Early on, students are quite excited with starting their music lessons and devote themselves to insane numbers of hours behind the keyboard. I saw one student immediately dive in with 4 hours of practice or more per day. Being a new student, proper technique was not yet within grasp, and within a few weeks, he developed a painful joint, and sore muscles in the hand and forearm. It didn’t take long to address the problem. Proper posture and hand position solved the problems that were causing the pain.
Aside from the potential for actual physical harm, there are lots of reasons to work out a reasonable practice plan for yourself. You know yourself best of all, and only you know how well you absorb information, both mental and physical, and you should plan your practice around your preferred learning modes.
Here are some guidelines:
1. Practice for no more than one hour at a sitting. After that, give yourself a break of at least 5 minutes. 15 minutes is even better. You need to let your hands, arms and back have a rest. Get away from the instrument, take a quick walk, drink some water.
2. Don’t practice the same piece for hours a day, 7 days a week. If you’re practicing at least an hour a day, each piece you are learning should get a day off each week. Believe it or not, your brain actually uses that down time away from the piece to learn it in your subconscious. Most musicians have experienced that mysterious improvement when you’re away from a piece.
3. Structure your practice so that you’re actually PRACTICING and NOT PLAYING. Here’s a phrase to keep burned into your memory: Practice Makes Permanent. That includes mistakes. If you’re playing a piece (not practicing), and you keep making the same mistake, only to stop and try to play it again, and repeat that mistake yet again, you’ve actually pretty much guaranteed that the mistake you keep making is now a permanent part of your piece! “Practicing” your piece means that you are taking it in smaller chunks, slowly enough that you can think through the fingerings, notes, and expression. If you are playing it so fast that you are simply relying on your fingers to do what you think they are supposed to do, you are doing yourself no favors.
4. Get friendly with your metronome. Very friendly. If you take your piece at 1/2 tempo, use a metronome to keep you honest. If you start out playing slowly and just keep poking at it without a metronome, I guarantee you will be increasing the tempo until you’re playing the piece and not practicing it.
Another thought on metronomes: When you’re just playing a piece and you haven’t had the discipline to work with a metronome, you’ll slow down for the hard parts and speed up for the easy ones. Nobody wants to hear how fast you can play the easy parts, only to hear you stumble through the hard parts. A metronome gives you the discipline to get that habit out of your playing.
5. Make sure you have something pleasurable to practice. Nobody likes playing scales for 30 minutes. So don’t do that. Work with your teacher (or yourself) and find pieces that give you the technical practice you need, and make it a delight to listen to as well as play.
6. Include a piece you know well as one of the rewards you give yourself in practice. Nothing like working hard on your pieces, and then sit back and thoroughly enjoy the piece that you finished work on a few months ago to give you the confidence to keep working.
One final note–practice on a good quality piano. A week of practice on a $100 keyboard on sale at Wal-Mart is not going to prepare you for the workout that a real acoustic piano gives you.
Proper practice habits will lead to learning your instrument much faster, improving your memorization and getting the enjoyment you deserve out of it even sooner.