First published in April, 2015 The 20-Minute Practice Session remains one of my most popular blog posts. Here it is again, slightly modified and updated – the first of this short summer series of reposts from past years. I hope you find it helpful!
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If we want to develop as a pianist, there’s no escaping regular, routine practice. Passion for the music and for the piano are essential ingredients – if we are not fully engrossed in what we are doing, we are not going to want to put in the necessary hours and we won’t learn.
In this post, I aim to show you how to structure your precious practice time to get the best results.
If your practice is feeling overwhelming or aimless, then the 20-minute approach is really going to help you!
Our attention span is the amount of time we can stay fully focussed on a particular activity without becoming distracted.
Time is a precious resource, so it is in our best interests to use our time to our best advantage – aiming for maximum efficiency.
It always worries me when a student claims to practise 8 hours a day. Unless they have accepted a last-minute engagement requiring frantic practice tactics, spending this long is neither wise nor necessary. A sponge can only hold so much water; if we pour more on an already saturated sponge it is going to trickle off and get wasted.
Perhaps constant texting and checking your Facebook status have completely eroded your attention span? You can use this test to find out how long your focus is.
If you want to significantly increase your attention span, I can recommend meditation as a very effective solution. There are many different styles of meditation and in case you’re concerned, meditation doesn’t need to have any religious associations at all.
It seems that nowadays there are way too many external distractions – with email, phone, texts, Facebook, and so on.
Stopping to answer a text during your practice session interrupts your flow, and it can be hard to resume work. When we are distracted, our attention wanders from our chosen object of attention (such as nailing those octaves in your Chopin Ballade) to the source of distraction – that darned phone! Distractions come from inside us too – perhaps we are bored, frustrated, tired or hungry?
Our mind is always busy, jumping from one thought to the next. This is going to happen during your practice time too, so don’t worry about it – it’s normal. The trick is to notice the distracting thoughts but to make a decision not to dwell on them or to act on them (if one such thought happens to be “I just remembered there’s some ice cream in the fridge, and I wouldn’t mind some now” then simply don’t go to the fridge).
If we gave into every impulse, we wouldn’t be able to function so that phone call can wait. Let the thoughts come up and then dismiss them as you hone your concentration on your practising.
Practise in Bite-Size Chunks
I have found that practice time is often wasted because players don’t know how to structure their practice, or because they do not really know what they should be doing. If you have a mountain of work to do, the best way to handle it is to break it down into manageable bite-sized chunks.
Psychologists tell us that 20 minutes is a rough guide for the average attention span before tiredness, boredom or distraction sets in. Obviously this will vary from individual to individual, but the idea is to focus on one designated activity for 20 minutes.
When we practise in timed blocks, we allow absolutely nothing to stop us except a fire alarm. Switch your phone to silent, or better yet don’t bring it anywhere near your practice room. Put a “do not disturb” sign on the door and let your friends and family know you mean business.
Task-Specific Practice Blocks
Have you noticed how, when you’re supposed to be practising your Haydn Sonata, you end up doodling or improvising? Fun perhaps, but not at all productive.
It is always best to plan ahead not only what you are going to practise, but also precisely how. The alternative is to meander to the piano and see where inspiration takes you – this is not a recipe for success as you’ll probably end up playing things you can already manage rather than knuckling down to something requiring brain power (such as brainstorming error fixes, or learning new notes). If you love improvising, save a designated 20-minute practice block at the end of your other work for this purpose – as a reward!
If you keep a practice diary or a practice log, then write in what you intend to do in your practice block in one column and what you ended up doing in another column (with the best of intentions these might not match).
Here are some ideas for a task-specific practice block:
- Interleave the second subjects (the version in the dominant and the version in the tonic) from your sonata with the coda.
- Go through your designated quarantined spots.
For more on interleaving and quarantine practice, follow this link to my blog (click here)
- Slow practice, deliberately bringing out the bass line (singing the line, or solfege-ing it) then bringing out the middle parts, etc.
- Choose a small section of your piece, and play your LH from memory at a quarter speed, no pedal, three times in a row.
For more on using half and quarter speeds in your practice, follow this link to Part 1 of my ebook (click here)
- Practise the scherzo using “little bits fast”.
For more on the practice tool “little bits fast”, follow this link to Part 1 of my ebook (click here)
- Play the last section of your fugue in combinations of two voices.
For more on practising contrapuntal pieces, follow this link to my blog (click here)
Don’t worry if you didn’t quite finish what you had planned in the previous practice block. If this means carrying on for another few minutes, then of course do that. If you need much more time, you can simply refocus on the same activity in the next practice block. If you think it is only going to take you another 10 minutes, then schedule something else for the remaining ten minutes, or simply decide you’re going to have a 10 minute block.
Set a Timer
If you set a timer, you will not need to worry about timekeeping and you can fully immerse yourself on the job at hand. There’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned egg timer, but use something that makes a noise when time is up.
All phones have a timer, but here is a useful online timer.
Stretching and Rewards
After your time is up, move away from the piano and do something different for a short while. Have some water, some tea or whatever you need for sustenance. If you need a reward, perhaps now is the time for that ice cream…
If you are planning several 20-minute practice blocks, it is a really smart idea to do some stretching in between each one. I like to use the stretches suggested by BAPAM (British Association for Performing Arts Medicine). Follow this link to BAPAM’s website and click on Don’t cramp your style – warm-up exercises for musicians.
Shorter Practice Blocks
Sometime we get obsessive in our practising – we overdo repetitions when actually doing it perfectly just once or twice may be enough. Shorter practice blocks can be seriously productive if you have something very specific you want to go over.
Let’s say you’ve been struggling with your memory in a short phrase from the middle of a piece and you’ve decided to transpose the phrase from memory into two or three different keys. Using a series of 5-minute practice blocks for this stops you from getting bogged down in the process and allows you to approach it from fresh each time.
You may be learning new notes and rather than let the pot cool down at the end of your official scheduled practice time, go back over spots later in the day in short blocks.
Be fun and creative with how you organise this. Think of these short blocks as sorbets between courses. Either interleave short 5-minute blocks with longer 20-minute ones or take advantage of dead time during your day.
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