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.