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Are you wasting time practising?

Easy arrangements of Christmas carols for piano and other instruments or voices. Each arrangement includes lead-sheet with chords, easy piano part and optional easy harmony parts and bass parts - full lyrics and historical notes too

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Are you wasting time practising?

Practising or practicing?
Why practise?
When should I practise?
Where should I practise?
How long should I practise?
How should I practise?
Slowly, slowly and even more slowly!
What should I practise?
If things go wrong
And finally...

Practising or practicing?

Before we get involved in the subject, let’s sort out a spelling issue. In many parts of the English speaking world including the UK, Australia, Canada, and South Africa the word “practice” is used as the noun while the word “practise” is used as the verb. However, in the U.S.A the spelling “practice” is nearly always used for both the noun and the verb, although some Americans like to make the distinction. In this article, we observe the British convention, i.e. when the word acts as a verb we use “s” and when it’s used as a noun, we use “c”. Here are a couple of examples to (hopefully!) make it clear:

  • It’s time to do my practising. (verb)
  • I like to practise in the morning. (verb)
  • Practice time is ten o’clock. (noun)
  • Have you got a practice book yet? (noun)

If you are still bewildered, it is easier if you remember that the word follows exactly the same rule as “advice” (noun) and “advise” (verb). So for example,

  • He’s always giving people advice. (noun)
  • You can get advice over there. (noun)
  • Can you advise me what to do? (verb)
  • They are advising people to stay at home today. (verb)

Another common pair of words that follows the same pattern are “device” and “devise”. For example:

  • This is an interesting device. (noun)
  • We need to devise a new way of dealing with this. (verb)

I hope that makes everything clear before I start giving you advice about practising! Oh, and by the way, this article is essentially about practising a musical instrument. If you are a singer, quite a lot of what follows will apply to you too.

So, let’s start with the obvious question: why practise?

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Why practise?

  • Everyone has to practise!
  • Playing an instrument uses muscles that are sometimes not often used
  • Practising needs concentration.

We practise an instrument so that we can make music on the instrument, not merely play notes on it. Playing an instrument is about expressing musical ideas and while practising shares some processes that are similar to athletics training, it requires much higher levels of coordination and mental activity. Without wishing to be rude to athletes, playing an instrument requires far higher skills than jumping over a fence. These skills rarely come naturally. Everyone who wants to become reasonably good at playing an instrument has to practise. There are no exceptions! Think about these points, for example:

  • When you learn to play an instrument, you have to develop a range of skills that are probably new to you. Even holding an instrument can involve muscles that you rarely use in everyday life.
  • Playing an instrument often uses muscles or parts of the body that are not normally used very often in everyday life, e.g. fourth and fifth fingers
  • If you are playing a wind instrument, you need to control your breathing – something most people have to learn. There also has to be a high level of coordination between breathing and other parts of the body.
  • Your brain controls how you breathe, how you move your arms hands and fingers, and all the other necessary physical actions necessary to play an instrument. Practising helps develop the neural links between the brain and the rest of your body.

These few points should show that practising isn’t a passive activity that you can do while gazing out of the window or thinking about something else. It requires fairly intense concentration if it’s going to be of any help to you. But let's not forget that playing an instrument has also a great deal to do with personal enjoyment, fulfillment and a sense of achievement.

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When should I practise?

  • Try to spend some time with your instrument every day
  • Several short practising sessions are often better than a single long one
  • Practise when you have plenty of energy

Let’s be blunt about this. You really need to spend some time on your instrument every day. I know this is not always possible, but this should be the target. Some teachers recommend practising at the same time every day but that is not always practical. Let’s suppose you are at school or working during the day. Apart from weekends or holidays, that really leaves only the evenings as suitable for practising (unless you get up at a very early hour). Sometimes, there just doesn’t seem time to practise. For most people, practising has to fit in to other daily activities, such as school or work, eating, relaxing and doing homework or other activities that fill up our daily lives.

Of course, you have to be in the right mood for practising. Some students find practising a chore, but I suspect this might be because they haven’t organized themselves properly. But more of this a bit later. Here’s the good news, only if you manage a very small amount of practising each day, it is far better than none at all. I think the vast majority of teachers would agree that ten minutes a day is far more productive than two hours of frantic activity on a Sunday afternoon.

Find the time your brain works best

The other issue to consider is the time of day that you function best. Everyone has their different peak times for optimum brain functioning. For example, I can work best early morning and seem to get slower as the afternoon progresses. So I tend to do my important work that needs brain-power in the morning. I try to keep late afternoons free of challenging work because for me, it is a hopeless time to try anything. You might be exactly the opposite and you might find that you are on top form after the evening meal.

It is important to find the times when you think you have the best brain-power. If possible, try to do one practising session then, when you are alert. Practising immediately after school, or after work - especially after a busy day, may be unproductive, because both brain and body are tired. If you are feeling tired and exhausted don’t bother to practise. You may not achieve very much.

On the other hand, some people find that when they come home from school or work feeling jaded, a practising session is exactly what they need to come alive again. The tiredness transforms into intense concentration. The important thing is to find what works best for you.

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Where should I practise?

  • Try to find a quiet place to practise
  • If you can, leave your instrument ready to play

If you live with other people your practising sessions will often have to fit in with their lives too. If you are a pianist and the piano is in a family room or shares the same room as the TV, you may have problems getting the room to yourself! So first, you need to try and find a time when you can practise with as few interruptions as possible. One of the constant complaints from students is that they cannot practise without interruptions of one sort or another. If you are lucky, perhaps there is a period when most people are out of the house.

If you are very lucky, there might be a space somewhere in the house that can be reserved for practising. It doesn’t matter much where it is except that it needs to be comfortable, somewhere you feel “at home” in and somewhere you can work without constant interruption. You need a space where you can “focus” on the music and move freely. If it has a tall mirror, so that you can check your playing position, that’s better still. Of course, if you share your house with small children (or inquisitive dogs) this may not be possible.

Musical instruments make a sound and others around you may not appreciate the sounds of your practising. If you are surrounded by family most of the day, you might find that you can get around this problem by practising somewhere else. For example, you might have a neighbour who would let you use a room each day, or you might be able to do some practising at school.

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How long should I practise?

  • Aim for at least 30 minutes each day
  • “Quality” is sometimes more important than “quantity”
  • Aim for several short practising sessions rather than one long one
  • 20-minute sessions are often ideal for most students

This is perhaps the most common question asked by music students. I think we should be looking at a minimum of 30 minutes every day. However, there are several other important things involved here.

Teachers often talk about the “quality” of practising rather than the “quantity”. They are right. Most students do not have unlimited time for practising: there are just too many other things to do during the day. So practising has to be efficient. In other words, you have to achieve as much as possible in your practising time. The important thing is that to practise efficiently, a lot of brain power is needed. You have to concentrate. When you concentrate, the brain uses up more energy than usual. This is why most people can concentrate for only fairly short periods of time. You have probably discovered this already if you have been trying to solve a difficult problem and felt the need to “take a break”.

All the research has shown that two or three short practising sessions are far better than a single long session. For example, you can achieve much more progress having three 20-minute sessions during the day than a single one-hour session. This is because for most people, the brain can concentrate for about 20 minutes and then begins to run out of steam. So 20 minutes – for most students – seems to be the magic figure.

If you are a beginner you might find that even after 10 minutes you begin to lose concentration and your mind starts wandering. Try to work your way up to 20 minutes over a period of several weeks. Even so, when you find your mind wandering, take a break. If your practising time is limited to the evenings, it’s better if you can to have two short sessions. Perhaps at the weekend you can manage three – morning, afternoon and evening. Remember, we are talking only about 20 minutes a session.

Advanced musicians can work at a high concentration for longer periods than this (think of performing a 45-minute concerto!) but they often break up their practising sessions by taking breaks and by moving from one task to another.

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How should I practise?

  • Make a written list of practising targets
  • Be sure your targets are achievable!
  • Divide your practising time into different segments
  • Make sure you have some variety in your practising

Let’s say that after your music lesson you have been given various things to practise and you have another lesson in one week’s time. The first thing to do – even before you take the instrument out of its case - it to look at your music and set yourself clear tasks for the coming week.

Decide exactly what you have to work on and make a written list on a piece of paper. These are what we could call your “objectives” or “targets”, in other words, what you want to achieve to the best of your ability in seven days’ time, ready for the next lesson. You’ll need to refer to this list at the start of every practising session.

You then need to divide up your practice time into segments. It is a fairly safe guess that some things that need practising will be easier than others. So you allow less time for these and more time for the more challenging tasks. You could probably “spice up” your practising sessions by doing say, five minutes on one thing, five minutes on another and ten minutes on the items that needs the most work. “Variety,” to quote another old proverb, “is the spice of life”.

I have seen some students who think they are practising but are actually just wasting valuable time. Casually playing through an entire piece is not really practising: it is merely pleasant recreation. By all means, play the piece from beginning to end sometimes because that's what you are going to have to do eventually! But play mindfully: think what you are doing and listen carefully to what you are playing.

So, let’s get to the basics. What is practising? In essence, practising is an activity that enables you to do something that you could not do before.

Oh yes, be careful not to set yourself targets that are just too difficult. Although you should set targets that you know you can achieve, unless you have experience on an instrument, you probably have little idea of what you can achieve with practice. It is possible that your instrumental teacher will have set the targets anyway. The important thing is not to attempt the impossible. At the same time, don't restrict yourself. Youll never know if you can jump that fence until you try!

Some teachers provide practice books so that students have a written record of their tasks. These can be an excellent resource. To see a sample page from a commercial practice book, click here. You could of course make your own practice sheets and thus adapt them to your own needs.

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Slowly, slowly and even more slowly!

Remember, when you practise an instrument, you are not teaching your fingers, you are teaching your brain to control your fingers. The key to practising success is this. PLAY IT SLOWLY. This means even slower than you think. You have to play it slowly many times so that the neural link between your brain and your fingers becomes stronger. Don’t try to rush the process. If you cannot play a passage slowly, you cannot play it quickly. This applies especially to fast music.

Unless you are already a competent musician, you probably won't achieve very much by being the bull in the china shop and charging at full speed into a difficult passage somehow hoping it will come out right. Some students think that practising quickly will somehow make them better players. Sorry, but this isn't true. If you can play accurately and musically at a really slow tempo, you should be able to consciously and gradually increase the tempo to the correct tempo. Do it bit-by-bit. If you have a metronome you can gradually increase the tempo to what it should be, by setting the metronome at high values. If you don't have a metronome, please seriously consider buying one. The electronic ones are usually the cheapest - they produce an audible click for each beat. The old-fashioned metronomes with the swinging vertical bar are probably better for practising, because you can then watch the beat as well as hear it.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not especially easy to play something really slowly, in rhythm and in tune. The purpose of slow playing is to train your muscles and learn to "get inside" the music and absorb it mentally. But remember - you don't become a sprinter by taking a slow walk each day! For some people, faster speeds do indeed come naturally, but for many students speed of playing needs muscular development which needs conscious and early attention. If you can play the passage at speed first time, good for you. But if you stumble and play wrong notes, then you certainly have to slow down to get it right. The important thing is that we want the music to be 100% correct, not 80% or even 95%.

A change is as good as a rest. Don’t forget this old proverb. If you find that your mind is getting tired, (and it will!) switch to another item to practise, play a scale or two or just try making something up on your instrument. Remember, practising has to be efficient because (normally) you haven’t got all day.

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What should I practise?

  • Scales are important!
  • Some students like to begin with a warming-up session
  • If time is short, don't waste it by playing passages that you can already play.
  • If you have enough time, by all means reward yourself by playing something you enjoy.

If you have an instrumental teacher, the chances are that the teacher will give you specific things to work on between lessons. However, many teachers agree that most practice sessions should include scales, because so much classical music uses scale patterns and if your scales are secure, you’ll find a great deal of music much easier.

Scales can be used for several things. You can use them to develop technical dexterity and speed. You can use them to develop tone quality and good intonation by playing them slowly. String players can use them to develop good vibrato and bow control and wind players can use them to develop good intonation, tone and breath-control. Treat scales like pieces of music and try to make them interesting to play.

For some people, scales can be a good way of warming-up at the start of your practising session. This is an important activity in the same way that athletes “warm-up” before any strenuous activity. Play your scales slowly at first, always listening to the sound and checking tone quality and intonation. Try different phrasing, or try playing a rhythmic pattern on each note. Scales can be boring to practise, so try to devise ways that make them a bit more fun. Some people suggest that playing scales can be a good form of stress relief.

On the other hand, some teachers don't recommend warming up with scales unless the student can already play them successfully. If you tend to stumble through scales, practise them separately and find something easier for warming-up. Your teacher may make suggestions about how to start you practising, but in the end you have to decide what you are comfortable with.

Remember, we haven’t got all day, so please don’t waste all your practice time playing things that you can play well already. Work on the difficult sections or those sections where you are playing less than 100% accurately. You don’t need to start at the beginning of your piece either. Start immediately at the difficult sections each time so that they become familiar to you.

But having said all that, let's not forget that playing an instrument is basically about personal enjoyment and fulfillment. From time to time, play music that you have learned in the past or music that you feel comfortable with - re-visit the music - as it were. Try playing it from memory! You might even discover a different way, or more expressive way of playing it, in the light of your more recent learning.

I mentioned earlier that it is useful to have a mirror in your practising area. This is so that you can check your posture. It is all too easy to fall into bad habits here and bad habits will prevent you from playing successfully.

Feel free to reward yourself after you have achieved something. Have a coffee break, treat yourself to a healthy snack, go outside for a bit or read a magazine.

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If things go wrong

  • We learn from making mistakes
  • If things go wrong, ask yourself “why?”
  • Thinking about your music is sometimes more important than playing it

Everyone makes mistakes. We learn from mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but when you make them, stop playing and put things right straight away. Learn to forgive yourself for mistakes but please don’t make the same mistakes over and over again!

Let’s assume that you have got yourself organized and you know what you need to work on. Perhaps there is one moment in the music that often goes wrong and you can’t play it confidently. Perhaps you cannot play it at all. The worst thing you can do is to try playing it over and over again with mistakes, because you are merely teaching your brain the mistakes. Stop and think. Leave your instrument alone for a moment and consider the problem. Ask yourself, “What is going wrong here?” “Why does this bit never come out right?”

A farmer and his wife have to drive a truck-load of pigs to the market every week but somehow, they never manage to find the market. They try turning left, turning right, going around the block, but can never seem to find the market. Every week, they return home with the truck-load of disgruntled pigs, all of whom are extremely fed up at being taken on a pointless trip around town every week.

Then the farmer’s wife has an idea. She suggests that they should look at a plan of the town and see exactly where the market is in relation to their farm. At last! They just have to drive down the road two miles, turn left, turn right and turn left again and there’s the market. The journey takes fifteen minutes but it has taken several weeks to find the right way.

See the connection? Unless you stop to think, you can waste an awful lot of time. Try to figure out what is going wrong by careful analysis. If you can do that, you are more than half way to solving the problem.

Thinking about the music is sometimes more important than playing it – so, you can do some practising without your instrument. Analyse the situation. If you are studying piano or a stringed instrument it may be simply ineffective fingering. Change the fingering and the problem might disappear!

You don’t need to be with your instrument for this process. You can “think through” passages of music when on the bus, getting dressed, eating lunch or resting.

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And finally…..

  • Try to find a quiet space for your practising.
  • If you can, plan to have two or three short practising sessions a day.
  • Aim for twenty-minute sessions.
  • If possible, leave your instrument ready to play.
  • Plan your practising by making a list of objectives.
  • Be fair to yourself: set achievable targets.
  • Break up your practising sessions with different activities.
  • Start with an easy warming-up session: scales can be useful.
  • Be prepared for hard concentration in your practising.
  • When you make mistakes, analyse what went wrong.
  • If you start losing concentration, take a break.
  • From time to time, re-visit pieces you have previously learned by playing them again, if possible from memory.
  • Reward yourself for what you have achieved.
  • Remember that playing a musical instrument is a valuable learning experience for you. It should also give you a sense of personal pleasure, fulfillment, achievement and musical understanding. Ultimately, it should bring delight and musical experiences to others.
Colin Kirkpatrick is grateful to Ian Butterworth, Laurence Davis, Dave Kings and Fred Macnicol for their valuable advice and suggestions for this article.


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