There is a “golden rule” for practicing piano just as there is in life. Riffing off the traditional golden rule, it is:

Do unto your practicing as you would do unto your playing

In simple English, that’s:

Practice as well as you would like to play

Why? Because it’s a physiological fact that the part of the brain that learns the movements involved in playing doesn’t know the difference between right notes and wrong notes. It simply learns what you do. If you do something repetitively, right or wrong, it will learn that even better.

This means every mistake you make will be learned and reinforced. You will then have to spend additional time unlearning the mistake.

You’ll save countless hours of practice time by observing the Golden Rule.

Specific Strategies

Get to Know the Piece

Listen to a recording before practicing a new piece.

The fine points of interpreting a piece are learned best by listening to one or more accomplished performances.

Scan the Music

Take note of the time signature, tempo, starting notes and fingers, etc.

Break Things Down

Break a piece down into its constituent parts and focus on one at a time. Examples:

  • Rhythm only – tap and count the rhythm out loud
  • Notes and fingering only – play the correct notes and fingers without observing the rhythm
  • Hands separately – practice one hand at a time

When you’re able to successfully perform constituent parts of the music, start putting them back together.

Concentrate

You will usually accomplish more during shorter sessions of focused practicing than a longer period of less-focused practicing. Try two (or more) shorter practice sessions each day instead of a single longer one.

Observe Everything

Observe everything on the music from the very first practice session (unless to break things down you’re purposely not observing everything).

Dynamics should be observed from the very first practice session.

Practice Slower

Practicing slower will help you avoid mistakes. This is often slower than you think you need to play – or want to play! Once you can consistently play correctly, you can gradually increase the tempo. But if you start making mistakes, slow down again.

Pause to Avoid Mistakes

If you practice slowly enough you’ll usually know when you’re about to make a mistake, and can pause before making it. That way you won’t learn the mistake. Pauses are easily eliminated later.

Count Out Loud

For learning rhythms, counting out loud almost always works better than counting silently. It can also be helpful to say other components of the music out loud, such as specific note values (“1-2-3” for a dotted half note), fingering, letter names of notes, etc.

Use the Metronome

The metronome’s primary functions are to (a) set a tempo and (b) help you keep a steady beat. If you find yourself practicing too fast, use the metronome to slow yourself down. If your beat is unsteady, use the metronome to keep it steady.

By itself, the metronome won’t help you learn a rhythm. You must count to do that!

Give More Attention to Trouble Spots

If you’re playing the music well except for one or two trouble spots, focus most of your practice on the trouble spots. Don’t waste time playing the whole piece over and over.

Record Yourself and Listen Back

Recording yourself and listening back lets you give 100% of your attention to your performance, making it easier to hear what improvements are needed.

Take Notes

Take notes on your music to remember or draw attention to important details.

Print a practicing strategies tip sheet to keep handy at your keyboard.