What does a gym workout have to do with piano practice?

I've posed the following scenario to my students: Suppose a man goes into the gym and lifts a 35-pound weight one time, once a day. He does this each day for two weeks, and at the end of the time he complains that he has not become stronger. Of course anyone would find this complaint ludicrous. Yet a high percentage of piano students have similar false expectations concerning their practicing. The teacher works on a problem, at the lesson, the student practices this problem once a day for three days during the week, and then wonders why he's made no progress.

Now let's look at another person in the gym. This same man learns he must do many more repetitions each day. He lifts the weight twice, gets distracted in a conversation for a few minutes, lifts the weight again once, and then gets on his cell phone. This keeps up for two weeks and he again makes the same complaint. At the same time we can go back to the same piano student who works on a problem, gets distracted, plays through the whole song instead of working on the one problem, and the piano student also faces the same results--no progress.

Let's examine what is involved in an effective workout in the gym. If you talk to anyone who does this properly they'll tell you they do a certain number of "sets" each consisting of eight to ten repetitions. Using this regimen, the weight lifter is assured of results-- he or she will become stronger. So why can't the piano student learn from this model? Much repetition over a short period of time--that's the only way. Playing through a problem area once a day accomplishes almost nothing. Playing through it five times in a row, two different times during the practice will yield results just as sure as the weight lifter's. The second metaphor (the distracted weight lifter) depicts the student who may practice a song more than once in a day, but not in a concentrated period of time. The best example of this is the student who has just begun a difficult piece, and insists on playing all the way through the length of the work, never stopping to repeat difficult sections. This is a very, very common problem--students at times seem obsessed with doing this. If you're two weeks away from a performance, that is an effective way to practice--if you're in the formative stages, that is a foolish way to practice. Not only does it waste time, it never allows the concentrated repetition the student needs on isolated spots.

Here again, following the weight lifter's model is very helpful. Break down a problem --work on it numerous times, go to another problem--work on it numerous times, then go back to the previous problem. A disciplined piano workout of this sort will yield effective results. As each the student corrects each problem, she must, of course, place it in context of bigger and bigger sections. This method of practice is only the beginning. But it is a necessary beginning.

Imagine the student who practices with such methods in mind, always mindful of the ultimate goal (to play to perfection). Contrast this to the student who is told to practice 45 minutes a day, and gets nothing accomplished. Even if the student does not attain perfection (and that's perfectly OK), if perfection is the goal, and effective repetition is the means, then the student will accomplish many things.

Artist in Residence