Strategy for Effective Practicing

by Doug Hanvey


As a piano teacher I emphasize from the very first lesson the importance of learning how to practice efficiently and effectively. This may be the most important thing a piano student (really, any music student) can learn. After all, practicing – not performing – is what every musician spends 99% of her time doing.

While many music teachers do teach their students how to practice, this may often be conveyed implicitly in how they ask you to play during lessons. Explicit instruction in how to practice may be harder to come by. If that’s the case, this three-part approach will get you started.


#1: Understand How Your Brain Learns

“The pianist who makes mistakes in his practice learns them whether he means to or not.” –William Newman

You do not teach your fingers how to play the piano. You teach your brain. The most important thing to know is that the brain learns what you do. If you play the correct notes with the correct fingers, your brain learns how to play the correct notes with the correct fingers. If you make mistakes, the brain learns those mistakes. At least when learning physical movements, the brain learns what you do, whether it’s right or wrong.

The solution? Avoid making mistakes. I call this the Golden Rule of Practicing because another way to say it is:

Do unto your practicing as you would have your performing do unto you.

If you treat your practicing with patience and care now, you are more likely to reap the rewards of error-free performing later.

#2: Apply the Golden Rule of Practicing

While there are many factors for applying the Golden Rule, here are a few of the most important:

Play slowly enough to play correctly. I like how piano teacher and author Beth Klingenstein puts it:

Slow practice = fast progress. Fast practice = slow progress. No practice = no progress.

Hesitate – actually stop playing – if you’re not sure about the next note or fingering. This helps you avoid making a mistake and allowing your brain to learn it. The hesitations are easily eliminated once you master the passage or piece.

Practice hands separately at first. This makes it easier to practice without making mistakes.

#3: Practice When You’re Mentally Alert

To benefit from the Golden Rule of Practicing, you have to apply it consistently and effectively. As you practice, be mindful of your concentration. Regularly ask yourself, am I starting to make mistakes because I’m getting tired and losing concentration?

You will get the most benefit from the Golden Rule by practicing only when you’re fully awake and mentally alert.

So there you have it – three simple steps to make your practicing much more effective and save you countless hours that might otherwise be wasted making careless mistakes. Happy practicing!

Doug Hanvey’s Piano Lab Blog offers tips and inspiration for piano students and teachers.


Thank you for the great article. It is ALMOST everything I repeat incessantly to my students.
I’d like to add two things …

1. In the reminder that we are training the brain, it isn’t just the fingers we’re training, but also the ears. Listening is essential to practice as well. I feel too often that is left unsaid, but find that students often need a reminder, especially if the music is something foreign to them. (Quite literally with foreign students.) If it doesn’t sound right, STOP … hold the notes down and check to see if they are the right notes. If not, then make the correction. If they are correct, you won’t forget them.

2. I have had piano students who have difficulty coordinating both hands when they practiced hands separately. Those students typically do better if they practice small increments (a phrase, 2 to 4 measures) SLOWLY with both hands.

Excellent article. You help me help myself and my students make better progress.

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