Piano Practice Tips: When you hit a difficult patch in your piano practice, what is the best way to approach it while keeping yourself motivated?

Piano Practice Makes Perfect — Or Does It?

As the old adage says, “Practice Makes Perfect” — but if perfection seems unattainable, what then?

When you hit a difficult patch, what is the best way to approach it and, in so doing, what is the best way to keep yourself motivated in your piano practice?

Every so often, students ask me this very question. Take this recent email in which Keith Scholes from York in the United Kingdom asks…

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I have been progressing well with Musiah but am having some problems with the Hot Cross Buns segment, in particular the audition, playing with two hands has always been a bugbear of mine. This has led me to wonder about the best method of progressing with the lessons when you hit a difficult patch. It seems to me there are a number of ways to approach the problem.

Approach 1: Keep repeating the audition until one is as near perfect as possible. This may take hours and repeating the piece over and over again can eventually become frustrating and lead to a negative mind-set.

There is the added complication of whether having “mastered” to some extent the piece at medium tempo does one then try to do the same at fast tempo which can feel almost like starting again, particularly when coping with reading the notes, hitting the right keys and playing with both hands simultaneously.

Approach 2: Get to a reasonable standard at the audition (3 or 4 stars at medium tempo) then move on to the next lesson. Then in subsequent sessions come back to the audition and try to improve the previous audition piece aiming for perfection at both medium and fast tempo.

This has the advantage that you can still feel that you are moving forward with the course as a whole without becoming stuck on one piece. Additionally I have often found that a break from doing something gives the brain time to adapt and when you come back to the task you do so at a higher level.

Having tried this strategy it does have some downsides, first of all when you initially come back you have gone ‘off the boil’ and you get lower scores than you did previously. I think this could be helped by starting with a practice by yourself session as is available when you first start the audition.

A further problem might be as you progress through the lessons you end up with a substantial backlog of auditions to improve upon.

Approach 3: Achieve a reasonable standard at the audition as in the previous section but rather than repeating the auditions just keep moving on through the course. This is in the expectation that subsequent lessons will consolidate the skills learned in previous lessons.

Note that I am not suggesting moving through the lessons as fast as one possibly can but going at a steady pace without too much back tracking.

Any advice would be much appreciated. The above question might be something that you could consider in one of your future blogs.

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Thanks for your email, Keith. This is a very good question.

While the first approach (sticking at each piece until it has been perfected) may suit a small percentage of students, I agree that for most students this approach does, as you say, have the potential to “become frustrating and lead to a negative mind-set.”

Re the second approach (getting to a reasonable standard (say 3 or 4 stars), then moving on to the next lesson) I think this approach can work well.

Personally, if I’m finding something frustrating, I usually practice something else for a while, and then revisit the problem piece

a) a few minutes later

b) at the end of my practice session or

c) the next day / practice day for a few minutes at the start of my practice session.

Just try to avoid leaving taking a break from it for several days or even weeks before coming back to it as this will lead to going “off the boil” ☺

Re approach 3 (achieving a reasonable standard (as in approach 2) but rather than repeating auditions just keep moving on through the course)… this approach also has some merit and, just to confirm, subsequent lessons will consolidate the skills learned in previous lessons.

In summary, to answer your question re how best to approach a difficult patch… I think it’s essentially a question of finding the right balance (that works for you) between the 2nd and 3rd of your suggested approaches.

In any given audition, depending on a) how you are finding the piece, b) your motivation levels / general feeling at the time and c) a host of other variables, my suggestion is to give each audition your best shot, by which I mean, try for a shortish period of time to get the best outcome you can (whether on medium or full tempo is not so important).

Then, when you feel it is the right time to move on (which, for most students is when you start to feel you are stagnating or no longer continuing to improve), I encourage you to move on to the next lesson. The idea of the 5 stars for each song is not that they necessarily have to all be earned before you move on, but rather, if there are some pieces for which they have not all been earned, to encourage you to revisit those pieces when you feel the time is right.

Gradually, with the balance in your approach (the balance that works best for you), perfection will begin to emerge.

I hope, dear reader, that the above thoughts may be of some help to you in your own piano practice.

Of course, if you have not yet begun your piano lessons journey, Musiah’s online piano lessons are a very good place to start. Simply take our Free Online Piano Lessons 14 Day Trial — available for a strictly limited time.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to comment at the bottom of this page.

Til next time,

Brendan Hogan

Piano Teacher & Musiah Inventor

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