How to Organize Practice

Question: Dear Albert,

I usually practise for about 3 hours a day, with the odd day on which I do either 4 or – if I am too busy – 2 and a half hours. With all this practice time, which I find is a lot for a 54-year-old adult student who’s not a pianist by profession, I often wonder how to organise my practice effectively and how many pieces/études to take care of at a time.

One flaw in my practice – in my teacher’s opinion – is that I do too much technique (almost one hour) but I guess I do so much because I enjoy it and also because am basically afraid that I might lose those skills. In line with the ABRSM Grade 7 requirements I revise the usual scales (parallel and contrary motion, scales a 3rd and a 6th apart, all legato and staccato plus some in double thirds which I am learning in all keys just for fun), then arpeggios (root position, first inversion and dominant sevenths), and a little time for octaves. I don’t do all of these every day but most of them.

Also, I am currently studying some 6/7 pieces/études at the same time and with so many to take care of I can only devote about 20 minutes a day to each, which results in the pieces/études progressing at a snail’s pace. For example, I’ve recently been studying a Bach Capriccio from his Partita in C minor (an ABRSM Grade 8 piece) which took me 5 solid months to learn (!!) at about 60 a crotchet, when the ‘final’ speed – if there is any such thing – should be crotchet = 88. I know that if you’ve been studying the piano for only 5 and a half years, studying Grade 8 pieces sounds rather ambitious but I like challenges. However, I sometimes get discouraged about having to ‘plod though’ the pieces/études so slowly over weeks and months.

My various questions are, is it all right to devote about one third of one’s practice time to technique, the type I mentioned above?

Then, do you suggest that fewer pieces/études should be done at a time in order to devote more time to each every day or is it best to have variety even though one progresses more slowly?

And also, given that perfection does not exist, still less in students’ performances!) when is the time to drop a piece and start a new one?

Thanks for your attention to this long question. I look forward to receiving your reply.

– Juan Carlos (Padua, Italy)

Albert’s reply: Since you’re laying your musical and technical foundation, I consider dedicating 30 percent of your practice time to scales and arpeggios reasonable. Nonetheless, you may be taking on too much. I would save octave work for later in your studies, for instance, and you might not need to do scales a third and a sixth apart every day. I prefer sticking with the fundamentals until you achieve a higher level of mastery.

Also, you don’t necessarily need to practice all scales both legato and staccato during each practice session. You might alternate, or simply choose a particular articulation for a given scale. What’s important is that the articulation be consistent. I don’t generally practice my scales staccato, as non-legato is generally sufficient. The faster you play your scales, the less legato is physically possible: The hardest combination of all is to play your scales prestissimo, pianissimo and legatissimo.

Implementing these suggestions can cut your technical time down to 30 to 40 minutes while still providing a very high level of benefit. This is enough technical work even for a professional pianist. Many professionals, in fact, say that they rarely or never do specific “technical” work, preferring instead to use the music they are practicing to keep their technique in shape. This is the ideal, and it is very much individual. I find that I do benefit from a regimen of scales, in particular. Regardless, it must be emphasized that professional pianists have all very much paid their dues in their technical foundation of scales and arpeggios!

To address your question as to how many etudes to study at once, I do recommend no more than an absolute maximum of three at a time to non-professional musicians – two would be plenty. You’ll find that they are indeed synergetic, but attempting too many at once will indeed dilute your efforts. Especially in the technical preparatory phases, depth is preferable to breadth.

As for when to drop a piece, I’d leave that up to your teacher to determine. In any case, you’ll find that as you progress, you’ll return to pieces learned earlier, and many of the original difficulties will have disappeared!

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