that you want to have a some goal to start with. Having a goal is important because it aligns what you do in the short-run with what you aspire to become in the long-run.

    Example: I play for personal enjoyment and basic proficiency. I want to learn the classical pieces that I love by composers like Beethoven and Brahms. I want to have a small but solid repertoire of pieces I can play well and I also want to be able to sight-read music easily (for enjoyment). In light of this long-term goal, I have two subsidiary objectives:

    1. Learn a new piece every 1-2 months to build up my personal repertoire. I’ve found this is about the right amount of time for me to learn pieces well at my skill level. It doesn’t mean I’ve mastered the piece, but it does get me to a point of proficiency so that I can continue to work on it in the future. Naturally, some pieces require more than a month, and that’s ok. Even if it takes me two months to learn a piece properly, over several years, I’m confident that I will have dozens of new pieces under my belt.

    2. Improve my sight-reading (this is the ability to read and play through a new piece reasonably well). I keep this as a long-term goal because sight-reading enhances enjoyment by making learning easier and allowing me to play through pieces for fun. Admittedly, I’m not as good at sticking to a good practice regimen for this—there’s no immediate payoff as with learning a new piece. Instead, it’s just slow and steady improvement over time (I’ll post some of my thoughts on improving sight-reading in a future article).

These prerequisites—regularly scheduled practice time and realistic long-term goals—are essential. They make the act of learning easier. Once I have these two things, I just need to make sure the nuts and bolts of my music practice habit take advantage of the time I’ve budgeted and push me towards my long-term goals.

Now that we have the prerequisites out of the way, we can consider the specific strategies when it comes to practicing music when it comes to the practice-session level. Here is a short list of “best practices” I employ when engaging in deliberate piano practice.

8 Effective Practice Principles:

1. Have a specific goal for each practice session.

It’s fun to play through a piece over and over, making the same mistakes, but powering through from start to finish. But this isn’t a great use of my practice time. Instead, I need to have specific practice objectives. For instance, when learning a new piece of music, I might aim to learn the music 8 bars per session. During that session, I might proceed a single bar at a time, but the overall goal for that day is to learn all 8 bars.

Example: In the month of November I learned Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” (3rd movement from the Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K.331). A rondo is a musical form which features one or more repeated themes alongside contrasting themes. The form of Mozart’s rondo is as follows: A–B–C–D–E–C–A–B–C-Coda (each letter represents a different thematic section, or episode).

Here’s the length of each unique section in measures:

  • A = 8 measures
  • B = 16 measures
  • C = 8 measures
  • D = 8 measures
  • E = 16 measures
  • Coda = 32 measures

Based on my aforementioned goal of 8 measures per session, you can see that this can be done in 2 weeks time (some of the sections, like D, repeat material from other sections, but that’s unimportant for my general point). Mind you, a person could spend many years perfecting a specific piece. I’m not talking about mastery here, just a basic level of skill.

2. Practice hands separately.

This simple but effective strategy is well known by students with decent instructors. It’s effective because it breaks the task of learning into more manageable, atomic chunks. Principle #1 saw me break the piece into manageable 8-measure segments. By playing hands separately, I can break the music down into smaller pieces. Let’s say I’m already committed to focusing on learning 8-bars of music for today’s practice session. Before playing both hands together, I’ll work on the right hand part first. While I have no interest in drilling the same measure over 30 times in a row, it’s reasonable to practice a single passage half a dozen times or more to get it down. Once I’m comfortable with the notes, rhythm, and fingering, I’ll look at the left hand part and practice that in isolation. Again, the goal is to get the notes, rhythm and fingering to an acceptable comfort level.

Once both hands are confident with their respective parts, I’ll play the two hands together. Since playing with two hands together increases the difficulty level, it often makes sense to proceed slowly and deliberately (even if you are playing quickly with individual hands). This means methodically moving through the section being practiced measure by measure repeatedly.

Example: The C-section of the Rondo Alla Turca is a great example of the necessity of separate hand practice. In the music, the right hand is playing parallel octaves (which can be awkward if there are interval jumps) and the left hand is playing a I-IV-V progression with rolled arpeggios at the start of each measure. Splitting the hands up to get comfortable with each section is the smart thing to do given the different technical challenges confronting each hand.

3. Start slowly.

When first learning a new piece, set a tempo much slower than the composer’s prescribed performance tempo. You will eventually get to the recommended tempo, but you must establish the foundation of correct rhythm, notes, and fingering before you can get to that point. Pushing the tempo too early can be detrimental to effectively learning the piece. Over time, you will naturally build to the desired tempo. This can be done with a metronome (every piano teacher’s favorite tool and the bane of many students).

Example: The Rondo Alla Turca is a fast piece—the tempo marking is Allegretto (just over 100 BPM). Here’s a YouTube video of Lang Lang playing at a brisk tempothis is the tempo my son might play it, he has fast, nimble fingers. I am not especially fast, so I’m appreciative that we have Glenn Gould’s rendition. I’ll never play as well as Gould, but I’m happy to borrow his tempo. Even then, when first learning the piece, I’m still playing far slower than Gould’s unconventional speed.

4. Fingerings are critical.

Fingerings are unsexy and boring, but I find them essential to mastering a piece. Finding a fingering that works for you and is repeatable is critical. One of the biggest impediments I find to learning a new piece is not settling on a fingering and essentially improvising a new fingering every time I confront a tricky section. Slow down, separate the hands and work out the right solution. Once you identify a good solution, WRITE IT DOWN. I’m a stickler when it comes to taking notes. Annotating sheet music is no different.

Finding a good print edition is helpful here. It’s common for musical editions to include fingering recommendations. Try them out. Some will work for you, others won’t. Keep what works and discard those that don’t. It’s also worth consulting multiple editions if that’s an option. Piano instructors and YouTube in-depth tutorials are also great ways to learn alternate fingerings. This is an easy step to skip as it can be annoying to work through different combinations until you find the right one and then annotate your sheet music. The initial inconvenience of discovering the right fingering solution is an investment that pays long-term dividends.

Example: In m.23 of the Rondo, I know I need to use the 3 finger in my right hand for the C to set myself up for the trill. The print edition I use is marked with a 2 on the B, but I need the extra visual cue so my copy is annotated with extra information. Moreover, you can see from the preceding measures that you need to work out the fingering before measure 23 if you want your hand to end up in the right place.

5. Focus on higher-level objectives as proficiency increases.

Once I have the basic foundation of the piece down (ideally in 1-2 weeks, more if it’s a particularly difficult work), I can start working on transitions, increasing the tempo, dynamics, interpretations, and revisiting any remaining problem areas. These higher-order levels of learning require the foundation of basic proficiency that is initially developed in the first couple of weeks. Again, this isn’t groundbreaking news to most people, but how many of us actually have the patience to work diligently mastering the basics before moving on to more complex tasks?

Example: In the Rondo, Mozart includes a host of accents, dynamics and staccato markings. While I try to incorporate these early in the practice, I’m often overwhelmed just learning the notes and can only focus on these aspects of the piece later in the process. Once I’m comfortable with notes, rhythm, fingering, and other basic elements of the music, dealing with higher-level issues, like interpretation, becomes much easier.

6. Reflect and adjust course.

Honest reflection is critical at every stage. Ask yourself: “What are the parts of the piece still causing me trouble?” Answer candidly and then attack and overcome those problems one by one. The challenge here is that lingering problem passages are often the least fun to play. Here’s the thing: they’re the least fun because you can’t play them well. Once you learn to play them well, you’ll find them magically become way more fun. Funny how that works; increased competence makes things more pleasurable (at least in my experience). Ultimately, you have to deal with your weaknesses head-on, failure to do so will only hamstring your progress.

Example: It’s quite normal to work through a section and think you have it down only to later discover you need to “fix” that section later. This is where being very honest with yourself about what needs attention is critical. While practicing the Rondo, I noticed I was inconsistent about hitting the notes in the Section C passing chord between the D and E chords in the left hand. No problem, I just made a point of revisiting that section and focusing on nailing that chord progression.

7. Learn from others.

Solo piano repertoire is, by definition, a solitary experience. As a result, it’s easy to get locked into tunnel vision or inflexible thinking. Counteract this by seeing how others solve the same problem. Naturally, a piano teacher is a fantastic resource (if you have the time and money for one). I don’t currently take lessons, but my youngest child does. Since I help my son with learning new pieces, I’ll often learn whatever piece he is learning simultaneously. When returns home after a lesson, he’ll show me the latest pointers from his teacher. I’ve gained countless insights from his instructor indirectly this way—helpful ideas I never would have considered on my own. If you don’t have a teacher, YouTube is an excellent resource for this kind of thing. There are tremendous tutorials on technique, repertoire and general practice principles created by expert pianists.

More points of view are always useful. For instance, after my son’s teacher suggested playing the E in the right hand staff with my left hand, I incorporated that approach. It makes a ton of sense as you’re already playing octaves in the left hand, so why not continue with that logical pattern (it feels quite natural despite my inclination to only play notes in the right staff with my right hand).

Even without access to a piano instructor, there’s a wealth of free advice available. YouTube is a great source for expert piano video tutorials. I watched this video from Josh Wright (my go-to for YT tutorials) as well as this one from Noriko Ogawa.

8. Step away.

This is an underrated practice habit. Everyone eventually reaches a point, where rather than pound out one more repetition, it’s better to back off and change gears. Sometimes this means backing off from the thing you are practicing to focus on a related but different task (for instance, you could say, “I’m done practicing this part of the music, but let me jump to this other bit and work on that”). Sometimes this means stepping away from the activity altogether and doing something completely unrelated (take a walk, bake something, read a book, etc.). It’s no big deal, especially since you’ll be back to work practicing again if you’ve established a regular schedule.

Example: If I’m facing a tricky section of music that is too demanding for me, I won’t beat my head against it. I’ll step away and do something else. Often what happens is that during that time away from the keyboard, I’ll consider some other approaches to tackling the problem. For instance, if there’s a troublesome passage, I might break the section into even smaller units of practice. This is often the case for sections with large interval leaps. Rather than try to get all the successive leaps in one go, I know I need to practice one jump at a time. After doing this, I might need to start to “stitch” successive leaps together (either in the same session or in a future session). Either way, backing off can be helpful once the marginal benefit vanishes.

We’re all guilty of ignoring our own best advice, and I do so more often than I’d care to admit. When I do, it’s to my detriment—I fail to progress and learn as efficiently as I otherwise might. But when I do follow the above recommendations, learning is both effective and rewarding. Yes, it’s difficult to work slowly, meticulously and deliberately. It doesn’t help that it’s hard to envision where you’ll be in a few weeks when you’re stuck in the weeds at the very beginning. But over time, you’ll start to see the pieces come together and the work take shape. Before you know it, that musical masterpiece that was incoherent is starting to sound like the real thing. It’s slow-going, but it works.

Coda: Where Else Do These Principles Apply?

Can the preceding advice can be extrapolated from the piano-specific domain into another domain? I’d like to think so, but I can’t say with 100% certainty due to the obvious differences between piano playing and things that aren’t piano playing. I imagine that in many cases, the general principles are relevant but require a flexible interpretation or some creative adaptations.

Let me offer a personal example to explore this idea. I want to improve my writing; this was a key impetus for starting this blog. I am less confident in my writing skills than I am in my piano skills. To get better at writing, I know I need to make time to practice writing.

Does it make sense to consider the practice strategies I employ with the piano in the context of practicing writing? I’m confident the answer is yes, but let’s take a closer look using the piano practice principles discussed earlier.

  • Make time to practice (ideally at a regularly scheduled time). This recommendation is relevant for piano, writing and a host of other activities. We might think nothing of practicing to learn a musical instrument, but how often do we consider actively practicing other skills? If I want to improve at writing, it’s imperative that I budget time to write. Thankfully, the blog gives me a consistent practice schedule: I post new content Tuesdays and Fridays along with a weekly newsletter.
  • Set realistic long-term goals. Goals are universal. My writing goals include: blogging weekly, publishing more long-form content, and increasing my readership. I still feel like a beginner, but after a single year, I can already see improvement when comparing my earliest posts with my most recent ones.
  • Have a specific goal for each practice session. While I don’t think of my writing sessions as “practice sessions,” in reality that’s what they are. Like piano practice, I enter each block of writing time with a set objective in mind. If it’s early in the development of a new article, my goal might be to come up with an outline or structure for the post. Once the gist of the article exists, I might focus the next session on writing a draft for the introductory paragraph. Regardless of the specific objective, having one makes it easier to focus and execute.
  • Break the monolithic task of writing into atomic units: Just as we must work out fingerings, practice hands independently, and slow down the tempo when practicing piano, so can we break the constituent parts of other activities into manageable chunks that can be tackled systematically, one piece at a time. Writing is no exception. It to can be broken into smaller tasks. There are many ways to do this. For instance, I try to view writing as an amalgam of activities: research, ideation, outlining, drafting, revising, and publishing (I’ve written about this in an earlier post). The importance of this habit is clear: trying to write a 3000-word essay in a single sitting is difficult—I’m sure there are some who can do this, I’m not one of them. But writing an article over the course of a week isn’t particularly hard. Here’s what I do: Monday might be for coming up with new ideas. Tuesday might mean performing some background research to flesh out a promising idea. Wednesday is for outlining. And so on until the piece is finished.
  • Focus on higher-level objectives as proficiency increases. Once the foundational pieces are in place, higher order activities can take place. For writing this might mean adding more polish to your prose, incorporating illustrations or diagrams, or drawing on other writers and literature. Perhaps it means moving from shorter form writing to longer form writing. Greater proficiency brings creative freedom and the opportunity to expand your ambitions.
  • Reflect and adjust course. Constant reflection is critical to gauge personal progress and identify problem areas that need attention. Early in the blog, I realized my command of basic English punctuation was subpar. To remedy this, I wrote a 4-part series on punctuation. This gave me an opportunity to shore up a weakness and still meet my blog-posting schedule. I’m sure I’ll use this tactic again in the future. Turn your weaknesses into learning opportunities.
  • Learn from others. Input from others is always valuable. I appreciate the feedback I receive from readers of the blog and newsletter. They offer constructive criticism and alert me to gaps in my thinking or perspectives I might have overlooked. In addition to direct feedback, there’s no shortage of great writers to learn from. There’s a plethora of bloggers, YouTube videos, podcasts, and other media out there that can help you improve your writing. This is an equally important way to learn from others.
  • Step away. As with piano practice, this is an universally applicable habit. I like writing articles over extended periods of time because it facilitates the ability to step away, take a breather, and contemplate the next move. Stepping away doesn’t preclude you from thinking or having “aha” moments, but it does remove the immediate pressure and frustration of having to perform in the moment.

As you can see, the piano practice principles might not have 1:1 applicability (you don’t have to worry about practicing hands separately when writing or figuring out the optimal fingering for a tricky passage), but the general principles are relevant. I’m confident that these principles are also applicable to other domains. For instance, while writing this article I kept thinking about how pertinent so many of these ideas are to my experiences learning a programming language (and I’ve worked with a bunch: C#, Swift, Lua, Python, Ruby). When I think about my exercise habit, I see a tremendous number of parallels as well.

And here’s one more exciting idea to think about: this cross-pollination of ideas isn’t a one-way street. If I considered it deeply, I have no doubt there are lessons I’ve learned from writing that can inform my piano playing. One that comes immediately to mind is my willingness to share my writing publicly and online despite any misgivings about the quality of my prose or skill with words. That willingness to suppress the ego and risk embarrassment is a tendency that would benefit so many other aspects of my life, piano performance included (but that’s a subject for a future post).

Part of the motivation for writing this post is to have a written record of the behaviors that I know to be effective. Writing these down is a way for me to remind myself of the importance of these behaviors and to be more mindful about employing them when I forget to use them. The scientist Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” Taking notes and being mindful of your own solutions to tricky problems is a good step in this direction.

Having gone through this exercise, I do think it’s worth finding these preexisting patterns of success in our lives and considering how we can repurpose them elsewhere. After all, if you’ve already developed a successful habit in one facet of your life, why reinvent the wheel? Readapting and repurposing what you already know is a sensible and practical learning strategy. And who doesn’t want fresh insight on the process of learning?

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