Zen In The Art Of Plate Spinning

I am sure we have all seen that circus act where the showman puts a few plates on some poles, sets them spinning and then adds more plates to more poles. He keeps on doing this until there is a bewildering array. He needs to keep returning to the original plates before they run out of spin, and the excitement of the act is wondering how he can possibly keep all this going with no breakages with just one pair of hands.

Preparing a programme for recital or examination poses similar logistical problems.

How do we ensure that all components of our programme peak together on the day, and how do we plan our day-to-day practising so we give enough attention to everything and neglect nothing?

This takes some planning, as well as some know-how.


I’m a great believer in making lists, or rotas, but flexible ones that take into account the realities of life and also that leave room for spontaneity. Rigid schedules are impractical and demotivating, since they are impossible to stick to.

However you plan your work, you will absolutely need to get into a routine. A regular routine helps us to frame our work so that the act of practising becomes a habit. Sure, this takes discipline, but nothing worth achieving is possible without steely determination and self-discipline. Therefore, it is extremely helpful to set aside a regular time during the day for practice. This gives us direction and impetus.

Since no two people are the same, it is impossible to come up with an exact formula for the length of time needed, or the best format to organise our work. Some people work best in the morning, others later in the day. It can also be effective to break up the practice into two or more sessions, and certainly little and often is better than doing it in one chunk if concentration is likely to wander or tiredness set in.

Read my recent post The 20-Minute Practice Session

Dividing into Sections

Unless the piece is short, or familiar, you’re not likely to get through every section of the piece in any given practice session. Therefore, divide it up into manageable, logical sections for the purposes of practising.

Take your score and mark in the different sections and come up with a weekly practice plan. Be creative here: perhaps in week 1, your time with section B will be devoted to memory work whereas section C you are aiming to increase speed, etc.


For more on structuring your practice session, follow this link to my blog (click here)


A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you take a chain and pull hard enough on it, it will snap at the point of least resistance. If there are weak links in your programme, you risk an accident or even a total breakdown on the day. Make a list of these problem areas and put them in quarantine for a few days.

Quarantine should be a designated activity in your practice diary that you return to many times during the course of a practice session. Think of this as an intensive care unit in the hospital for patients who need constant supervision for a while until they are strong enough to make it by themselves. You can attend to each of these excerpts not only before you practise the piece in question but also in between pieces and other activities in your diary.

The quarantine list will change regularly as patients recover and can be discharged. You may be sure, however, that the ambulance will arrive soon enough with fresh ones.

For more on using quarantining in your work, follow this link to Part 1 of my eBook Series (click here)

The Element of Surprise – Start Anywhere

Imagine you’re on a family holiday and there are squabbles about what to do on a given day. I’ve heard it said that a good way to settle such an argument is to close your eyes and stick a pin at random in the tourist map. The destination closest to the pin wins!

Here’s a good idea for practising – using this random number generator, take one of your pieces and enter 1 in the first box and the last bar number in the second. Press start, and be able to 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.

If you have divided your piece into several sections like tracks on a CD, you could, of course, use this number generator for that purpose too.


It is extremely helpful to set a series of deadlines for your learning of a piece. You might want to keep a chart in the front of the score so you can chart your progress, and keep a record of your play-throughs and performances.

I recommend deciding exactly when you are going to play the first run-through for yourself in your own practice room and writing this date down as a commitment in your diary. Stick to it! We can always find excuses, which may feel like genuine reasons, why we need a couple of extra days of practice, but we need to commit to this and carry it out.

It is going to feel uncomfortable the first time we play through a piece, and all sorts of mistakes are likely to occur – mistakes that we think we have corrected, or fingerings we hoped were now familiar. Don’t worry, this is all part of the process.

If you want to enhance the experience, consider whether you want to record yourself. This can be uncomfortable though, as you are looking at yourself in the mirror. After the first run-through, take a few moments to assess your results and write down on paper the areas that need attention. You’ll now have something tangible to focus on in your practice sessions. Set a date for the second run-through and follow the same procedure.

After you have played several deliberate run-throughs for yourself, the next stage is to do this in front of other people. It could be your teacher (this will probably happen in the course of your lessons anyway), or friends and family, or your peers. It is up to you to decide if you want any feedback or not from them – if you don’t, make this clear beforehand so you set some boundaries.

Be aware that playing for others can make you nervous or apprehensive, and factor this in when you are writing your assessment.


Maintenance – Pruning and Weeding

On a recent visit to Kew Gardens, I was struck not only by the perfection of the impeccably manicured lawns, flower beds full of beautiful blooms and greenhouses crammed with the most exotic flora but also by the constant stream of gardeners at work.

A gardener’s job is presumably never done, and I think it is very dangerous for us to think we reach a stage with a piece when we sign it off as done and dusted. Pruning and weeding is where you decide to visit a piece that is learned, that feels comfortable and has undergone several successful play-throughs.

You don’t have to play the whole thing through.

  • Go through the piece under tempo, either in one fell swoop or in sections
  • Play the LH alone
  • Take a section and go through it at half speed, or a quarter speed
  • Take a passage and reinforce the memory
  • Do some technical work here and there where necessary to keep it in tip-top condition
  • Etc…

…or, if you would prefer to spin plates, here’s how.

This post was originally published on November 23, 2012. I have decided to republish it since I have had several questions about this topic. I hope it helps you!