Month: August 2023

How to Practice as an Adult

You’d think that as a piano teacher, I’d be very disciplined when it comes to practicing the piano myself.

However, time is scarce and I find that most of my time at the piano is spent on my work as a teacher. I’m often playing through music to find suitable repertoire for students, or trying out teaching techniques to help students overcome specific difficulties. I’m at the piano, but I’m not working on repertoire or technical skills for myself. 

Oftentimes, I find that I have a strong desire to practice at the end of a teaching day, after my last student has left. There’s something about seeing others play that makes you want to do it yourself. It’s like when a tennis Grand Slam is on, and you suddenly feel that you have an irrepressible desire to hit a tennis ball around after watching it on TV.

Unfortunately, my last lesson of the day usually wraps up around 7:30pm and that’s not really an ideal time to sit down for a piano practice session. Dinner needs to be made, dishes have to be done and lesson notes have to be updated. Before you know it, it’s 10pm and way too late to be playing anything at all (particularly if you live in an apartment with thin walls!).

Therefore, even for a piano teacher, practice time needs to be scheduled in. I say it to my students and I have to follow my own advice in this regard. I’m a firm believer that if it’s not in the schedule, it’s not going to get done. Also, you need to know yourself when making your practice schedule. Blocking out Friday nights 6pm isn’t going to work if you know that on most Friday nights, you’d rather be kicking back with a glass of wine than working through your minor scales. Plan for a realistic time of the week when there is a maximum chance that you will actually do it.

This is the first step for successful practicing.

Block out appropriate times each week to be at the piano and put it in your diary. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour – whatever works for the level that you’re at.


Sticking to Blocked Time

Once practice time is blocked out in my calendar, I find that sticking to it only works if I don’t have other things to do that I feel are more urgent or more important. But doesn’t it always feels like there is something more urgent and more important to do?

My inner voice tells me, I should be working, I should be cleaning, I should be doing XYZ rather than working on my hobby. And yes – while piano teaching is my profession, one could argue that since I’m already at a solid level of proficiency, I don’t really need to “practice” all that much. There are some aspects I need to upkeep for my continued professional development, but a lot of that isn’t necessarily working on furthering personal skills at the piano. It’s more focused on teaching techniques and behaviour management. Therefore, the time that I’d assign for practicing is for my own leisure and enjoyment, similar to how someone might use that time to work on their golf swing or a new language that they’re learning.

The other thing with these types of hobbies as an adult is that they have components to them that aren’t always the most enjoyable, but you know you need to do them in order to get to a level where you can really have more fun. It’s not like watching TV, which you know will 100% get done if it’s scheduled in. 

Sticking to practice, whether it’s practicing a language, doing a sports drill, or working at the piano, requires willpower, and sometimes it’s not even other important urgent things that get in the way, but easier, “more fun” things that really distract you. 

I find that for sticking to practice time, it’s helpful to put a label on it. If you’re familiar with the Eisenhower Principle of prioritising tasks, you’ll know that it can help to bucket things into four quadrants, along the scales of Urgency and Importance. For example, if you have a presentation at work tomorrow which will affect your performance review, then rehearsing that presentation would fall into the urgent AND important quadrant, meaning it would be top priority to do today. If your sister’s 40th birthday is in six weeks’ time and you need to organise a surprise party, then sure, that’s important but hardly urgent for today. It can wait until after your presentation.

Practicing the piano is definitely important to me because it is something I want to continuously improve on and do more with. For most adult learners, it’s probably important for you too as you are investing not only time but also money in lessons to learn this skill.

Therefore, one of the keys to sticking to blocked practice time is to keep the importance of what you’re trying to achieve at the front of your mind at all times. Go ahead and label it – piano practicing is important.

Now that you’ve said it, don’t give yourself an out by doing things that are unimportant. Flex your willpower to not get distracted by unimportant, not urgent activities (like random internet surfing or social scrolling). It seems a small thing, to simply classify something as important, but conscious thoughts like these can make you think twice when you’re presented with the option of practicing vs skipping it for a day.

Eisenhower Principle Urgent Important Matrix


Urgency, not Boredom

Now that you’ve affirmed that practicing is important and you’ve made a good commitment to sticking to your practice schedule, it’s helpful to think through what you’ll actually do during your practice sessions.

For me, there are many different things that I want to work on and I feel pulled in different directions whenever I sit down to practice. If I don’t have a plan, then I’ll flit from one thing to the next, without any real sense of focus. The problem with doing whatever it is that you feel like doing on a given day is that it leads to very slow progress. Our brains and fingers need some degree of continuity and repetition to finesse a new skill, particularly for something like piano which is as physical an activity as it is cerebral. But doing the same thing everyday for weeks on end can also be very boring, even more so if you don’t have an end planned in sight.

It’s therefore important to set goals for your learning, and I would say that in general, more regular short-term goals work better than long-term ones.

Examples of this could be to:

  • Master Arabesque by the end of the quarter
  • Arrange your own version of Lean On Me by the end of the month

As these goals have defined deadlines that aren’t too far away on the horizon, your practice sessions become laser-focused as you know exactly what you need to achieve soon.

Repetition and boredom don’t become issues because you know that after this period of time, you’ll be working on something different. 

Going back to the Eisenhower matrix, setting these short-term goals shifts piano practicing from the top-right quadrant into the the important AND urgent box.

Of course, for internally set deadlines, there aren’t any real ramifications for missing them and the sense of urgency may not always truly be there. If you want to hold yourself accountable, I’d suggest adding an external element to your goals, such as:

  • Master Arabesque and perform it for a friend by the end of the quarter
  • Arrange your own version of Lean On Me and upload it to your social media


Set a Deadline

Set a date with your friend in advance for your performance or announce your upcoming upload to your socials. This makes the deadlines real and immovable. Then you can really hunker down in your practice sessions, knowing that you have a countdown ticking to achieving your goal.


A Real Example: The Last Episode of Succession

A real example of this in action for me is currently underway. I have been watching the TV show Succession and am so hooked, though I am a little bit behind and haven’t yet finished it even though the series itself has ended. 

This is one of the rare shows where I don’t fast forward the opening credits because I want to hear the opening theme music in its entirety. I find it so interesting to listen to, and it really helps to build the anticipation of each episode to come. I like it so much that I bought the piano sheet music for it recently to play. Now this piece isn’t inherently difficult to read and play as it has a repeating progression and motif, but it does require practice to become fluent because of how many octaves it spans and the tempo. There are quick transition jumps everywhere with accented spread chords, as well as some counter balance needed with melody vs accompaniment in some sections. 

I started playing it a little before the summer holidays, but then we went away and I’ve been slow getting back into it. Not too slow, however, with getting through the show itself. I find myself now at the penultimate episode of the final season, but without having made much progress towards fluency with the music. So my goal now is this: to master the piece and perform it for a visiting friend next weekend, before I am allowed to watch the final episode of the series. 

If you have seen this show, you will understand how important and urgent this goal is to attain.

You can be sure that my current practice blocks are laser focused and I am definitely not missing a single practice day. 

Posted by Piano with Po