Help for Parents and Adult Students          

Understanding How to Practice – Fundamental Principles


     We all learn best from frequent exposure to information.  The length of time spent per day is not as important as how often.  Daily practice of each item assigned is essential in order for lessons to be easily learned.

     Instead of minutes spent, it is far more appealing to a child to think in terms of numbered repetitions.  20 minutes might seem like forever to a young student, but if they need to “play measures 3 and 4 with the right hand 8 times”, it’s more like a game to them – rather than “doing time”!

DIVIDE AND CONQUER    –  Work in Sections


     Since training our body (torso, arms and hands in this case) requires repetition, we want to make sure that what we are repeating is right! Once you start repeating, the body learns what it’s been shown – right or wrong.  A student will often play the whole piece fast with mistakes, and they’ll feel like they’re progressing fast.  However, the true fast way is taking time to prepare to learn first, and then divide the piece into sections. Hence, divide and conquer.

Tapping and counting to establish rhythm and coordination between hands

     Right hand on the right knee, tapping the rhythm of the upper right hand part. Left hand on the left knee, tapping and counting the lower left hand part.  No notes, just rhythms.                                                                          

Establishing hand position

     The idea here is to place the hands in the best position for playing the notes on the section being worked on.  What fingers feel best on which notes?  Where is the hand coming from, and where is it going?

Noting the key signature

     Are there any black keys involved?  Adjust the fingers to adapt.                    

Dynamics and Articulations

     Is this part of the piece  f  “forte” (loud) or  p “piano” (soft)?  Are the notes staccato (sharp, brief attack) or legato (smooth and connected)? All of aspects of a section of music must be thoroughly researched by the student before any repetition should occur.


     Robot?! What?! Musicians call this “muscle memory”, but children more easily understand that “the robot” is the part that runs their legs for them while they play with their friends. To adults, the “robot” is the part of us that makes habits, and we all know we are much happier we are when we properly train our bodies with good habits. Properly training “the robot” requires some real focus.

The focused repetition of the previously prepared sections

Repeating sections

     A student repeats the section while concentrating on rhythm, notes, fingering, key signature, dynamics, and articulations.  Whew! This is a lot to think about at once.  Hence, the value of working on small sections S-L-O-W-L-Y.

     As they repeat their section of music, they will lose the power of concentration. This is quite natural. A number of things may happen:

     1.     They may begin “daydreaming” and find that the “hands” are repeating something “on their own”.   Once achieved, this can often “fall apart”.  The section will seem “foreign” again.  The student may become frustrated that they have to start over.  This is also natural.  The whole process may have to begin again until it really sinks in.

     2.     The student may, however, begin practicing incorrect notes, fingering, rhythm, dynamics, or articulations – without being aware of this.  This is to be avoided at all costs because it takes much more energy to unlearn and relearn, than it does to be careful in the training of the “robot”.  If the music is learned with errors and then re-learned correctly, the student will now have more than one “default” memory.  Under stress (performing), the robot will often choose the memory that has been made first over any others.  Everyone knows the power of a first impression. There’s an old saying – “Make sure to at least polish the front of your shoes, so you make a good impression when you walk into a room.”  This implies that the back of your shoes won’t matter much after people have made their first impression of you. This also is the reason habits are much more easily made than broken.  It is a tremendous life lesson for your children.

     3.     “Don’ts” – We don’t want to be negative or anything, but these are things you want to report back to your teachers about:

  •                Don’t practice with different fingering each time.
  •                Don’t learn without attention to dynamics and articulatons.
  •                Don’t repeat too rapidly – you may miss details.
  •                Don’t work on too large of a section.
  •                Don’t practice different pieces each day.
  •                Don’t miss a day of practice (min. 5 days a week)
CONNECTING what has been freshly learned to what a student already knows. 
  • Once a section has been learned, the student can try to play the whole line of music before “today’s section” right through what they’ve just learned.  If it goes smoothly, that’s great!   If not, the student must realize that this is to be expected.  No need to get mad……….. or sad.  It’s part of the process.     
  • However, if there is a hesitation that occurs, or if the new section has now become once again unfamiliar,  a student may need to take extra steps.  After reviewing the new section of music, they must play the last beat or two of yesterday’s section into the first part of “today’s” section. This is new territory and must be treated as such.  Otherwise, a student will always hesitate or “stutter” between these sections. This is better shown than spoken of.
  • The next step would be to play the measure before “today’s” section into “today’s” section.  This should be repeated too.  Then one can try to play the whole line before or even the whole piece of music up to that point.

 A beginning student may not know why, but they can point to the part of the music they “don’t like”.  If you, as a parent, notice frustration occurring in your child – you may ask them to point to their least favorite spot in the music.  After they locate it, you can gently point them in the direction of taking “smaller bites” – playing smaller sections slower – or at least report the details back to the teacher. Often that is best because after all, you are not the teacher and if you’re not entirely sure how to help, it’s best to hold off. This also works better before things get too emotional (or after!).

Intermediate to advanced

If you play piano yourself, this will help.  If not, better to just report frustration (and in what part of what song) to the teacher. More advanced students can diagnose the issues – focusing on:

  •                        pedaling
  •                        arm movement
  •                        hand shape changes
  •                        rhythm and right/left coordination
  •                        various dynamics and articulations

An advanced student may then design and execute a plan to master the particular issue at hand ( or address it to the teacher ): They must be aware that this is a THOUGHTFUL process.  When they attempt to conquer an issue they must:

  •                      Play the area concerned.
  •                      Evaluate what happened. (FEEDBACK)
  •                      Consider what they will do differently next time. (RECALIBRATION)
  •                      Be willing to repeat the new information. (TRAINING THE ROBOT)       

                                 In short:  DO, OBSERVE, and CORRECT.

It is usually appropriate to start with hands separate at first, but when they are played together it is crucial that a student is willing to:

  •           SLOW DOWN
  •           Work on a SMALLER SECTION (less measures/beats)

(A good way to think of this is in terms of how one would take a bite out of a sandwich.  If the sandwich is made of two slices of wonder bread with a piece of cheese, you can probably eat the sandwich in a few bites.  But if the sandwich is made of many meats, cheeses, lettuce, tomato, etc. with thick multigrain bread, you will have to take smaller bites and chew more slowly.  It really is the same principle.)

Then, the student should connect the new section to the previously learned material by playing from the last beat of the previous section, then one measure before, the whole phrase, and then finally from the beginning. If these sections have been repeated with correct fingering, dynamics, articulations etc. the student now can experience the joy of orchestrating how the whole piece flows with it’s slopes and valleys – the BIG PICTURE!  They can now EXPRESS THEMSELVES!


Coldly, logically – welcome the feedback that the body communicates.  Isolate the difficulties down to their smallest components.  Learn to locate and “massage” the area that needs the most care.  Make the least favorite measure the most friendly.


Mistakes are used to learn, but are not repeated. After the “robot” has been trained to be automated with the right information, a performer can emotionally communicate without extraneous thoughts getting in the way!



Here are some suggestions to help you implement the routines that will make music enriching – in the long run:

  •      TIME – Set the same time every day to practice so it becomes part of a routine or habit.  This works particularly well for children.  Generally, the earlier in the day the practicing can occur, the less reminding is required by parents to get children to practice.
  •      REPETITION – We use this method quite often when setting practice schedules for beginners.  For a young child  20 or 30 minutes can seem like an eternity.  Instead of setting a time frame, we use repetition.  For example, “Practice this piece 4 times every day and this scale 5 times a day”.  The child then does not pay attention to the amount of time they are practicing their instrument.   Rather,  they know  that if they are on repetition number 3 they are almost finished.
  •      REWARDS – This works very well for both children and adult students.  Some adults reward themselves with a cappuccino after a successful week of practicing.  Parents can encourage children to practice by granting them occasional rewards for successful practicing.  In our school we reward young children for a successful week of practice by placing stars next to their name on a student roster up on the wall for all to see.  Praise tends to be the most coveted award.  There just is nothing like a pat on the back for a job well done.  Sometimes we all have a week with little practicing.  In that case there is always next week.



Your children’s teachers give assignments to them and show them what to do at home. But it is very helpful for you to be aware of what should be happening at home.  You can provide helpful information to the teacher, so they can adjust the curriculum to fit to your child’s particular style of learning. I can honestly say that I’ve not taught any two students who are exactly alike.  

Here is a brief outline of what should occur when your children practice at home during the week:


Daily Practice Format


Theory and workbooks.  Questions for the teacher are written down in the assignment book.

First – Technique warmups
Scales, chords, arpeggios, hanon, technique books

Next – Repertoire
  • You should hear just a few measures carefully learned and repeated.
  • Then the whole song up should be played up through the point learned. 
  • If the core work is done, some improvising or “fooling around” is quite valuable. This is where the student explores communicating in their own way with their new found language.  It is a wonderful integration. However, this – in no way – is a substitute for the core work.
We hope that this information is helpful to you and your children as they acquire this expressive language. This will reward them for the rest of their lives. Thank you for taking the time to look over this information. It is a pleasure sharing these solutions with you!  They helped me immensely, as they continue to help new students.
Rick Cinquemani