Let's face it. Practice is a necessary evil to becoming skilled at anything. Sure, one can have natural skills that can allow one person to learn faster than another, but everyone needs to take time in the practice room to become proficient. The key to practice success is that what you do in the practice room has a tremendous impact on how fast you learn and how quickly you can learn a piece and be able to perform it with excellence. Here are ten things and a bonus eleventh that will help a pianist best use their time in the practice room.
Be organized in your practice. Have a starting point and an end-goal in mind. Not just to complete a piece, but small, doable goals that can be achieved in one or two practice sessions. We all work and accomplish things in different ways and at different speeds. Set a reasonable goal and don't let stop until you achieve it. If you find you too often can't achieve your goal in one or two practice sessions, you're goals are too large. Remember to make them small and doable.
Focus on one thing at a time. Be disciplined and complete your practice goals. Even when you're working on multiple pieces at the same time, focus on small sections and spend a specific time on each piece. Don't bounce from piece to piece and don't just "play through" your pieces. Focus and be purposeful with your practice.
Allow yourself room to concentrate. Is there something on your mind like a class assignment that you just can't stop thinking about. Train yourself to let go of other concerns or if that doesn't work, get them out of the way so you can simply focus on your practice and not be distracted. This goes for other distractions as well. Turn your cell phone off or tuck it away. Don't watch the messages coming in. Be focused and concentrate.
Practice slowly. Take passages one by one and work through them. Don't allow yourself to miss notes. Practice slow enough to make sure every note is correct. Write in necessary notes and fingerings as needed to help you. Practice slowly, but eventually bring it to a speed that allows you to think "ideas" and not individual "notes." We have to focus on individual notes to ensure we are playing correct notes, but we want to move to ideas and phrases as soon as possible.
Make interpretation, dynamics, articulations, and phrasing a part of your practice from the very beginning. Don't learn a piece notes first and then add the musicality. Make sure every note you play--even if played at 1/10th the tempo--is played musically and with emotion and expression.
Occasionally, "wrong" practice can help you learn a passage correctly and learn it well. By this, I don't mean wrong notes. Always have correct notes, but occasionally practice a soft passage firmly at a forte dynamic to really feel the technique. Practice a loud section quietly to hear the subtleties of the harmonic structure. Practice a pedaled or legato section short and detached. Swing 8th-notes or practice 16th notes in groups of three or four. Mix it up gradually helping your mind to grasp the musical phrases and ideas.
Schedule your practice time. We only have time for those things we make time to do. Practice is a necessary part of being a pianist and in our busy lives, we need to purposefully set aside times to practice. Make this part of your goal setting. Set a determined amount of time your expect to use in practice each week.
Use a journal to help you remember your goals, where you are at in accomplishing them and what you need to spend time on. It is an encouragement to make sure you are practicing what needs practicing the most as well as an encouragement when you look back and see all you've accomplished. Whether this is a small book or in electronic form on an iPad or iPhone, use a journal to help you achieve.
Sing! Use your voice to help you learn and memorize musical lines. Some of us grunt out almost monotone sounds, but even a non-singer can truly benefit when they learn to sing lines and phrases of their pieces. Try singing using solfege syllables or numbers to help with intervals.
Listen! We live in a world where we have access to phenomenal recordings easily for free through YouTube, Vimeo, and other sources. We can also download MP3's of great recordings through iTunes and Amazon. Listen to the pieces you are learning and explore other pieces. Listen to other instruments than the piano. How could listening to phrasing on the clarinet improve my own musical interpretation on the piano? How might listening to Beethoven Symphonies impact how I play the piano sonatas.
Bonus Item: Enjoy your practice. Recognize your achievement. Don't dwell on shortcomings. Don't dwell on setbacks or failure. Learn to laugh at yourself. Sometimes I play a passage so badly. It is best to laugh at myself and simply try again rather than get tense as I force myself to do it again adding to my frustration. Make practice fun. Can practice ever be a game? Challenge yourself. Most of all, Enjoy and show joy in your practice and your performance!