Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano learning, piano lessons, piano study, piano teaching, piano technique

The universe of piano study: Too Little or Too Long on a piece

Not a bullet-proof analysis, but based on decades of teaching piano, I’ve come to a set of conclusions about why students give up on pieces too soon, or in reverse, prolong their agony, through time-warped months of static practicing. In truth, giving up too soon, or dragging a piece through months of inertia, both result from top layer, on the surface learning.

Surface learning does not come with a step-by-step analysis of what is needed to improve a composition after the initial “read.”

Fingering choices are the first big decision made–what I call the housekeeping department of practicing. If a student throws fate to the wind, and shifts fingering at each practice session, then resultant stumbling and note stutters virtually guarantee a short-lived exposure to the piece. (Frustration builds to crescendo levels.)

If an intelligent fingering is laid down in the separate hand practicing phase, but not observed, adding to wrong notes popping in and out of phrases (not corrected through specific spot-practicing routines) then the composition will be prematurely disposed or destined for a long, painful death.

Spot-practicing takes patience, so if a student is in a hurry to learn and discard a piece to move on to the next flavor of the week selection, he will have LESS than a deep layer experience in the PRESENT.

Here’s a thoughtful spot-practicing segment (A minor Harmonic minor scale in 6ths)

More spot practicing (slow tempo, Fur Elise, tremolo section)

SLOW practicing is obviously a big ingredient of thoughtful learning. It gives ample time to process fingering, phrasing, dynamics, etc. and to breathe into phrases with a ONEness relationship to the piano.

Here’s an example of breathing through an arpeggio to experience the here and now without anticipation:

Students who are aware of the breath in their practicing are less likely to abandon a piece before its full development or to waste time huffing and puffing through passages that are redundantly anxious, and out of control.


A striking area of NEGLECT that leads to shortened exposures to pieces, or overtime lag, relates to the phenomenon of practicing page one, and letting the remaining pages go fallow.

Once page one is adequately absorbed, a student may think it’s time to party through the rest of the piece. Or as a self-assigned reward for diligently practicing the opener, the pupil will rest on his laurels through the development and final cadence.

It’s called, “I did enough” and need a vacation.

At this juncture, it’s up to the teacher to pull in the reigns and redirect the student to the necessary work that’s needed before the composition is put to pasture.

By the same token, if the piece is drilled to the ground for months on end without efforts to spot practice or refine measures, sections that need remediation, then the undertaking may be beyond meaningful resuscitation.

On both sides of the spectrum, deep-layered practicing in a steady, incremental learning rhythm, is the best antidote to the demise of a piece before, or long after its expected life span.

Addendum: A Theoretical/structural analysis of a piece is always a learning reinforcer and helps to hold a piece together in its totality. Students who understand a composition from many dimensions are likely to learn and retain it more thoroughly in the long run. (Block practicing with a theory-based understanding is part of the process)


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