“Sorry, I haven’t done as much practice as I would like this week…”

How often we piano teachers hear this comment! “Sorry, I haven’t done as much practice as I would like this week.” It has to rank with the exclamation “But I can play it perfectly well at home” as one of the perennials. I always smile inside when I hear this, because it is intended well and actually we’ve all been there.

Learning a piece is a process, rather like an investment. It might take several weeks where you don’t feel much progress then suddenly something changes and it feels like the penny has dropped. It is easy to get frustrated and demotivated during the gestation period. I always remind students that not every lesson has to be a performance – during this stage there is much more value in chipping away at the piece together, side by side, rather than attempting to play it through.

Wouldn’t it be great if our results at the piano were in direct proportion to the amount of time spent? If practising were an exact science and we were machines, perhaps we could guarantee the perfect performance. I wonder how often any of us can walk onto the concert platform or into the examination room feeling totally confident that we have done enough practice, that we have covered all our bases. There is always that nagging feeling we could have done more – all we need is a few more days and we’d be fine.

Time always seems to be at a premium. There are so many demands on our time, and there never seem to be enough hours in the day to fit in as much practice as we want. I can say this, though, without any doubt: if we approach our practising in a methodical and organised way, we will notice vastly improved results.

I would like to offer a useful principle from the field of Time Management that we can apply to our practising – The Pareto Principle.

THE PARETO PRINCIPLE, or the 80-20 Rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had a eureka moment when he made two unrelated observations. He noticed that during 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods! This principle is widely used in the fields of business- and time management, and is very useful to know about in relation to practising the piano.

The general idea is that 80% of our results will come from 20% of our efforts; most of what we do when practising has a smaller impact on our results than other much more significant things. The problem is how do we determine the most important 20%? We need to work out where the largest gains can be made and focus on those. Prioritise exactly what is important in any one practice session, rather than wasting time going over parts you know or can play well just for the gratification. How many repetitions of something are necessary?

Three repetitions done with total concentration and involvement of the critical faculties will yield considerably better results than countless mechanical repetitions where the mind is somewhere else. Plus you’ll save a lot of time!

Not everything we do in our practice session is equally important, and this needs to be reflected in how much time we give it. Because we have spent 30 minutes practising something does not mean we will have twice the results than if we had spent 15 minutes practising it. It might only take 15 minutes to achieve the result we are looking for, after which we need to factor in the adverse effects of  The Law of Diminishing Returns, or even The Law of Negative Returns. Know when we’ve done enough! If repeating a section 3 times produces a result, practising it 30 times will not improve this result tenfold. There will come a time when these extra repetitions will have a detrimental effect on our result.

We can sit at the piano for hours and achieve little, or half an hour and make great strides.

Negative Practising

In day-to-day life, we repeat certain ways of doing things until they become habits – until we become unconscious of them and do them without thinking (and without the need to think about them). It is said that good habits are hard to form and yet easy to break, while bad habits are easy to form and yet hard to break. How true! It often amazes me that people don’t understand that what we do regularly in our practising is bound to show up in our playing! That, surely, is the whole point. Thus, if you hack away at a passage, finally getting it right on the eighth attempt, what you have actually practised is getting it wrong seven times and right once. What, then, are the chances of getting it right – and right the first time – when you are in a stressful performing situation such as an examination?

If we repeatedly play wrong notes, faulty rhythms or use slapdash fingerings in our practising, we will find it next to impossible to correct these later. A stitch in time really does save nine!

Work Smart, Not Hard

Nobody has unlimited time to sit at the piano practising all day. We have to remember that music, and our piano playing, is a part of life, and there are other things we need to fit in that are vital to create balance. Spending quality time with friends and family, exercising and relaxing are critical to being a rounded human being. Also, we need to factor in the risks of over-extending our bodies at the instrument, with issues like Repetitive Strain Injury, tendonitis and other health problems a possibility if we don’t keep things in proportion.

If we want to implement The Pareto Principle into our practising, we need to bear the following in mind:

The Important 20%

Any weaknesses that prevent our strengths from being used to their maximum effectiveness must be dealt with first, as priority. This might be a specific technical problem that needs addressing, a passage in a piece that we have been skimming over, or an area such as sight reading.

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I have written more on Time Management in Volume 1 of Practising the Piano eBook series…

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“I Haven’t Done As Much Practice As I Wanted This Week”

“I haven’t done as much practice as I would have liked this week” seems to be a very popular statement at the beginning of a piano lesson. Before one note has been played self doubt, anxiety and guilt are already in the room, and impending disaster is sure to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I try to calm the situation by reassuring the student that even seasoned concert artists at the top of their game might sit in the green room before a performance with similar doubts, feeling they could have done more if they had only had a bit more time. And how many exam candidates stew in the waiting room thinking: “If only I had a couple more weeks, or if only I had done this and that, I would be fully prepared”? There is always more we can do, yet we need to trust that what we have done is enough, for now – provided we have not been lazy or negligent in the process of preparation.

A lesson does not always have to be a performance!

Unless the lesson is in the run-up to an exam, diploma or recital (when a non-stop complete performance is necessary) work in progress is extremely welcome in my studio. I would rather help people to get things right from the beginning of the learning and practice process than go through the arduous task of unpicking and correcting careless errors or learned-in problems. Detailed work involves the opposite of playing through from beginning to end, and in a lesson it should be possible to focus on this – offering a model of what should happen in the daily practice.

What do you want from your piano playing?

In a recent lesson, a 17-year-old student gave a complete performance of one of her recital pieces. I told her that there would be many people who would be envious of her ability to play it so well, and that she had reached a very good level with it indeed. Because piano is just one of the many activities she does outside of her high-achieving school curriculum, I asked her if she was happy with the level she had reached, or whether she wanted to push beyond the very good and aim for the excellent. Whatever she decided would be fine with me, but the choice had to be hers. She thought about it for a moment, and realised she was indeed prepared to put in more work to achieve a higher standard in her playing of this piece. Her decision determined the type of work we did together over the following few weeks, as well as her input in the daily practice. It would have been completely acceptable had she preferred to move on to other pieces, since there is a potential downside to polishing, refining and perfecting something – unless you have high ambitions in the fiercely competitive world of classical pianism.

The expression “never let the good be the enemy of the better” reminds us that high standards come from an attitude of constant striving, always putting gentle pressure on ourselves to go beyond what we think we can do. However, obsession with perfection can paralyse and demoralise us, and we will never be happy with what we do. Is there a middle path somewhere here? Certainly not every piece we begin has to be polished to perfection before we leave it.

Diamond-diamond macle1
This natural diamond crystal contains flaws. Flawless diamonds, which are rare, are called paragons. “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius, attrib. (Image courtesy of The Arkenstone, iRocks.com)


If we have decided we want (or need) to take our playing to the next level, we will need to know that the route to mastery starts from the point where we can already play our piece or programme through very well indeed. Even after we have fine-tuned our muscle movements, the neural processes controlling these movements continue to become more efficient as we push past this stage and continue to refine. By overpractising the brain uses up less energy, freeing up space for other things in performance – such as focussing on the emotional or poetic meaning of the music. The increased bandwidth we free up by over-learning can also be used to combat the sort of stumbles we might encounter during performance, which addresses the other familiar statement, “but I can play it perfectly well at home”. If you want to perform more reliably and with less effort, then carry on practising well beyond the stage where you think you’ve nailed it. Be 200% prepared, factoring in the 100% drop-off that can happen as soon as you walk out onto the stage.

As I pointed out in last week’s post on managing repetition, when we overpractise in this way it is important to avoid becoming habituated and stale, aiming to keep mentally engaged at all times by finding new and different ways to practise that challenge and absorb us each time we go to the piano.