Blog #2: What do I Practice?

A common struggle that I have experienced over the past several years is focus and intentionality in my practice. Unless I am learning a specific classical tune or jazz standard, I often struggle clearly defining what it is I want to improve about my playing. Without a clear direction, I can spend hours noodling, ‘jamming’, and aimlessly playing without making any progress. 

The solution? Set a clear goal. Before every practice session, ask, “what steps am I going to take today to get closer to achieving this goal?” Set a daily practice goal. A common example may be, “play the Eb major scale at 120 bpm, eighth notes”. This daily practice goal may be a part of a larger goal like, “I want to be able to play faster and in time”. 

Here is an example of a specific goal someone might have and how we can break it down…

Goal: I want to be able to play my favorite pop songs.

Ask: What will that entail? If you don’t know, ask someone for help!

Here are some steps I think are important for this specific goal… 

  1. Be able to learn chords and melody by ear
  2. Be able to play with both hands independently: chords in the left hand and melody in the right. 
  3. Need to play with good dynamics and touch

Now that we have broken down some elements of playing our favorite pop songs, we can detail things we can do to accomplish each of these goals. 

  1. How do you learn songs by ear?
    • Listen, listen, listen!
      • If I want to learn to play Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder, I need to listen to it over and over until it is stuck in my head. 
      • Learn the melody and lyrics, sing along!
        • Learning the lyrics to songs is a very great way to make your playing even more expressive. The lyrics were written for a reason, it will help you convey the tone of the song a lot better. Also, you will know a lot more often if you are playing the wrong melody. Think about the song, Twinkle Twinkle… if someone were to play a wrong melody note, you would know right away because you’ve heard it millions of times!
    • Play the melody on the piano
      • Once you are familiar with the song, sit down at the piano and try to play the melody, start in small sections. If you know how to sing the song, this part should be surprisingly easy, sing the melody and match each note you are singing to the piano. Use the recording as a reference!
    • Figure out the chords
      • Listen to the low end of the song, in other words, the bass. In pop music, the bass note is usually the root of whatever chord is happening at the time. 
      • If you get stuck, it’s okay to look up the chords online! However, we want to get to the point where we no longer have to rely on the internet, which can often be wrong.  An understanding of scales and chords that fit into certain scales will make this process so much easier. 
  1. How do you play with both hands?
    • Practice Scales
      • Scales are a great warmup and get your hands used to working together.
    • Start simple
      • You can sound good by just playing/holding a chord in your left hand and playing the melody with your right, don’t worry about rhythms in your left hand to start out.
    • Go sloooow
      • If you are working on playing one rhythm in your left hand and another in your right, go as slow as you need to in order to play accurately. 
      • If you are really struggling with hand independence, really slow down and figure out when each hand is playing on any given beat or subdivision during a measure. You can even start by simple tapping your hands on the piano before playing any notes! Isolate the elements that are giving you trouble and simplify. 
  1. How do you develop good dynamics and touch?
    • Scales, again.
      • You can play scales in increasing/decreasing volumes and focus on hearing the dynamics and how they impact your overall sound
    • Record yourself
      • Listen back to yourself. If you are playing all the correct notes, but it still doesn’t ‘feel’ right, it could be an issue with your touch and dynamics. Are you slamming on every key? Are you bringing out the melody? Are you using both soft and loud dynamics? These are all very important elements of playing and can really make or break a performance. Make sure you are using good posture and hand positioning. Fingers should be curved and the wrist should be relaxed in a neutral position.

This systematic approach to practice will allow you to make the most out of your time spent learning your instrument. It takes some extra thought and preparation, but it will enhance the process in the long run. 

With all of this being said, you should always make time to just mess around on the instrument and have some fun. Really great songs have come from casual jam sessions or just experimenting with different sounds on an instrument.

What is one goal you have for your musical endeavors? Reach out and I can help you break it down into concrete steps!

Peace,

Peter

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