Piano Exercises – How to be great at practising

Shouldn’t the title be “How to be a great pianist”? By the time you finish uttering the words to that question, the answer would have naturally entered your mind - You will have to practise the piano exercises first.

The Beetles spent the first decade playing together in smoky bars and pubs around Europe before they became famous. Gaining insights to how the audience responded to the sounds they were creating, while John and Paul wrote better lyrics and melody, perfecting their music with every performance.

Sam Walton only opened the first Walmart store 17 years after he started going into the retail business – After studying the habits of his shoppers, figuring out the most effective layout for the items in his store and smoothing the supply chain of the groceries he was selling.

On average it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, fine-tuning, tinkering and trial and error to reach a level of profiency before ‘great’ can even be considered to describe the results of one’s craft. That’s about 10 years of regular practise every day for at least 4 hours excluding weekends.

How to be great at practising piano exercises?

Practise in the mornings

I find myself to be at my peak doing any sort of activities in the morning, before the sun gets too hot. So on weekends right after breakfast, I practise the piano first. 

Everytime there is noticeable difference in the outcome of my piano playing compared to the times when I could only practise the piano exercises at night after work – the articulation is better, mood depiction is much more palpable and my fingers can hit the keys more firmly with strength in their strokes. 

It is probably because late in the day, the mind and body are already exhausted from work, moving about, staring at the computer screen and the other daily grinds in our lives.

If you have the luxury of having the mornings to yourself, always use it to practise the piano exercises. It is the time when you have the least distractions, when the rest of the world falls silent to leave you and your piano in peace.

Focus on technique

Usually I will have 2 songs as assignments to learn given to me by tutor. The newer they are the more challenging they become because I would have to study all the notes, rests, rhythm and articulation from scratch. It is a time consuming process. 

As the songs become more familiar, they are more enjoyable and fun to play. So much fun that I get so engrossed; sometimes my technical work gets sidelined.

One excuse I used to forgive myself was that playing a piece helps improve technique too, I am still practising. I found out the hard way that it is not so. To acquire technical prowess time has to be spent solely on building it, away from piece playing. 

Hours have to be devoted only on practising chords, scales, arpeggios, octaves and other useful piano exercises such as the ones by Hanon. Technique is the mechanical part of piano playing. It needs regular upkeep, much like owning a Ferrari – all the mechanical parts have to run and turn perfectly for it to live up to its reputation.

Create a plan

Music occupies my thoughts constantly, in the car on the way to and from work, during lunch breaks and sometimes even in extremely boring meetings. I think of what to play on the piano several times a day before I actually start playing. In a way, I am always planning my practice routines.

Scales are a daily fixture in my routine, I try to practise 3 keys of scales a day and have them perfected in one week. Due to the limited time that I have I could only practise them in legato, ideally I would love to practise them in various other touches – staccato, long-short and softer than legato. Only then would my piano technique improve by leaps and bounds, if you have such luxury please do so.

Works by Czerny are also joy to play. Although they are designed to build technique, they feel more like a set of party music to me – a blast to practise with. Playing them as written is good enough to improve technique, but why stop there when they are so much fun. Try turning single notes into octaves, play in a different key of your own choice and change the rhythm to make it more challenging. 

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