How Do You Know When to Move on in Your Piano Practice?

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about how to know when to move on in your piano practice. This is one of the most important aspects of working at the piano productively. After all, you don’t want to shortchange yourself and give up before you solve problems. Yet, you don’t want to bang your head against the wall and spend hours on something that isn’t progressing. This will leave you frustrated. You won’t even want to touch the piano anymore! So, what is the balance? Well, in a nutshell, it’s:

Realizing where you have reached the point of diminishing returns.

What do I mean when I say, “the point of diminishing returns”? I remember the first time I ever heard that phrase, I had no idea what it meant. I was a young child. I asked my father and he described it this way, which I think is a really good description. Imagine there’s a building going up in Manhattan on a very valuable piece of real estate. Building a house on that property would never make sense, because the land is worth millions of dollars. There’s no way a house is ever going to be worth that much. Not even a 10-story building will be worth enough no matter how elaborate. So you have to have enough stories to lease or sell in order to make the building profitable. But at a certain point, it gets more expensive to build higher and higher. You have a certain amount of costs involved per story, but anything above 50 stories starts to get extremely expensive. Eventually, you get to a height where it’s absolutely the point of diminishing returns. There’s no way you could possibly lease space or sell condos on that many floors to overcome the tremendous costs of building a structure so tall. That’s an example of the point of diminishing returns.

Understanding how this relates to your piano practice is essential.

What makes it tough is knowing when you should give up and when you should keep plowing ahead. I think you want to give things a good shot. For example, if you’re working on a difficult passage and it just isn’t coming, you try playing hands separately, you put them back together, and it doesn’t quite do it. Is it time to give up? Not necessarily. You might try going very slowly with the metronome and doing progressive metronome speeds. If you get to a certain point when you can’t get any faster, do you give up? Well, maybe not. Maybe you try to squeeze out a few more notches. Sometimes, you get to a point where you think you’ve taken the metronome as far as you can, then you lighten up your touch or something else, and boom, you get a few more metronome notches! But, then you get to a point where you’re spending so much time getting one more notch, maybe that’s the time to leave it for another day.

Oftentimes, when you are learning a new phrase or phrases you are assimilating into your memory, it becomes really difficult to get things beyond a certain point of refinement.

You might get the music really refined once or twice. Maybe you get it three times in a row way under tempo, and that’s all you can do with it. Well, try to squeeze a little bit more out of that. If you got it perfectly at least a few times in a row, even if it’s way under tempo, it’s very likely the next day, when you refresh your memory on it, you’ll be able to play it faster right from the get-go just from sleeping on it. So, you must know when to move on. The key is to not give up right away. Try a couple of different techniques. Try slowing down. Try hands separately. Try using the metronome. Try stopping at strategic points. You can also try playing very strong or very light. You can try accenting different notes in a passage, or you could even alter the rhythm. If you have straight eighths, you could make them into a dotted rhythm, then reverse the dotted rhythm.

There are many, many different techniques to try before abandoning something altogether. However, you don’t want to get stuck and spend so much time on so little music that at the end of a week, you have very little to show for your work. Sometimes just plowing through something, getting it perfectly two or three times in a row under tempo allows you to learn more music. Because the next day you can take all of that music up to a higher level and push forward in the score. So, you have one part from the day before that’s starting to come along, the part from two days ago is getting quite secure, and the part from before that is already at performance level. You’re working on all these different sections simultaneously.

Try to push to the point of diminishing returns in your practice!

Try many different techniques before giving up, but don’t feel that giving up is necessarily a bad thing. It allows you to move forward and amass more music in your daily practice. I’m wondering how this all works for you. Try it out and let me know in the comments here at LivingPianos.com and YouTube. Thanks so much for joining me. I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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8 thoughts on “How Do You Know When to Move on in Your Piano Practice?”


 
 

  1. I find this very affirming. I am a senior who has returned to playing the piano after a 50-year hiatus. I am in level four and the pieces are not long and complicated. However my brain doesn’t work quite as well as when I was 15. Left and right brain, one hand doing something different than the other hand, and my fingers get “tangled up”. When a piece is brand new, of course that experience is enhanced. I have found that I don’t really know how far to go in a practice session, pushing forward without becoming frustrated. This video gives me permission to ease up, yet keep going, finding that beautiful balance. Thank you Robert!!

  2. Why did you change the non-question phrase “law of diminishing returns” into a question, adding a question mark? that is, “law of diminishing returns?”
    It’s not a question, but a turn of a phrase. The former would have a ?, and the latter would be in quotes. So correct for you to place quote marks around it. incorrect to insert a question mark. Not sure why you did this.

    1. Thank you for the clarification. We will change:

      What do I mean when I say, “the point of diminishing returns?” to

      What do I mean when I say, “the point of diminishing returns”?

  3. I tend to beat a new piece to death trying for perfection. I do find that when I manage to leave it at “good enough for now” and move on to try something different I actually seem to learn more in the long run. I have suspected that this was the right path, but am teaching myself and don’t have an instructor’s input. Thank-you for confirming! I appreciate your videos very much and find them extremely helpful.

    1. It can be a great challenge teaching yourself the piano! Remember when you run into difficulties and it seems like you may have to leave a passage for the next day, always try playing much more slowly first. Sometimes that can make all the difference in the world!

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