Practice Small

Dear Piano Players:

Last year I wrote a blog post called Goals vs Intentions, and today I would like to explore those ideas further.

To start with, we might approach our practice by creating intentions in the form of questions:

    • What do I need to do to become a better player?
    • How can I learn to accept my mistakes without becoming discouraged?
    • How can I learn to read notes better?
    • How can I improve my rhythm?
    • Can I allow myself to relax and play?
    • How can I play with more emotion?
    • How can I play more smoothly?
    • How can I be a more effective teacher?


In his book Practice Like This, Dr. Jonathan Harnum asserts that setting goals for a single practice session is an effective learning tool towards supporting that intention. For example, if your intention is to play more smoothly, Harnum suggests you set immediate, micro, and nano goals for your practice session, which might look like this:

Immediate Goal: “During this practice session, I would like to be able to play measures 6-8 more smoothly.”

Micro Goal (smaller): I will focus on my fingering in these two difficult passages by playing slowly with hands separately.

Nano Goal (smallest, specific) 1: I will practice crossing my RH 3-finger over my 1-finger on B following with my 2- and 1-fingers on B-flat and A, until I can play it three times correctly.

Nano Goal 2: I will practice the accompanying LH chords with my eyes both open and closed, until I know them well. (Once you know the left hand notes, your brain will be more available to focus on the right hand fingering.) 

Harnum suggests that when you achieve your nano goal, “…savor the accomplishment because that will fuel your motivation to continue.” 

I recommend setting your nano goal at no more than three correct repetitions; learning science shows that after a few repetitions, the skill becomes less effortful and therefore no longer advances learning. Instead, after you have played the passage correctly a few times, move on to practicing something else (perhaps alternate with your other nano goal). Then come back to the first passage after leaving some time for forgetting to set in. Each time you cycle back to recall a skill after forgetting it somewhat, your learning grows stronger and deeper. Click to learn more about: The Best Ways To Practice Using the Latest Brain Research.

Start your practice session with your immediate goal in mind; the brain best remembers what we study first and last during a practice session, and you don’t want to run out of practice time before addressing your greatest challenges. However, be sure to also play your piece from the beginning periodically. In her Great Courses lecture series called How We Learn, Dr. Monisha Pasupathi shows that we must continue to practice recalling both what has become easy and what is still difficult in a piece, in order to be able to play the whole piece smoothly:

“The most effective strategy for learning is to repeatedly retrieve both items that are known and items that are not as well known….Over time, people [start] forgetting the unpracticed items…; it’s as if failing to practice these items makes them unlearned.”

 

Remember also, that what we call “talent” is, for the most part, simply having become motivated enough to put in the time and effort. In his book Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin shows that very few superstars in the business, sports or music world were born with any discernible innate talent. For both Mozart and golf pro Tiger Woods, for example, it was their fathers making sure they were practicing daily, that gave them the skillful edge. Forget about talent, it’s primarily about your practice. Using nano goals you can grow your talent one small step at a time.

With love and music, Gaili

Author, UpperHandsPiano: A Method for Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul

Available on Amazon.com

I welcome your comments!

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2 Replies to “Practice Small”

  1. Thank you for those practice tips. I recently finished memorizing what I think was the most difficult piece I’ve ever attempted to memorize, although I’ve played the music for years (Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer). I came to realize after many years of playing that whenever I play a piece by memory, my right hand practically plays itself (I am right handed). I look at what my left hand is doing. What does that say about how I learn a piece of music?

    1. Congratulations! What was the piece? Some researchers posit that we must start memorizing immediately as we are learning the piece. Others say that we should analyze the structure and learn the notes first before memorizing. I’m doing more study on this. Thanks for your comment!

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