First of all, any time you choose to practice, you are doing the SMART THING!
But, as I have mentioned before, there are SMARTER ways to practice — habits one can establish which allow him to accomplish more during a practice session, and to play more accurately earlier in the learning process.
One of the practice strategies I like to encourage is what I call “backward practice.” No, it doesn’t involve literally practicing a passage backward, note-by-note! I use the term because it’s “short and sweet,” and because it always grabs the student’s attention. In reality, I am advocating that the student back her way through a difficult passage. Let’s examine a hypothetical situation.
Many of us who play piano have found pieces in which some sections are harder than others. I’ve discussed in earlier blogs the benefits of identifying harder sections and practicing them first, or more, or both. Now I’m going to recommend a way to increase the efficiency of those practice sessions. Imagine that there is a phrase in which you always seem to find yourself stopping to figure out the next notes, or stopping to make a large leap with your hand from one location on the piano to another. When I find myself in that situation (and, yes, I do at times!), I go to the last measure of that phrase and play it several times (usually four or five). I then move back one measure and play from there through the end of the passage four or five times. I will back my way through the entirety of the difficult passage — always playing to the very end, and always playing the same number of repetitions — until I have practiced the entire passage, straight through, four or five times. Yes, I know that means I will end up having played the last measure many times. And, yes, it’s time-consuming.
Here are the benefits of this practice strategy:
1) As opposed to working in the same manner through a passage, from beginning to end, this type of practice does not encourage a habit of stopping at the ends of measures, since it quickly gets to the point that each measure feels easier and more familiar than the one before. Hesitations at barlines are enough of a problem for many students anyway, right? Why use a practice strategy that promotes that bad habit?
2) It is psychologically very helpful. As the student plays through whatever portion of the passage he is doing, he is feeling increasingly comfortable and confident as he goes. Because most people seem to always practice beginning-to-end, those people inevitably find themselves more comfortable, more confident, and better at the beginning, and just the opposite at the end. The strategy I suggest will help to undo that effect.
3) One need not do the “backward practicing” at every practice session. Usually, even one day of this type of practice will show amazing results. The student may find that she can do a few days of “normal” practice, and then another day of “backward practicing,” resulting in so much improvement in the passage that it no longer stands out as more difficult! Mission accomplished!
4) It is more time-efficient. Yes, it DOES take up a lot of time on the day one decides to put this strategy to work. But in the long run, a student who implements “backward practicing” for a piece with one or more challenging sections will learn the piece better, in a shorter amount of time.
Those of you who are parents of early-level students should not assume that your child needs to implement “backward practicing” at this stage. Just store up in your mind what you’ve learned from reading this post, so that one of these days when your child is stymied by a tougher passage, you can look very smart by showing your child how to PRACTICE SMART!