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Piano Practice 101: Essential Steps to Building a Successful Routine

a cat paw on a piano keyboard

“Have you practiced today?”

“You didn’t practice for very long.” “That doesn’t sound like practice!”

“I can’t hear the piano!”

How many times have you said any of these phrases? Do you know what a 30-minute practice session should look or sound like? Probably not, and the chances are good your child isn’t entirely sure either. Your child’s teacher has a lot of information to convey during the lesson, and much of it is often forgotten by the time your child sits down to practice.

I will take those standard Mom and Dad statements above and address them individually, then give you an easy roadmap for structuring practice. Be sure to download the free practice roadmap to share with your child.

“Have you practiced today?”

How many days a week should your child play their instrument? Every day! “What?!” you say. “Every single day?!” Yep. But notice that I said play their instrument. A musician should play their instrument nearly every single day. Music is joyful! “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” (Berthold Auerbach quote). Why wouldn’t you want to do something every day that has been proven to reduce stress, improve memory, and allow self-expression? Avoid requiring practice whenever your child picks up or sits at their instrument. That is a surefire way to squash the joy of playing! How many days a week should your child practice their instrument? For early beginners, strive for at least 3 days of practice each week. Students should practice four or five days a week starting at the late beginner stage (Level 2 in most method books). Intermediate and above students should practice five days a week. These students should practice longer than beginner students - it will take longer just to get through all their assignments and give adequate time to each task - but they shouldn’t necessarily practice more days a week. We all need days to rest. Our brain needs time to index everything we’ve loaded into it.

Side note: no one at any age or level should be practicing in one long session one day a week. That is simply not how our brains work to learn new things.

“You didn’t practice for very long.”

We hear 30 minutes bandied about a lot as the quintessential “right” amount of time to practice. And it is - for most beginner to early intermediate students. However, how long a practice session should last depends as much on a student’s age as their level. Younger students may not have the attention span to practice more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time, and older beginners may be able to practice more efficiently and be done more quickly. For the younger student, break up practice time into smaller time chunks. For the older student, encourage more “noodling” time (see below) if they complete their assignments quickly.

“That doesn’t sound like practice!”

Do you know what practice is supposed to sound like? Practice is not performance. We wouldn’t need practice if every time we played, we sounded performance-ready. Practice should be messy. Practice will often be playing the same music over and over again.

“I can’t hear the piano (or violin or guitar, etc)!”

I am hesitant to ask this question because I’m sure I know the answer a few people will give, but here goes. Do you read the directions on the box before starting to cook, assemble, or build something? Hopefully, most of you said, “Of course!” and there aren’t too many renegade directions-shirkers out there. Even if you don’t read the directions first, you probably understand that you should. If you don’t, it’s likely because you have enough life experience to safely skip reading and following them. Your child does not have that same life experience, and they are learning one of the most complex languages - music notation. They should take time to “read the directions.” Whether it’s to make sure they understand the activity their teacher has assigned or to study their music closely before trying to play it, practice will have some silence. This is why building a practicing partnership with your child is so important. If you are present for some or all of their practice time, you can ensure their silences are productive and not distracting.

So what should practice look and sound like? I will go into greater detail on each practice component in the following weeks. Here is a basic outline to get you started. The times are guidelines for 30 minutes of practice.

Warmup: 5 minutes

Playing an instrument can be physically taxing. Students should start with a few stretches and “wiggle removers” and do a posture check before playing. For early beginners, instrument warmup can be spending some time finding the notes on their instrument or notes on the staff. As a student advances, this is the time to practice scales, chords, arpeggios, and other technical exercises. Other options include playing through old favorite repertoire or using one of many warmup exercise books available.

Practice: 20 minutes, split into 5-10 minute blocks of the following:

Sight Reading

Ear Training

Repertoire (Songs!)

Music Theory assignments

Other Assignments from your teacher

Noodling: 5 to ∞ minutes

Just! Play! And have fun! Improvise, compose, and figure out your favorite song on the radio by ear. I strongly encourage my students to noodle on their instruments as part of their practice. Let your child’s ear be their guide to what sounds good. As the parent, resist the urge to joke about it sounding terrible (no comparing it to caterwauling). Figuring out what doesn’t sound good is a valuable part of understanding what does sound good and why.

If your child has trouble keeping track of time, help them pick out a cute clock or timer to keep by their instrument so they can track their practice blocks. For more ideas on how to create a practice space designed for practice success, see this blog post.

You are building a practice partnership with your child, so plan to sit with them regularly as they practice, just to listen or to gently help them follow their practice schedule. Helping your child practice does not have to be a battle! Approach practice with a collaborative mindset and establish an effective practice routine early; practice time will be something you both look forward to.

To help make developing a practice routine easier, download a free printable practice routine chart here. I’ve included a full-color and a black-and-white version.

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