With the school year well underway, students are busy with homework, sports and other extracurricular activities. This translates to the famous line many teachers hear on a weekly basis, "I didn't practice this week because [insert excuse here].” This is actually a discussion topic on the Canadian Piano Pedagogy Discussion Group I am part of. Both my brother and I were busy with extracurricular activities and school in our day, in addition to piano, music history, as well as harmony and analysis classes. How did we manage it and still do well? First, our parents made studying a priority, whether it was school or piano. We couldn’t drop either activity. Sure, we didn't practice as regularly as we should have but Mom was on our case if we slacked off too much. It helped that Mom gave us fun music on a regular basis for the times we were tired of our exam pieces.
At university, I learned how to practice more effectively. I suffered my first bout of tendonitis between my second and third year. The doctor said the best way to let my arms heal would be to not play the piano for several months. That simply wasn’t an option for me. With a careful regimen of icing, physiotherapy, rest and ibuprofen, my piano teacher completed the program by revising my practice routine. I started slowly, only playing for five minutes a day. Gradually, I built it up to the two to two-and-a-half hours a day I maintained for the rest of my studies.
With only ten minutes of piano time, I had to make them count. I learned to zoom in on “trouble spots”. No need to drill something that I can do well.
It also meant I had to find other way to keep up with my peers. My teacher advised me to study the music score for patterns and memorize the music as I would memorize a vocabulary list. I tracked down recordings of my repertoire and listened to them ad nauseum. I also learned to practice the rhythms away from the piano by tapping them on my lap or on a table.
Each of these activities can be done in a ten-minute session. It’s a routine I employ now as a teacher with limited practicing time. Warm up on scales, chords and arpeggios for one key, drill a trouble spot and improvise for a few minutes. If a student is late or doesn’t show, then I can squeeze in another ten-minute session. I try to squeeze in at least one ten-minute session a day if I’m pressed for time. After all, I know as well as the next person that it’s tough to practice an hour a day, every day.
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