In a classical education, music is not an "extra-curricular" activity or an embellishment on a transcript. Music is and should be at the very core of human learning and experience. I would go as far as to say that it is our human responsibility, as imitators of our Creator, to be musically inclined. Additionally, simply "doing" music is not the goal. Simply "doing" an essay is not the goal. Simply "doing" a math problem is not the goal. In a Classical Christian education, we want to not only "do" it, but do it well. We want to create something aesthetically pleasing. This is called mastery. Music lends itself to mastery, but to achieve mastery, you have to be equipped with the right tools to help you work toward that goal. In a classical education, those tools are imparted to the pupil in order to aid them in becoming masters in their studies.
Translating this concept to music, we’ve all heard the saying, "Practice makes perfect!" As musicians, practice is the mode through which we master our "craft". But practice isn't enough. There is a correct and effective methodology to practicing an instrument. Practice doesn't always make perfect. "Perfect practice makes perfect!" Allow me to give you 10 of my personal practical "tools" that will help you achieve "perfect piano practice".
1. Practice the evening of your lesson.
After your weekly lesson, the new material is "fresh" and "ripe" for further development. Go ahead and put your instructor's suggestions into practice the evening after your lesson. Even just a few minutes of going through the new skill or technique you learned that day is beneficial. After 24 hours, you will lose about 60% of what you gained in your lesson if you wait to put it into practice.
2. Go for many short practice sessions over a few long sessions.
Simply put, you will improve much more practicing for 20 minutes 6 times than you would sitting down for 120 minutes one or two times. This is called "distributed practice". I joke that I practice for hours a day "10 minutes at a time." I am the queen of practicing something every time I have 10 minutes to spare, whether it's during a transitional period in my day, waiting for a student to arrive, or even while waiting for a pot of water to boil on the stove (I seriously do this). Constantly have "short visits" with your piece at different times of the day to keep it fresh and gain skill and insight.
3. Vary your approach.
Mindless repetition gets you nowhere in music and only reinforces bad habits. Each practice session should focus on a particular skill, and the focus should vary from session to session. During one short visit with your music, you may work with the metronome, focusing on rhythm and finger control. Then next time the focus could be articulation and expression with dynamics. It might also serve you well to spend a session solely on memorizing the piece. You can practice just one hand at a time. The key is to mix it up, and to be cognizant of what skill or technique you are focusing on at that time.
4. Always start slow.
When learning a piece, it is important to play slowly at first so that you can master transitions, fingerings, rhythm, and technique. Playing slowly is not necessarily easier. It actually takes much more discipline. Even after working on a piece for quite some time, it is good to get in a good, thorough, slow practice session. Your technique will greatly improve by doing this.
5. Always start "dry".
Practice without the pedal. This is another disciplinary issue. The pedal is fun to use, and can really enhance the sound, but it covers up our mistakes, which reinforces bad habits and does not help us to perfect our technique. In the days of Bach and even Mozart, pedals did not exist, so keyboardists had to have impeccable technical skills. To this day, people often play Bach and Mozart completely "dry"(no pedal). This makes a pianist very vulnerable, and allows every flaw to be exposed. My rule is that if you can make the piece sound beautiful without pedal, then it will be exquisite when you finally add it in where it belongs.
6. Pick one piece to focus on.
For each short practice session, pick one piece on which to focus. Rather than mindlessly running through 5 pieces in one session, hone in on one piece, or even one section of a piece, for 20 minutes. Perhaps there's a difficult passage or transition that needs repetition. As a piano teacher, I will choose really focus on one particular piece with a pupil during an entire 30 minute lesson, especially as the student becomes more advanced. These concentrated sessions have been very beneficial to the student, teaching them how to practice properly and thoroughly.
7. Warm up.
Playing the piano is a physical activity. I think it is helpful to start with your slowest, gentlest piece, and end with your fastest piece. Your muscles need to warm up to be able to play a fast or loud piece. I play my slowest piece first, and save the more animated pieces for later in the day when my muscles are warmed up.
8. Listen to Good Recordings and to Yourself
People learn how to do things by modeling "masters". This is no different for music. Find a recording of your piece being played by a reputable performer. As you listen, follow along in your music and make note of where the artist slows down, speeds up, gets louder/ softer,etc. Then record or video yourself playing. What do you hear? Is the sound pleasing? Does it sound "dead"? Mushy? If so, what steps can you take to improve the sound? After working for a few weeks, record yourself again and compare.
9. Keep a pencil handy at all times.
This is self explanatory. Learn to make notes in your music. If you keep messing up in a certain spot, circle that spot, make a note, and work on it.
What is the point of learning music if you never share it? Always participate in performance opportunities. Use your musical abilities in church, and anywhere else you have the opportunity to do so. Psalm 150 commands us to praise God with music. You do not have to be a professional to perform. Performances help with goals, since they create deadlines. Recitals act as motivational tools in my studio, causing the students to find a reason to practice.
In a classical Christian education, our goal is to rediscover the “lost tools” that help us master what we are studying. Make good use of these 10 "Perfect Practice Tools" and you will be well on your way to mastering your piano craft.