The Practice of Practice (Book Review)


The Practice of Practice by Jonathan Harnum is a must-read for teachers who are passionate about helping students improve. Even though we may wish otherwise, there is really only one way to improve our skills, and that is to practice. Mr. Harnum’s insightful and comprehensive look at practice was both enlightening to me as a teacher, and highly motivational to me as a musician. In short, it made me want to practice!

As a teacher, here are a few things I learned and hope to pass along to my students:

…a few activities highly accomplished professional musicians consider to be practice:
Watching others perform
Playing informally
Group rehearsal

…thinking about practice in terms of the amount of hours you have to put in is misleading. Put in as many hours as you’re driven to put in. It’s the passion and the interest that are most important, not the numerical value of accumulated practice hours. Forget the amount of hours you practice and focus instead on the quality of the practice in the hours.

I found this extremely helpful:

Here are a few things a good teacher will do:
Gain and maintain your interest in the task.
Simplify the task.
Emphasize certain aspects of the task that will help you “get it”.
Help you control your level of frustration.
Demonstrate the task.
Play along with you when necessary.

Notes on practicing creatively (my favorites are in bold):

-Practicing creatively engages you with your material like nothing else can.
-Scales – start in different places, play with different rhythms
-Playfully irreverent
-Maintain a sense of play
-Look at the problem from opposing viewpoints – backwards, inverted
Psychological distance – imagine that a problem you’re facing is something everyone encounters, and that it’s your job to find a solution to help others work through the same problem. Or imagine your techniques will be put in a method book or in a helpful YouTube video. Imagine yourself a year from now – how would that future self approach a problem in practice, or practice in general?
Imagine how someone else tackles a problem – What would {insert name of your favorite musician} do? What would a technician do?

Planning your practice session:

-Keep it simple
-Before you start, take a moment to go over what you want to accomplish. Identify the most challenging parts of the music and focus only on those, not the whole song.
-Warming up the brain/body 5-10%
-Intense focus on reaching the immediate goal you’ve set for the session 60-75%
-Play like you’re performing 20-30%
-Do double duty by warming up with tricky fingerings, articulations, etc.

Mental practice strategies:
Isolating problem sections to practice mentally
Chanting or clapping or tapping out rhythms
Singing parts
Fingering silently while hearing the music in your mind
Imagining someone you admire greatly is in the practice room listening to you closely
Visualizing a performance in great detail

How to practice with the metronome:
-Find the tempo at which you can play a short passage perfectly. Pay attention to how relaxed you are. All the tempo increases should be played with the same relaxed feeling.
-Increase the tempo just enough so you creep into the zone where you’re not comfortable any more, but are still able to play the passage. Keep repeating it until you’re relaxed and comfortable again.
-Increase the metronome speed by one or two clicks.
Those who used the technique of alternating between half speed and performance tempo produced the best results.
Hearing a passage played correctly at the correct tempo is a huge benefit.

The best practicers are assessing their practice all the time. They do this to:
-See progress and improvement
-Identify weakness
-Plan improvement strategy
-Realign your goals, especially short-term goals


The book contains many inspiring and helpful quotes. Here are a few:

The reason for lessons is to learn how to practice. And that’s it. – Bob Duke

“The first time I played a bass, I was successful. Success is not a goal. Success is in the doing. Always.”-Ian MacKaye

“Stare with your ears.”

“Talent is earned through diligence, effort, and practice.”

“If you want to keep getting better, you have to reach beyond the horizon of what you know, beyond your current ability, whatever it is.”

“Don’t label something you can’t play as “difficult”. Instead, think of challenging music not as difficult, but simply as unfamiliar. Good practice is all about embracing the challenge of making the unfamiliar, familiar.”

I highly recommend adding this to your library!




Strategically Planning Practice Habits


I recently ran across this article about a Stanford researcher who studied ways to help B+ students raise their grades to As. The overall goal was to teach students to think strategically about how they would study:

“Our key insight in this research is the importance of being goal-directed and thoughtful about how one chooses and uses resources for learning—or to achieve any other goal for that matter,” Chen said.

Not surprisingly, the students who set goals and made a plan to achieve those goals were able to raise their test scores. Those students, when questioned, also said they had less stress taking the exam after they had strategically planned how they would study for the exam.

The article also stresses the importance of self-evaluation:

“In one experiment, 12- and 13-year-olds significantly improved their writing skills by learning to better evaluate the quality of their own work…Kids were taught what makes a good piece of writing and how to critique their own work. ‘Instead of relying on the teacher, they are taught strategies to improve their own writing—that’s the self-regulation,’ said Emily Yeomans, senior program manager at the EEF.”

Self-evaluation is a skill piano teachers have historically stressed. I remember in a college piano pedagogy class being told that my job was to work myself out of a job. That is, if I’m teaching well, my students should learn how to evaluate their own playing and make corrections as needed.

The article suggested the teacher use questions such as these to direct self-evaluation:

“What you are doing doesn’t seem to be working very well. Is there something else you can use that would help you do it better?” or “Look at the way they are doing things. Do you think they could have gone about it in a better way?”

As piano teachers we have an important job and opportunity to help our students learn how to approach piano practice.

  1. We do this first by presenting a quality representation of what the end result of the practice will be – either by playing the piece well yourself or by providing quality recordings on CD or YouTube. (What will the piece sound like when I have played it correctly?)
  2. Then we teach the student the technical and musical components he needs to think about while practicing (What do I need to work on?),
  3. how to practice to accomplish the goal using repetitive, mindful, goal-oriented practice (How will I work on these things?),
  4. and how to evaluate the quality of the practice. (How will I know when I have played this piece correctly?)

All of these aspects need to be discussed at each lesson so that the student has a concrete plan of how to achieve their goals for the week.

Sometimes we make a working list on the musical score of items the student will be working on/listening for during practice. As pictured below, often I will layer concepts to be practiced: here the student worked first on the components listed above the line, then later practiced the components listed below the line.


Personally, I think this job is both thrilling and humbling. The way we help shape our student’s practice habits may potentially shape the student’s study and work skills and help them succeed throughout life in many different paths.


Already in Progress


For the past month I have been working on the Three Novelettes by Francis Poulenc, which I love for its simple beauty. It is not a difficult piece – Jane Magrath categorizes the piece as Level 10 in The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching. 

One of the most striking points my teacher made about the first novelette was that the performer should begin the piece as if it is already in progress, as if the melody already exists somewhere in time and space. He has made this point before with other pieces, and I think the thought is lovely. In my practicing I’ve noticed that if I can achieve this, it results in a more nuanced, gentle beginning.

Here is a recording of the piece played in concert by Yilin Sung:

Personal Lessons – Bach’s French Suite Number 5

Oh goodness, where do I begin with lessons on a French Suite?

First of all, I must say that I love Bach. His music just makes sense. It is so clean and precise, yet full of nuance and subtleties. In Bach you always have that moment of, after having worked and worked at it, crystal clear insight. The “ah-ha” moment of clarity.

The fifth French Suite is divided into the following dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, bourree, loure and gigue. One thing I needed to work through was how to make the individual dances a cohesive whole. Questions like tempos, energy levels, how much time to allow between movements, which repeats to take, etc. are all necessary and must be addressed.

When I first started studying this piece, I was very didactic. I remembered back to college days (and even high school) and the teaching of articulation within Bach. I had been taught that the longest note value in each dance should be legato, the shortest note value legato, and the mid-range note values should be detached. So I was religiously following these requirements. Of course you know where that leads – I was completely frustrated and was not making music at all, just becoming a robot.

When I discussed the articulation with my teacher, his thoughts were so liberating I could feel the burden rolling off my shoulders (and fingers!). His perspective is that there is so much freedom in Bach because of the lack of dynamic and articulation markings. Your overall goal and end result should be to make music – of course this needs to be within the bounds of good taste and in accordance with the style of the music. But matters of dynamics and articulation are fluid – you do not need to follow strict rules because Bach did not impose them. Even Bach’s son CPE Bach simply admonishes performers of his father’s music to use good taste.

This is wonderful news. My practice was instantly more joyful and creative. I was listening to the music more intently and with more discretion. I was making musical decisions.

Other ideas my teacher brought out in this piece were:

  1. With regard to voices – what is the spatial quality, what is the timbre
  2. The whole idea of unity and variety is fascinating and could be studied at length
  3. The issue of repeats within the individual dances – sometimes the repeated material should have variety, but it doesn’t necessarily need to change. Bach is complex and audiences welcome a second chance to hear the intricate music again.

Bach is simply a treasure-trove of musical ideas. I could play through Bach for years and years and never grow tired of it.

Personal Lessons -Soiree dans Grenade and Jardins sous la pluie

 I have been struck while learning Estampes with the brilliance of Debussy. When you consider the form, harmonic and melodic structures, pianism and sheer range of his compositional style, you get a small glimpse of the reason Debussy’s music will endure through the ages.

Debussy book Schmitz

The book, The Piano Works of Claude Debussy by E. Robert Schmitz has been a good resource for learning Debussy’s Estampes. I like the way Schmitz walks through each piece describing harmonies and presenting vivid, imaginative pictures of everyday life.

A few things I’ve learned about Soiree dans Grenade (Evening in Granada) from my lessons:

  1. The Habanera rhythm is delightful to play
  2. Quite often we think about projecting to an audience – playing to the back row, etc. However, the opening of Soiree is so distant that it works best to draw the audience in. To invite the audience to join in the journey.
  3. Huge chords! As I am learning this piece, I am teaching Debussy’s Claire de Lune to a student. I love the timing of this. I am embracing the struggle of learning these huge chords and can provide practical insight to him (“because I was just working on it before you arrived!”)
  4. It is fascinating to evoke the sounds of other instruments on the piano. I am a little proud that the piano is capable of such feats. 🙂

A few things I’ve learned about Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain) from my lessons:

  1. Levels of pianissimo – the energy level really dictates the mood and intensity
  2. Again, Debussy’s masterful use of harmonies. Utterly beautiful.
  3. Multiple levels of melodic activity within one measure or phrase. See measures 37-42 as an example.
  4. Juxtapositions of themes upon themselves in different tonalities and tempos. Genius.

My piano lessons have continued to stretch me to think more deeply about the pieces I’m playing, the technique involved, and the overall enjoyment of music. I’m so grateful to be able to take lessons again.

Personal Lesson 1: Debussy’s Pagodes

pagodesMy first official lesson with my Wonderful Teacher was awesome. It was stimulating, inspiring and just plain fun. (Read about my decision to take piano lessons here.)

I have been studying Debussy’s Pagodes from Estampes, which was inspired by Debussy’s visit to the World Fair in Paris. Debussy recreated the sound of the gamelan in this piece. We discussed how the sounds of the gamelan were duplicated in Pagodes and how to separate the different sounds. My teacher suggested playing the low gong sounds with the left fist to achieve a full, deep sound.

One of our most valuable discussions was regarding volume. How do we think of volume? Different shades of color, volumes of speaking, proximity.

The French and Japanese shared certain sensibilities, which made the French particularly interested in Japanese music at the time. One of the similarities in music was the idea of joining a piece of music that was already in progress (as you start at the beginning). It is as if you pick up the song that has been on a continuous loop, and merely join in a song already in progress. This idea really helps to clarify the beginning and end of Pagodes. 

Next piece up – Debussy’s Soiree dans Grenades from Estampes

Taking Piano Lessons

Happiness is playing my pianoI have begun something I should have done a long time ago. I have always wanted to continue taking piano lessons. My last lesson was when I was working towards my master’s degree, about 12 years ago. Recently I sent an email to the director of keyboard studies at the local university to inquire if he might be available to take on an extra student (me!). He very graciously agreed to meet and discuss the possibility.

At our first meeting, I was amazed. We met in his home, where he greeted me at the front door and led me up to the second floor concert hall. Jaw-dropping. The whole upper level is a huge concert hall filled with two grand pianos (one Baldwin, the other Steinway), an upright piano, chairs in rows, round tables. I mean, he has his own concert hall.

After chatting about my background, goals, etc. I played Debussy Arabesque No. 1. Even upon that first meeting, I picked up nuggets of information from him that has greatly enhanced my playing. Really, he is an encyclopedia of knowledge. He has played everything, met everyone, and is so fun to talk with. I hope to be so personable and inspiring in my teaching.

A few takeaways from the first meeting:

  1. He asked me technical questions in a very non-threatening way. He would phrase his questions like this: “What does andantino (for example) mean to you?” or “How would you teach this to your students?”
  2. He told me that he plays the piano with his arms, not his fingers. The movement is on a much larger scale than just playing with fingers. This idea of gesture really helped me in a section of Debussy’s Pagodes which I started learning after our first meeting.
  3. An illustration he used – say you have a poster hanging on a wall in your room. After awhile you get used to it and hardly notice it is there. If you move it to another wall you start noticing it once again. This happens in music – you know how to play legato or andante, but taking those skills to a different piece helps to freshen those skills and renew your focus.

I am thrilled to be taking lessons again, and to be taking them from this particular teacher, whom I will affectionately refer to as Wonderful Teacher (WT). I’d like to update the blog lesson by lesson on the things I am learning about teaching and about the music itself. It’s going to be a great adventure.