Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is the Most Productive Practice Routine?

Basic concepts to help find the proper practice routine.

In this video, Robert talks about finding the best practice routine. Is that an easy thing?

Released on January 26, 2022

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

This is and I'm Robert Estrin asking the question, what is the most productive practice routine? I'm sure this is important to many of you out there. If you spend a lot of time during the course of the week practicing the piano, you want to get as much done as possible. I have people all the time asking me, "How much time should I spend on this or that? Should I be doing exercises?" People are sometimes lost. They don't know if they're spending the appropriate amount of time on each discipline. Well, in a nutshell, I'm going to give you things that you should be doing in your practice, hopefully on a daily or almost every day. Certainly the ones at the beginning of the list are going to be things you should do every day and towards the end of the list are things you should do every week.

I'm doing them in order of importance of how much time you should spend in the following tasks. You could also look at the article because I'll have them articulated for you so you can read about them so you don't have to worry if you didn't catch them all. As a pianist learning music is really number one. You should spend the vast majority of your time memorizing music or if you're a collaborative player, learning scores of accompaniments or chamber music. This is the hardest part of practicing and you have to spend the most time doing it. There's no shortcut to this. I wish there was something that could just embed all the works of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Ravel, Debussy, Liszt in my head and in yours but there isn't and until Elon Musk comes up with a way with his technologies to do that, seriously, you have to just painstakingly practice bit by bit assimilating music. That is the primary thing of what you should be doing on a daily basis.

Well, what else? Are there other things you should be doing every single day? Absolutely. The next thing of course is refining what you've done the day before because whatever you've learned the day before isn't solidified yet. As a matter of fact, when you first sit down to practice, you think did I even learn this the day before? It may seem quite foreign but you'll find as you're relearning it and yes, sometimes that's necessary. Oftentimes reading through it'll kind of come back, but a lot of times it doesn't and don't think you're alone, that something's wrong with you. If the thing you just learned the day before, you don't know it at all and you have to relearn it, welcome to the club. It happens. But don't fret because when you just go through the same steps of relearning it, it comes back much more quickly than the first time you learned it. Just go through those steps again and believe me the second time you learn it, it will stick much better.

What else besides memorizing new material and reviewing the material you did the day before? Well, there's always review pieces you should work on. You know, if you don't work on review pieces, you'll never have the satisfaction of something that you played many times. You have it at a high level, at a call, tip of a hat, boom, you're ready to play two or three pieces at least on a high level because you play them every day. From time to time whip out that score. Take your foot off the pedal. Look at the score carefully and play it slowly. Use the metronome, reinforcing the memory. But at least play through a few pieces every day. It's a tremendously valuable thing. Keeps your fingers moving. It's exercise into itself which seamlessly leads us to the next thing.

Exercises. What exercises? Well, primarily scales and arpeggios. If you're not up to scales and arpeggios yet, simple Hanon exercises just to strengthen your fingers. Notice when playing exercises, slow practice is vitally important. You actually get more physiological benefit from slow practice than you do playing fast. Plus it trains your fingers, which fingers are down and exaggerates the fingers that are up. So you get clean releases of notes so you don't have muddiness in your playing. You should use the metronome when practicing Hanon exercises or scales and arpeggio, always doing the slow raised fingers first. Then playing two notes to the beat and finally four notes to the beat where you stay closer to the keys then play lighter. Then play that many times so that you're used to playing a lot of notes quickly and evenly. It's a godsend for your technique.

There's also wrist exercises. At the beginning I like to teach a simple exercise of in thirds. Once again with the metronome. Make sure you identify your wrists separate from the arms so you're not doing this. Or even this. You don't want to move the arms. You want the arms just to place your hands exactly in the right position. Why? Because this slow practice is preparation for being able to play faster for articulated staccatos and such. Eventually you'll be working on octave technique which also comes from the wrist. I have a little octave exercise you can reference and you could even work on scales. Anything that exercises your wrists because you can work on fingers all day long. If you don't work on wrists, you're not going to develop much wrist technique.

Sight reading should be a part of your daily work as well. It can be fun exploring new music or playing maybe different styles of music you're not ordinarily playing, but something that you like. You pick up the sheet music, you read through it. Find music on your reading level. It's not going to be the same level of pieces you're studying because pieces you're breaking down bit by bit, hands separately, putting it together, working through it are going to be far more difficult than pieces you can simply read perfectly after playing them through maybe two or three times. If the music you're using for sight reading you can't play perfectly after two or three times through, then it's not the appropriate level for reading music. Your reading level will grow if you do it every day. Better yet, find people to play with. When you're forced to keep going, that is the best way to develop your reading abilities.

There are a couple of other things that you can do in your daily practice. Improvisation is awesome. At the beginning if you're not really fluent with it, just do anything even if it's just some abstract chords. Or you can experiment with various styles of music that are improvised styles whether it's the blues or jazz, new age, just come up with anything. Simple seventh chords. Have fun with it. You'll be developing your ears while you're doing this. It's a great thing. You don't necessarily have to do this every day, but it can't hurt. Simple chord regressions, establishing the key. Maybe establishing different keys. Venturing off to different chords.

Experiment because it not only helps you to improvise better, but it's a lifesaver when you get that connection with the keys on the piano and what you hear. If you ever have a memory slip in performance, you can kind of feel your way back because you've improvised so much that you know what sounds are going to be created from the keys you play. Because you just made things up so much you've gotten that connection with the keyboard. So this should be something. Even if you spend five minutes, three minutes, do a little improvisation.

Lastly but certainly not least, take some time for theory. Now, what do I mean by this? What are you going to do with theory? Well, your teacher might guide you, but simply studying your music. If you have a piece, for example, there's a Burgmuller study, The Limpid Stream. Maybe you just figure out what is that all about and you realize that these broken cords, what is that? And you try to figure out. Well, you got a B, a D, and a G. But you know that cords are built on thirds so how could you rearrange these notes? Well, if I take the G from the top and put on the bottom, voila. A G major chord. Maybe you never realized that before. Take the time to study your score.

If you're doing a sonata and it changes keys in the second subject which sonatas all do that, find out where it changes and look at the accidentals to be able to predict going to the dominant, the key of the five. Study your scores. It will help you to learn them better and to avoid taking a wrong turn in performance. So are those all the things you can do in practice? No. Make practice an exciting journey. You can sing. You can improvise while singing. That's an excellent test to know if you are hearing what you're playing. If you can sing what you're playing, then you're hearing it which is really key to being able to solidify memory in your classical playing.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but these are fundamental technical things that you should be achieving in your daily work. Remember, learning new music number one. Refining what you did the day before number two. Number three, play review pieces. Enjoy them. There's a time for scales, arpeggios, octaves, wrist exercise, things of that nature. Then reward yourself with some sight reading for fun and just make some stuff up with improvisation. Then delve into some music theory. Study the music that you're learning or music that you want to learn. These are all great things you can do on a regular basis to keep your practicing productive, rewarding, and engaging, which is the most important part.

Whatever you do, make sure you're not just going through the motions, but you're actually involved in the process because after all practicing is a mental activity. If you're not paying attention to what you're doing, it really isn't practicing no matter how long you sit at that bench. Make sure you're getting something done for your time. Again, I'm Robert Estrin. This is, your online piano resource. Thanks so much for joining me. We'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Martine BAUDOUIN on April 13, 2022 @11:07 am PST
Mr Rober Estrin, I am French and just a low level amator studying the piano (I am nearly 75) I love your comments and advices that I read and listen to regularly and try to put in practice. You make subjects clear and easy to understand.
Thank you
Robert - host, on April 13, 2022 @3:07 pm PST
That is very good to hear - thank you!
Ioannis Raftopoulos on February 25, 2022 @2:02 am PST
could you please comment on the following:
it so happens that I learn something like a sonata or something else, work on it hard till I think I can play it absolutely perfect, then i get enthusiastic and play this score very often, enjoying it! then comes a time when I know this certain score so well, that i can play it spontaneously at any time I sit on the piano, I can talk with my friend simultaneously it's as if I am washing the dishes!
my hands automatically go to the right keys and the result is perfect.
then comes the negative part:
I decide to start playing something else for a change, and i leave the certain score aside.
it is ten that i realize, that I almost forgot most of it, and I must revise it, realize what I have been playing (everything, notes, chords, etc.!)
in other words, I couldn’t just parked this score aside and go back at any time and play it again!
I am very curious to hear your comment on this and hints on how to avoid "losing" what I have learned.
thank you!
Robert - host, on February 25, 2022 @8:11 am PST
You are relying solely upon motor memory, or muscle memory. While this is useful for getting a piece of music going initially, it can't be counted upon for a myriad reasons. While your fingers may "remember" where to go out of habit, they don't know if you are in the exposition or the recapitulation in a sonata movement.

You must have your intellect involved in your piano playing!

There are many ways of reinforcing what you can play so you really know the score. One way, is slowing way down, working with the score, using the metronome with no pedal. This forces you to think every note, as well as every nuance indicated in the music.

The ultimate practice is purely mental when you don't have your muscle memory to rely upon at all. You can practice this way by first playing your music in your lap. This allows your fingers to keep moving, but you don't get the tactile feel of the keys. Go as far as you can, and refer to the score whenever you aren't sure of what you are playing.

Eventually, you may get to the point at which you don't even have to move your fingers! You can play your music with all the expression, hearing it in your head as you play mentally. This is the ultimate practice which should help to solidify your musical performance.
Ioannis Raftopoulos on February 26, 2022 @12:35 am PST
Wow! this hint sounds so helpful!
I do this (playing without the instrument, if I am confronted with a difficult measure or two, then I get frustrated and stop practicing. I then try to realize how to play the difficult part while jogging, and then at a certain moment flashlights up and I see the answer.
It is then that these difficult parts, stay pinned down in my mind and I never lose them even if I don’t play the certain score for a while.
thank you so much for your help!
I will try it and I think it will work!


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