Recently, I interviewed a prospective student; a delightful, curious, 5-year old boy. Prior to the meeting, his mother informed me that he had been studying privately for two years already, at first taking three lessons per week, and more recently, two lessons per week. I was intrigued to see what he had learned.
When they arrived for the interview, he played a couple of pieces he knew with accurate notes, but lacking a sense of rhythm. He was able to identify the names of notes in the pieces he played, but was unable to recognize the very same notes in a new piece. He could not count or even clap a simple rhythm written on the board, and intervals were a foreign concept.
When I spoke with his mother afterwards to discuss my recommendations for him, she expressed concern about his current teacher’s lack of structure and “vision.” I explained that it’s possible to teach a child to play several pieces without the child developing and understanding of the music or the ability to learn pieces independently, and that this is what I suspected had occurred. She agreed, and said that she would like her child to develop the ability to learn and play music on his own. This is why she was seeking a change of teacher.
This experience affirmed the importance of clear, structured practice steps that will ensure accurate performance of new pieces, as well as a system for successful, independent learning and practicing.
For students at all ages and levels, discussing the title and sound expectation for the piece helps spark interest and plants the seed for a musical performance from the very beginning. Looking for patterns, groups, same and different, also prepares students for the whole piece and facilitates reading.
Referring to these practice steps frequently in lessons is necessary to develop good practice habits. Placing a copy of a practice steps sheet in students’ binders, opposite their most recent assignment sheet, also helps them remember to use them at home. Each section provides a sample practice steps sheet you are welcome to print.
Primer Level – Off-Staff Notation (Time to Begin) Printable
Establishing a steady pulse is one of the most critical aspects of beginning piano study. It’s important that students count using an animated voice, so that the pulse is alive and rhythmic. Swinging and saying the words, marching the pulse while saying the words, and other whole-body movement activities are other ways to reinforce the pulse when first introducing a new piece.
Point and Count – Students point to the notes and count aloud, at first numerically, and then transitioning to metrical counting when time signatures are introduced.
Tap and Count – Students tap and count the rhythm on the piano cover. Emphasizing tapping musically and with a good piano hand are other elements to reinforce during this step. A variation on this may be tapping and saying the hands (“left, right, both”), which is helpful for those young students still learning to distinguish left and right. I’ve also found this particularly effective with adult beginners.
Find the Moves – Students silently prepare the starting finger for each hand on their laps, then move directly to the starting keys once they are certain of the position. Next, they practice silently moving to all of the different positions they will need in the piece.
Play and Count/Sing (3x) – Students play and count, or play and sing the words three times, then they earn a check mark on their assignment sheet.
Early Elementary Level – Partial Staff and Grand Staff Notation (Music Tree 1) Printable
For students at this level, we use the acronym RIM (Rhythm, Intervals, Moves) for learning and practicing a new piece.
Rhythm – Students continue to use tapping and counting as a first step for isolating the rhythm. However, as students begin reading on-staff notation, a practice step for identifying intervals becomes necessary.
Intervals – Students point to the notes and say the starting note, then the direction and interval. For example, “treble G, up a 2nd, down a 2nd, up a 3rd . . .”
Moves – Practicing the moves prepares students for all of the notes and positions they will use in the piece.
Reinforcing finding the starting position becomes so important at this stage, as students move away from playing on the black keys to playing on the white keys. For partial staff notation, students circle the name of the first note of the piece. They, they circle and name the interval between the first two notes (example). Before playing, they prepare the starting fingers on their lap and say “RH finger 2 goes on C, LH finger 2 plays down a 3rd.” This helps them start with confidence, and prevents that dreaded “searching” that can so often creep into young students’ playing.
Elementary/Late Elementary Levels (Music Tree 2A and 2B) Printable
While elements such as form are often addressed in earlier levels by identifying groups or phrases that are the same or different, as pieces become longer in the later elementary and early intermediate levels, marking the overall form of a piece helps give students the big picture and focus on what needs the most practice. In addition to the RIM steps, we also introduce brackets. The brackets highlight the hardest part of the piece, and students know that they are to practice this section three times FIRST, sometimes hands separately, then hands together.
Early Intermediate Levels (Music Tree 3 and Beyond)
At this stage, additional practice steps that are specific to the piece may become necessary; for example, more hands separate practice, blocking chords before playing them broken, or practicing runs in different rhythms or using a staccato touch. However, students will have always have their “toolbox” of basic practice steps at their disposal, a system they can rely on to ensure accurate learning and performance.
What practice steps/strategies have you found most effective for your students?