Top Tips: Bar by Bar Practice

I would like to share a very helpful tip for when you need to begin somewhere other than the start of a section or phrase during practice. 

You’ve identified the need for greater security, and are practising bar by bar. The rule is to play from the first note of a bar and stop on the first note of the next bar, resisting the temptation to carry on past this point. This is great for control, and also for memory work. It does take a fair amount of discipline and concentration though.

Having played the bar, we stop, remove our hands from the keyboard and reflect on our results 

  • Were the notes all correct?
  • Did I play rhythmically, with flow, dynamics, organisation and shaping?
  • Did it feel and sound good?

If not, you’ll need to repeat the bar until your inner quality control inspector gives it the green light before moving on to the next bar.

But let’s say you get to a bar that starts with a tied note – how do you accommodate that?

If you leave that note out you create a problem, because you are not accounting for the finger whose job it is to be resting in that particular key at the precise moment you play the other notes. Playing the note where the tie originates is certainly an option, but my preference is to put the key down silently ahead of time so the finger is in its place the moment we start.

In the third bar of this example from the D minor Fugue from Bach’s WTC (Book 1), first put down the Bb with your RH 5th finger silently (a useful skill in itself) and you’ll be ready to play the bar.

Another useful tip is to make sure you have written in the finger numbers at the start of each bar, so when you begin from there you’ll know exactly which fingers to use.


Top Tips #1: Start Anywhere!

I first published this post on top tips in October, 2015. I am republishing it now, with a couple of updates.

***   ***   ***

The first of an occasional series of tips – these are quick and easy to read, and I hope they will be useful in your practice.

Top Tips #1: Start Anywhere!

When you have thoroughly learned a piece and you’re getting it ready for a performance or an exam, it’s a great idea to be easily able to start from anywhere in the piece.

Left to your own devices you would probably start in a comfortable place, such as the beginning of a phrase or section. That’s fine, but for a challenge use a random number generator to decide for you where to start.

1. Figure out the number of bars in your piece – let’s say it’s 87 bars long

2. In the Min field, enter 1. In the Max field, enter 87

3. Press the Generate button

4. Play from the bar that comes up – not the bar before or after for convenience but the bar specified, even if it is in the middle of a phrase


There are many ways to do this – make a decision beforehand how far you’re going to play on from the bar you started at. It could be 1 bar, or 4 bars – whatever!


If you have divided your piece into sections, you can use the random number generator for that too.

For details of this approach, click here.

Tied Notes

If the bar you land on has tied notes, depress the key(s) silently before you begin. Here’s why…


Tips for Learning New Pieces Faster

Do you wish that you could learn new pieces on the piano faster? Do you find that you spend hours learning a piece only to find that you don’t know it nearly as well as you hoped when you attempt to play it?

learning a new piano piece

Here are some of my top tips for how to learn new piano pieces more effectively:

  • Know the score before – It helps to have some context before you begin. Do some background research, listen critically to a few recordings and do simple analysis (ask yourself questions about the form, and the character of the piece).
  • Choose your fingering – Attempt to work out a good fingering for both hands together and write it in the score. You may find you need to adjust this as you start the learning process, so allow for any changes. However, once you’ve settled on the fingering make sure to stick with it each time you practise.
  • Work on small sections at a time – Avoid overloading your working memory by breaking your piece down into small sections. Use mindful repetition to work on each section before moving on. A practice method I call “bar by bar plus 1” is a very effective tool for this (click here to read more about it)!
  • Deconstruct and simplify – In addition to separate-hand practice, deconstruct the music by break it it up into separate strands and simplify it e.g. play only the bass notes, or first note of an arpeggiated pattern.
  • Practise at the “speed of no mistakes” – Slow down difficult passages to a snail’s pace so you can play the notes, rhythms and fingerings perfectly. Do this several times, resisting the urge to play at speed for a while.
  • Practising is saving, playing is spending – Avoid the tendency to constantly run through your pieces. View performing (playing through) as “spending” and practising as “saving”.
  • Use mindful repetition – Use the “feedback loop” to first plan what you’re trying to achieve with each repetition. Evaluate and then carry the results forward into the next repetition. The process is “plan-play-judge”.
  • Tackle weak links – A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Identify those sections of a piece that regularly break down or feel shaky and uncomfortable and put them into quarantine for a period of time.
  • Start anywhere – Choose different places in your piece to start from when practising (these may also be your “Quarantine spots” from above). Divide a piece into sections, like tracks on a CD, and work backwards – that way, the end will be as secure, if not more so, than the beginning.
  • When to avoid listening to recordings – During the learning process you’ll want to avoid listening to recordings or you risk copying other players’ ideas or getting frustrated that your speed doesn’t match Martha’s. Develop your own voice and trust your musical instincts. Learning a new piece is a process that takes time and patience – it’s important to learn to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

How about starting a new piece and giving these tips a try? Please see the following list of further resources for materials to support you along the way or to delve deeper into some of the concepts introduced in this article.

Further resources

  • The Online Academy’s repertoire library has an extensive collection of video walk-throughs, annotated study editions and resources for learning new pieces, including:
    • From the Ground Up – A series which uses reduced scores and outlines to help you learn new pieces faster, featuring works by Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven
  • Practising the Piano eBook series – The tips in this article are covered in in more detail in Part 1 of my multimedia eBook series.
  • Sign-up to our mailing list and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more tips and resources on practising, technique and learning new pieces.
  • Free Online Course on Practising – Two-week email course based on my video lecture series with additional instructions and exercises for applying the various concepts in a practical manner (sign-up here).

Tips for a Natural Hand Position

My approach to piano technique is based on using movements that are most natural to the body, movements that are free, loose and that feel good. It is most important that we are in touch with physical sensations as we play – our feet in contact with the ground, freedom in the legs and thighs, support from the piano stool, mobility in the torso, looseness in the shoulders and arm, and not least the absence of tension from our wrists, hands and fingers. Touching the keyboard can feel delicious and sensual, or strong and energetic. It should never feel tight or awkward.

Hand position

I have read elaborate descriptions for the correct hand position for piano playing, but finding the position is actually surprisingly simple. If you stand up and allow your arm to swing freely from your shoulder, you will discover your palm is facing behind you. Swing your arm up to a table or your piano keyboard and land there. Provided you have not tensed up or done anything to change the hand shape, you will have found your ideal hand position. There will be a natural curve in the fingers, and all the knuckles will be aligned and supported. 

Finding your natural hand position

Curved, not curled

We avoid the two extremes, flat fingers and overly curled fingers because they tend to lead to tension. The natural curve is the best default position for piano playing as it encourages the best coordination. 

Don’t isolate the fingers

Traditional pedagogy supplied the pianist with copious finger exercises in which each finger was to be lifted high in isolation from the other fingers, which were to remain on the surface of the keyboard. Modern thinking has moved on, and we don’t do this any longer. The fingers lift together as a unit, often assisted by rotational movements from the forearm. 

Stretching out

I inherited the tradition of extension exercises (stretching between the fingers) but as I have  evolved as a pianist and teacher I consider these not only unnecessary but potentially harmful. I no longer use such exercises nor would I recommend them. The hand can open quite wide between the thumb and the 2nd finger, but not so far between the other fingers. As a general guideline, we close the hand up as soon as possible after a stretch.

Online Academy Technique Library

I have recently launched the first few modules of a technique library that will expand over time (further information on these resources is available here). In this brief video, I look at some of the points I cover on hand position in the Elementary Technique – Introduction & Basics module:


Elementary Technique – Introduction and Basics is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the module index if you are already a subscriber.

Be sure to sign-up to our newsletter for further updates and subscribe to our YouTube channel for previews and video excerpts!


Tips for Improving Your Sight-Reading

Improving your sight-reading is not just about getting a good score in an examination. It enables you to derive more pleasure from your playing through discovering new music and broadening your repertoire. It also opens up more possibilities for enjoying making music with others.

improving your sight-reading

As with any skill, it requires practice and can be challenging to develop. The following are some tips to help make sight-reading less daunting and practising it more enjoyable!

  1. Use pieces you like – Instead of playing through numerous dry exercises, find pieces you want to play and treat your sight-reading as a journey of discovery. There are many collections of varying styles on sites like the Petrucci Music Library which are suitable for sight-reading. Examples at an intermediate to advanced level include Bach Chorales, Czerny Studies, Schumann’s Album for the Young and Bartok’s For Children.
  2. Keep your eyes on the score – Avoid looking at your hands and focus on the score. You can test your ability to do this with this diagnostic test and this simple, but effective device can also be useful for training your eyes.
  3. Read ahead – Our natural tendency is to look at the notes we are currently playing, but this leaves no time to prepare the next move. Reading ahead is one of the most important skills in sight-reading. A good place to start is to use natural resting places e.g. long chords, phrase endings, fermatas as opportunities to look ahead. You can also use this app which provides an interactive way to develop this skill.
  4. Keep going – Sight-reading is different to practising because it requires us to play a piece straight through, without stopping to correct errors. A more flexible attitude is required to keep going no matter what, even if this means accepting wrong notes and botched details in favour of maintaining rhythmic cohesion!
  5. Identify and simplify – There’s usually not enough time to read every note when sight-reading. Instead, try to recognise harmonic figures and patterns and simplify where necessary. The best sight-readers are not the ones who play all the notes accurately, but those who know which notes to leave out in order to play in time!

If you’d like to learn more about how to go about practising sight-reading, then you may be interested in our upcoming online workshop – please see further details below!

How to Practise Sight-Reading on Your Own

Online Workshop – Wednesday 19th @ 15:00 BST

In this online workshop, Ken Johansen shows how to choose repertoire you enjoy and use it to develop your sight-reading skills. The workshop will include demonstrations of fundamental techniques using examples of varying styles and difficulty. Click here to book your place or click here to find out more about how our online workshops work.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Introduction to the Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum – Click here to view a general introduction to the curriculum
  • Eye Training – Click here to view the introduction to the first part of the Advanced Sight-Reading curriculum
  • The Joy of Sight-Reading – Click here to read a collection of free articles by Read Ahead developers Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen on the Online Academy
  • Read Ahead – Sight-reading exercises for elementary to intermediate levels on the Online Academy – Click here for level 1, click here for level 2, click here for Level 3 or click here for Level 4

Tips & Tools for Learning New Pieces

When learning a new piece from scratch, there are a number of tools we can use to get the maximum benefit from our practice time and to lay the foundations for a secure and successful performance.

tools for learning new pieces
Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

I shall be presenting a workshop on this topic next week using examples of different levels from the new ABRSM syllabus. The following are some of the tips and tools that I will be covering:

Limit Yourself to One Read-Through

Many people attempt to learn a new piece by repeatedly reading it through at the piano. Unless the piece is well below your current level this approach tends to be superficial and unsatisfactory; how frustrating to end a practice session sensing the beginnings of fluency only to discover the next day that nothing has stuck and you’re back at square one. 

Be like the third of the Three Little Pigs, who takes the time and effort to lay solid foundations for his house so that no amount of huffing and puffing from the Big Bad Wolf can topple it! Deep learning is a truly satisfying and absorbing process that leads to intimate knowledge of your piece and a level of security in performance that will enable you to play confidently and expressively.

One (or two) read-throughs is enough to get the gist of the piece – aim for a rough sketch at this stage, leaving out surface detail you cannot manage. 

The Three S’s (Slowly, Separately, Sections)

The Three S’s are the most rudimentary practice tools for thorough learning, but they are easily overlooked or skimmed over in an attempt to play through the piece. Working on a fast piece in small sections at the “Speed of No Mistakes” ensures note, rhythm and fingering accuracy from the outset, thereby avoiding embedding careless errors that may be hard to fix later on. 

Taking the time to practise hands separately is incredibly valuable, not only in the note learning stage but regularly thereafter. Handel’s Gavotte in G (Grade 3, A:3) is a duet between the hands, the left hand equally important and active as the right. Unless the teacher hears the left hand by itself, working on fingering, phrasing and articulation, there is little incentive for the student to practise like this. As teachers, we model in the lesson how we want our student to practise between lessons. 

Picking out one element for the whole piece offers a broader overview than chipping away at phrase by phrase with all the notes. For David Blackwell’s atmospheric arrangement of Down by the salley gardens (Grade 1, B:3) it would be a good plan to work on the melodic line (the right hand by itself) from beginning to end before even looking at the left hand. Singing the melody with the given words helps to understand the meaning of the poem, as well as where to breathe and how to shape each phrase. 

The “separately” practice tool does not only apply to hands alone, but also to strands. The left hand in the opening section of Tchaikovsky’s Douce rêverie (Grade 5, B:3) consists of two elements, a countermelody and an off-beat chordal accompaniment above it. Deconstructing the score is a helpful first stage. We might play the right hand’s main melody together with the left hand’s lower line, omitting the chords until we have heard and felt how these two lines work together. 


Most pieces contain spots that are trickier than others. By identifying and marking these spots into the score we are able to begin each practice session with a step-by-step sequence of activities designed to solve the problems, for several days in a row. Only after working on the Q-spots may we play the piece from the start.

The concept of Q-Spots is a very helpful teaching tool and a powerful aid to effective practice at any level. A good example is to the found in Kabalevsky’s Etude in A minor (Grade 4, A:2) from the second half of bar 10 to the end of bar 11. By quarantining this small fragment, we can apply chaining techniques – playing just the first group of notes until we feel the beginnings of automation and then adding the next group, and so on.

There is an especially awkward moment from bar 65-69 in Bartók’s Rondo (Grade 8, C:1) that will respond well to similar treatment. In this example, metronome practice would help fluency and control. Begin at around 60 bpm (or even slower) and increase the metronome speed in increments of your choice until you can exceed the intended speed. 


Dividing the piece into manageable, meaningful sections (like tracks on a CD) not only helps us structure our practice by ensuring that all parts of the piece are equally solid and secure, but also gives us anchor points in performance.

tracking as a practice tool

For example, I have divided up Fauré’s Andante moderato (Grade 7, B:1) into five sections, making it easy for the teacher to specify the week’s assignment. When we have learned the piece thoroughly, we might track backwards for added security in performance. We play track 5 and then tracks 4 and 5 together, working backwards track by track until we reach the beginning.  

For a more detailed, practical demonstration of how to apply these tools when starting work on learning a new piece, please join me for an online workshop on Wednesday 24th Feb @ 13:30 GMT (click here for more information and booking details).

Further Information & Resources

The tips and tools mentioned in this article are covered in in more detail in Part 1 of my multimedia eBook series and in my Practice Tools Video Lecture Series.

The Online Academy’s repertoire library also has an extensive collection of video walk-throughs, annotated study editions and resources for learning new pieces, including:

  • Video walk-throughs of popular works such as Burgmuller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata and Rachmaninoffs Prelude in C# Minor (Op. 3 No. 2)
  • From the Ground Up – A series which uses reduced scores and outlines to help you learn new pieces faster, featuring works by Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven
  • Annotated study editions and walk-throughs for works by Debussy, Chopin, Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven and Ravel

Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here to subscribe. 


Starting a New Piece – Top Tips & Tools

Last week I launched a free email course on how to start learning a new piece and lay solid foundations from the outset (click here to find out more). The following is a summary of some of the tips and practice tools from my course which will help you get started on the right track:

  1. One (or two) read-throughs is enough to get the gist of the piece – aim for a rough sketch at this stage, leaving out surface detail you cannot manage.
  2. Taking the time to practise hands separately is incredibly valuable, not only in the note learning stage but regularly thereafter.
  3. Practising separately doesn’t only apply to hands alone, but also to strands. It can be useful to deconstruct a score and play voices separately and then together in different combinations.
  4. Working on a piece in small sections at the Speed of No Mistakes ensures accuracy from the start and helps you avoid embedding careless errors that may be hard to fix later.
  5. By identifying and marking tricky spots in a piece upfront, you can begin each practice session with a step-by-step sequence of activities designed to solve the problems.
  6. Dividing the piece into manageable, meaningful sections helps us structure our practice and ensure that all parts of the piece are equally solid and secure.
free email course with tips on starting a new piece

If you would like a more detailed explanation of these tips and tools, plus examples and other resources then please do sign up for my email course! The course is entirely free, featuring seven video lessons ranging from three to twelve minutes in length. The videos are accompanied by downloads, notes and exercises to help you follow and implement each stage of the process.


Tips for Using Technical Exercises & Studies

A well-developed technique is essential for realising your musical intentions at the piano. Many pianists and teachers consider the use of technical exercises and studies to be a good way to improve overall technique or to work on specific aspects thereof.  

technical exercises & studies

Why use technical exercises & studies?

  • To warm up before practising
  • To build and maintain technique
  • To tackle specific trouble spots in pieces 

Tips for using them effectively

While practising technical exercises & studies can be very beneficial (and many great pianists swear by them!), it can too often become mindless, boring and unproductive. Such practice is not only a waste of time but can also expose you to an increased risk of injury.

As with many things, it’s not what you do but how you do it that has the biggest impact. The following are some tips and suggestions for using technical exercises and studies more effectively whilst avoiding boredom and tension:

1. Play them in different keys – Although many exercises are written in C major e.g. Hanon, they are often intended to be played in all keys and doing so enables you to derive greater value from practising them while making them more interesting.

2. Use different rhythms and accents to add variety – Different rhythmic patterns or placing accents on selected notes can also be a good way to add variety while building speed and accuracy (click here for more information on an online workshop on practising in rhythms and accents).

3. Use different touches – Another way to increase your productivity and maintain focus when practising exercises & studies is to use different touches e.g. leggiero and martellato. In this excerpt from his “Jailbreaking Hanon” video series, Graham Fitch demonstrates use how Hanon No. 24 can be used to develop different touches while maintaining a free wrist and using rotations to avoid tension:

4. Incorporate natural movements – Hanon’s instruction to “lift the fingers high and with precision” is a relic of a bygone era. Instead, the exercises can be used as a blank canvas to experience and develop more natural, coordinated movements of the finger, wrist and arm.

In this excerpt from his video on using Berens’s The Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89), Graham Fitch demonstrates how a circular choreography can be used to improve strength and increase velocity in Exercise No. 11:

5. Do as much as you need to – Far too often, duration and excessive repetition are seen as desirable when it comes to exercises and studies. However, in many cases you do not need to play the full exercise in order to derive benefit from it. By playing only as much as you need to, it makes it easier to practise in a focussed manner and reduces the risk of injury.

An alternative approach?

Another alternative (or complement) to using exercises and studies is to invent exercises directly from your pieces. By creating your own exercises for awkward spots in your repertoire, you can avoid separating the study of technique from music making and improve your technique in a highly efficient, creative way. Click here to read a blog post or click here to find out more about an online workshop we ran on this subject.

Further resources & links

  • Jailbreaking Hanon – Click here for more examples and information on Graham Fitch’s video series which demonstrates his approach to using Hanon’s exercises creatively and adapting them for various purposes. 
  • Berens Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89) – Click here to view video walk-throughs of selected exercises and studies by Berens showing how to use the studies effectively to develop left hand technique.
  • Online workshop – In this online workshop, Graham Fitch presented a range of exercises, studies, repertoire and practice techniques designed to improve left hand skills. Click here to purchase access to recordings and workshop resources.
  • A Cello Suite for the Left Hand – Click here to find out more about our study edition featuring an arrangement of JS Bach’s Cello suite No. 1 in G major for the left hand.


Tips for Tackling Trills – Practising the Piano

In our guest post this week, Penelope Roskell provides some tips for practising and playing trills. Penelope will also be presenting an online workshop on this subject on 14th June (please click here for further details).


The thought of a troublesome trill looming at the end of a phrase sends many a pianist into a panic!  However, if well prepared, trills can be a joy to play. Here are some tips which will help you feel more confident as you prepare your trills.

Think of the trill in context 

tackling trills in Bach and baroque

The first question to ask is: which period is the piece from and what is the style? Is the trill intended to be an elegant decoration of a cantabile melody, should it sound flashy or virtuosic or is its purpose just to prolong the sounding of the note? Some research into performance practice of the time will help you decide how to interpret the trill: how long it should last, which note to start on, whether to include a final turn, and whether to play it fast or quite steadily. 

Become familiar with the underlying melody notes

Many trills are just decorations of an underlying melody, so it is always helpful to play the melody as written several times before adding in the trill. 

Plan the best fingering

Fingering is crucial and needs to match the type of trill. For a loud trill, I tend to use 1/3 which allows for some rotational movement for added power. For a more delicate trill, 2/3 is sensitive and neat. For a trill that needs to be very fast a combination of both these fingerings is very effective 1323 1323 etc. For those tricky trills that need to be played with the outer fingers, the golden rule is to avoid consecutive fingers: trills with 3/5 or 2/4 are both much easier than 3/4 or 4/5.

Think of a number and subtract two

I always tell my students to think how many notes they think they can play, then reduce that number by 2! This is not at all an exact science, but it does discourage students from trying to play beyond their current technical ability (running the risk of tripping up in the process). It also reminds them that we need to feel at ease for a trill to sound expressive.

Go slow

Plan the number of notes you intend to play then practise the trill slowly initially. This will help to keep your hand and fingers relaxed – your mind will stay calm as well – and there will be less tendency for tension to creep in as you increase the tempo. 

Parachute with a light arm

It is very important to keep the arm as light as possible and to avoid pressing into the keys as you play trills. Practise starting the trill with a very gentle ‘Parachute touch’ as I show in the video. This will keep the arm light and buoyant and avoid any tension in the wrist. The finger touch is also light – the keys do not have to descend right to the keybed. 

Practise from the end

Messy trills often result from anxiety about the trill ending. I find it very helpful to practise a trill from the end. Play the last 4 or 5 notes alone several times until the ending feels rounded and expressive. Then work your way back to the beginning of the trill, adding just two notes at a time, until you can play the whole trill. Working in this way, the ending feels like the most familiar part, so you will head towards it with confidence. 

Think about how the trills fits with the other hand

Finally add in the other hand. You may have to think carefully about how the hands coordinate. Will you, for instance, play a regular number of trill notes to each left hand note, or will the relationship between the hands be quite free?

Prepare thoroughly, but play as if improvising

Paradoxically, most pianists find that they can only make a trill sound beautifully improvised if they have prepared it very thoroughly first. Start by reflecting on all of the above points, then try to forget about all those conscious thoughts and just listen to how the trill decorates the underlying melody. Do you perhaps feel you want to linger on the first note a little? Would you like to take a little more time at the end? Doing whatever feels natural to you will help you to enjoy trouble-free trills!

I’ll conclude with a video demonstration on how to practise a trill, incorporating some of these tips:


Trouble-Free Trills & Ornaments

Join us on Tuesday 14th June @ 18:00 BST (GMT + 1) for an interactive, online workshop in which Penelope Roskell gives tips for playing ornaments elegantly and effortlessly. Using exercises from her online course Teaching Healthy Expressive Piano Technique, she will demonstrate how to finger, practise and play trills, grace notes and mordents without tension or unevenness.

Participants will also receive the full video chapter on ornaments from Penelope’s course and will have the opportunity to submit questions on ornaments in specific repertoire in advance of the session. Click here to find out more and to book your place!


Top Ten Tips for Amateur Pianists

In my work with amateur pianists, I have found there are certain themes that recur that require consideration. Structuring the practising is at the top of the list as tangible progress is not going to happen without a thorough understanding of what we need to do day by day to learn and finesse our repertoire. In this post I list a few tips and suggestions which I hope will help you on your piano journey!

Differentiate between practising and playing a piece through

It seems many players are unaware of two very distinct practice states: 

  1. Practising
  2. Playing through (or practising a performance)

Playing a piece through is like spending; practising is like saving, or investing. If you only play through you will embed errors and soon notice the piece doesn’t really improve. In fact it might even get worse, with inaccuracies and sloppy moments creeping in. Professional players are very aware that to keep a piece in good shape, it needs constant practice – working slowly and painstakingly on details, chipping away at awkward corners in a variety of different ways, and so on. We never stop working on accuracy and finesse, just as the gardener will always find jobs that need attention.

Structure your practice 

The first thing I would recommend is to identify your problem areas. There are often one or two troublespots in each piece that need special care and attention, and extra practising. Identify these and begin your practice session by working on these bars rather than always starting from the beginning. Go back to them at various points in your practice session, maybe even making a special trip to the piano just to work on these passages.

Another thing – don’t always start your pieces from the beginning. Divide the music into sections and begin each day’s practice from a different section. Otherwise, you will always know beginnings of pieces better than endings. 

Many amateur pianists want to come to the piano at the end of a working day and just play, without having to engage in slow practice, or working in small sections with each hand separately, and so on. That’s too much like hard work, right? Well, it depends on whether you want to improve. For any progress to be made, there first has to be focus and attention on a clear plan. There is a delicate balance between the visceral enjoyment of playing pieces through, and the satisfaction we can get from the craft of practising, using some of our time to go through certain tried and tested processes that will help us play better. Include a variety of different activities in your practice session, including improvisation if that floats your boat, as well as working on old pieces. It’s a good idea to keep a practice diary so you can plan and reflect.

Include some pieces in your repertoire that are easier than your current level

Don’t fall into the trap of learning only large-scale works that stretch you to your limits (or beyond). Sure, it’s great to tackle the G minor Ballade, but also include pieces that are well within your grasp. This short piece, Mignon from Schumann’s Album for the Young, for example, is exquisite. The notes are simple enough to give satisfaction from one or two readings, yet you can finesse the piece by working on sound and rhythmic flexibility, and create a thing of genuine beauty.

Develop musicianly skills

The greater your knowledge of theory and harmony, the more you will understand how the music you play is put together, and the faster you will absorb new pieces. Without a basic grounding in theory, you may well find it takes you ages to learn a piece, leading to frustration and disappointment. Fortunately there are some excellent resources available to you. Have a look at some of the many online music theory courses that are available, or explore community colleges in your area. In London, check out the City Lit website, and also Morley College.

Sight-reading and quick studies

We get better at sight-reading when we continually do it, so sharpen up your reading skills by constantly reading through new pieces. Playing duets or ensemble music is another way to do this, plus it’s great fun.

Keep old pieces alive

Try to devote some practice time each week to maintain old pieces, and I don’t mean just playing them through. We use the same practice tools for maintenance practice as we used to learn the notes in the first instance, and many famous pianists describe how they relearn from scratch pieces they have not played for a while. Don’t expect to return to a piece you played a few months ago and sail through it – it’s going to need some work. 

Play for others

Nurture your piano playing by sharing it with others in a safe and supportive environment. There are many piano meet-up groups and piano clubs where you get the chance to play for like-minded people. It’s fine to be anxious – most people do get nervous, but after a while you will probably find you can control this and learn to enjoy performing. You will get lots of ideas for pieces you might want to play, and many groups have a social element, such as a trip down to the local pub afterwards.

Take lessons

Regular lessons with a teacher who is skilled at helping amateur pianists up their game is a very wise investment. Make sure you shop around until you find a teacher who can give you solid instruction in a kind, respectful and supportive way. If you feel you are receiving only negative criticism, leave that teacher and move on. 

Attend piano courses

There are many piano courses throughout the UK and beyond that cater to the amateur pianist, where you will find excellent tuition, camaraderie and (in some cases) creature comforts. If you would like to attend one of my own piano courses, you can find me at the Summer School for Pianists at Stowe, Jackdaws, Finchcocks, and Blonay in Switzerland.

Setting goals can be very helpful if you want more structure and focus in your practice. A graded exam or a diploma helps you bring together a programme of pieces and sometimes other skills (depending on the board you choose to go with), which offers a sense sense of achievement that can be helpful in your personal development. 

Consider working towards an exam or diploma

In the UK, you could consider entering some adult classes (often non-competitive) in a festival. You get the opportunity to play your chosen piece or programme on a good piano in front of a professional adjudicator and an audience, getting feedback on your playing. A search on the The British and International Federation of Festivals’ website will give you details of festivals in and around your area.

Do you run a piano-themed group or event?

We’re in the process of building an online directory of resources for amateur pianists, including a listing of opportunities to play for and listen to others. If you run or organise piano-themed groups or events then we’d love to include your group in our listing! Please click here to tell us a bit more about your group.

Are you looking for opportunities to share your playing?

Click here to sign-up to our mailing list and receive a free video on dealing with performance anxiety by Graham Fitch in addition to several other resources that will help you deliver performances that are fulfilling to both you and your listeners!