Mastering any physical skill requires practice and piano is no exception. Many invest hundreds, if not thousands and thousands of hours into their playing in order to improve their skills and master various aspects of the instrument. But how can we truly maximise our piano practice efficiency?
To answer this question, we must dive into some of the science of how the brain functions, as well as what we mean by both ‘effective’ practice and what the term ‘practice’ actually means.
By definition, practising any hobby or skill is: “Repetition of an action with the goal of improvement.” It may seem inherent, but the reason that we practice is to allow us to do things with more ease, increased speed and to improve our confidence in said skill.
When we apply this to piano playing, this is precisely true, people may practice piano for no end of individual reasons and with a million different goals in mind, however usually it is in order to play something: More easily, faster, with greater dexterity, to broaden musical understanding or perhaps even to improve our confidence when performing in front of others (we’ve actually already got an article on overcoming the fear or performance here!)
So What Is Happening Inside Our Brains?
When it comes to practice, it is easiest to describe the brain in two different kinds of neural tissue, these are known as grey and white matter. This is a little technician and for the purposes of this article, we have simplified this massively in order to make it easier to visualise, but it is interesting nonetheless.
Grey matter is the tissue that takes in information and processes it within the brain, this matter directs the signals and stimulation to the different and relevant nerve cells. This is then passed into the ‘white matter’ tissue, which is mostly fatty tissues and nerve fibres.
These tissues are what then allows information to travel from the brain, through the spinal cord and into our nerve fibres around the body via a different type of cell called axons within our muscles. Axons are wrapped in another type of cell called myelin and research has shown that it is this myelin that changes and becomes thicker when we practise a skill.
Whilst this may sound incredibly complicated, the best way to envision this is comparing them to electrical cables. They essentially help minimise energy loss. In the same way that an electrical cable with either a hole or no covering at all will disperse a lot of wasted energy and be less functional, as we practice more, the myelin (or electrical cover) becomes thicker and more comprehensive, preventing lost energy and placing said energy in our muscles. This is often what many refer to as ‘muscle memory’, when in actual fact muscles have little capacity for memory and it is more akin to having a superhighway of information being able to pass into the muscles that was created by past practice quicker and more effectively.
How Long Does It Take To Master Piano
This is a question we hear a lot, particularly for those either just getting started with piano, or those who are at a piano plateau where they are struggling to develop their skills any further.
One common theory that you will hear is that it takes 10,000 hours to master any given skill. This is simply not true and as with any skill, it is quality, not quantity of practice that determines how long it takes to master something. Likewise, it depends on what one classes as ‘mastery’, but that is a conversation for another guide. You may however find our ‘setting yourself piano goals’ guide interesting.
Instead, we believe that mastery of the piano comes from effective practice focused around targeting weaknesses that lay at the edge of your current abilities. For example, do you struggle with sight reading? Then that is where you should place your focus, or does it perhaps lay in pedalling? Or expression? These are all fantastic places to focus your practice and gradually over time you will encounter different challenges and skills to learn that ultimately enhance your playing.
How To Make Your Piano Practice More Effective
The number one tip for practising more effectively is to remove distractions. That means turning off phones and laptops. Some studies have even shown that having phones nearby reduces focus to no more than 6 minutes at a time.
Start slowly: Whilst this may sound counter productive, coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect. This essentially means that if you continue to repeat a process, even if technically incorrect, your brain will memorise the movement with the incorrect action. This is why it is often incredibly difficult to break bad piano technique habits as you may not even be aware that you are doing them.
In order to help prevent this, slow things right down and take things one step at a time. By ensuring that you are getting the technique correct when played slowly, from here you will be able to gradually increase the speed of correct repetitions and build the correct kind of axon memories.
Finally the key to any successful practice is consistency. We recently covered this in our guide to keeping children playing piano during school holidays, but the same applies to adults and anyone on any stage of their piano journey. Memories only build when built upon regularly and frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are the best ways to maximise your piano practice.
This does not mean that practising for 6+ hours every day will make you a better pianist. Instead, a handful of regular, consistent practice sessions will achieve the same result (and if not more) because you’ll feel less burned out and more focused. Even the most seasoned of concert pianists will divide their time between sessions throughout their day to ensure limited durations and maximise focus. This infographic is a fantastic visualisation of this.
One interesting other aspect to practise is noticing what you can achieve when NOT at your piano. We have actually written a full article on this, but studies have also shown that imagining practising in vivid detail can be a great tool in helping improve your skills. This imagination can help reinforce your current skills and solidify them further into your memory.
We hope this short guide has helped you understand a little more about the psychology of piano practice and how you can begin to maximise your piano practice. If you are feeling your piano practice has become slow and stagnant, we would also recommend shaking up your practice routine to something new or creating something to track your progress such as a piano diary.
Want to learn more about finding your perfect piano contact our experts today! Or for more tips and tricks for advancing your piano technique, read our mastery guide here!