Practicing is the most difficult, day-to-day issue of playing the piano. Like any regular discipline, some people find it easier to practice than others do. Some days are easier to practice than others and sometimes it seems like nothing works, even when the quality of the practice is good.
In this chapter, I want to discuss the difficulty of actually getting to the piano in the first place.
When I talk about my work, friends’ reactions are that it must be so much fun because all the adults who are taking lessons do so because they want to. The assumption is that adult students practice a lot without any difficulty. In reality, practicing is no different than losing weight, giving up smoking, or exercising — accomplishing the goals of our intent is quite difficult.
Some students are focused and motivated to a degree that enables them to practice regularly for one or two hours a day. Not surprisingly, they make progress faster than others do. That isn’t necessarily the same as being musical, but sometimes a student can be so consumed with music that the discipline follows as a natural course.
For most, practicing is more of a struggle. Practicing the first thing in the morning is best for many; not necessarily before coffee but before being distracted by reading the morning paper. At this time of day, the mind is freer of worries and concerns; not as distracted with thoughts, ideas and weighty responsibilities.
However, some people aren’t their best in the early hours of the day. For them, early practicing seems doomed to failure and shouldn’t even be attempted. For parents of young children, early morning practice is something of which to dream. Getting family members off to their various appointed rounds is just too demanding.
Practicing after a hard day’s work and/or getting the kids to bed is difficult too. People are tired and ready to relax. They don’t want another responsibility. However, for some students, practicing is truly recreational in the sense of recreating energy spent during the day. For them, they feel more invigorated after practice than before.
It’s important to schedule a regular time to practice and it’s important to practice even if one doesn’t feel like it. Sometimes after 10 or 20 minutes practicing becomes involving and one feels like continuing. Then again, sometimes not. In that case it’s probably best to give up. Practicing with resentment and resistance usually isn’t productive.
Chronic Practice Problems
Skipping practice on a regular basis may indicate a problem. Sometimes people want to play the piano but not enough to do the work required. I tell students that I’d love to climb mountains. It would be exciting and exhilarating. However, I know I don’t do the work necessary to get in shape and I don’t spend money on the equipment so it seems I’m not sufficiently motivated to actually accomplish this dream. That’s all right. I can’t achieve all my dreams.
Difficulty practicing might be because the piece(s) feels too difficult and practicing is discouraging and doesn’t seem to accomplish much. In pieces that take a long time to learn, periods like this are inevitable. If it happens, talk to your teacher. It’s possible the piece is actually too difficult for you at this point in your work. It’s also possible that your practice habits need to be honed and perhaps new ones adopted.
Sometimes students don’t practice because they don’t like the things they’re working on. Changing pieces solves that problem. Occasionally I want a student to learn something very specific from a particular piece, like a Bach fugue. Then I carefully explain what I want them to learn, why they can’t learn it another way, and give them very specific practice instructions. I’m also sympathetic because I know Bach fugues are hard to learn.
Everyone goes through times that are busier than usual, times of conflict and major life changes. During these periods it’s usually more difficult getting to the piano. Teacher and student alike need to be compassionate. Full practice will return when possible.
A difficult area is when there is a problem between the teacher and the student. Students tend to avoid the piano altogether. The student’s only solution is to talk with the teacher to try to understand and resolve the problem. Many teachers can be very understanding and helpful in these circumstances. Sometimes it just doesn’t work though and the teacher either refuses to listen or is unable to understand the concern. In that case, it’s best to get a new teacher. Always remember, especially as an adult, the teacher is your employee even though it doesn’t feel that way and even though our society gives teachers an elevated authority.
Leaving a Teacher
Leaving a teacher is very hard for most adults. If a student has taken lessons for a couple of years or more, the teacher has become a friend and confidant to some rather fragile musical efforts. It’s hard to leave. This is true even when students move away and there is no personal reason for the termination. It’s even harder when something has gone awry in the working relationship.
Teachers don’t fully understand this difficulty. A former student of mine who was moving away put it very well and teachers should remember this. She said, “You’re just losing one of your 50 students, it doesn’t mean much to you. I’m losing my one piano teacher. I have no other and I feel like crying.”