Just for Students

Note to Readers:  The blog on another webpage is geared toward parents of piano students who are children.  But piano students – children and adults – sometimes want helpful tips just for them.  So – TA DA! – here is a webpage for my piano students.

For the student:  You will not find too many tips on the technicalities of reading piano music or playing your piano pieces and technical exercises.  That is what your lessons are for, after all.  But you will find some helpful information on your teacher’s expectations, parents’ expectations (if applicable), your attitude; what to do when everything used to be easy (but it isn’t now); coping with a busy schedule, and other useful information.

1) When Life Makes You Busy

(Just a little note (pun intended!) of encouragement when you wonder how you will get everything done.)

I remember being extremely busy with all sorts of responsibilities in high school and college and beyond (now).  Trying to figure out how to get everything done was a constant challenge.  It is the downside of being motivated and capable:  we wind up doing a lot!

Here are some tips I learned along the way:

Breathe.  I think breathing is the most important thing.  We need oxygen to function properly.  If we forgot to breathe, it is much harder to think and do.  Eating somewhat healthy foods and getting some sleep helps, too.  So does ice cream.

Make a List.  On extremely busy days, make a written list of everything you have to get done.  It is easy to think we will remember it all, but inevitably, something gets left off the mental list, and then we rush at the last minute to do what we finally remember. (Or we remember at 3 a.m. when it is too late to do much about what we forgot to do earlier.)

Do Small First.  You can get a lot of small things accomplished in a half hour.  Don’t put off what can be done now.  You will also feel less overwhelmed when all that small stuff is crossed off your to-do list.

Chunk It Up. Break seemingly big projects into much smaller tasks.  Learning piano music is a good example.  Here’s why:  You will learn and remember a lot more by reviewing a section of music ten minutes at a time, three times a week than you will trying to learn that section in one half hour session.  (This is also a good tip for when you have to memorize stuff for school or work).

Be Creative. Be creative about finding time to get things done.  I remember doing high school calculus homework during the intermission of a concert I attended.  It was the only time available for that endeavor, unless I wanted to miss the concert and just do the math at home.

Remember to Stop. Know when you are done – either because you have finished your task or because you have reached your limit on what you can accomplish right now – and stop doing it.  It is as easy to overdo as it is to underdo.

Get an Assist. Ask for help when you need help.  There is no point struggling on your own when someone can help make your life easier.

Feel good about your accomplishments.  Many times, no one else will applaud when you have done what you have to do.  So give yourself a round of applause!  (And maybe some ice cream.)  And breathe.


2)  What happened?  This used to be fun!

(When music becomes more challenging, the fun can be hard to find.  But with some understanding and a better handle on how to learn the music, the fun can return!)

You just said, “Piano used to be fun.”  What do you mean by that?  When I ask my students what they mean, they give me different answers.  Sometimes, “piano used to be fun“ means “I want to play different kinds of music than I am learning now.”  Sometimes it means, “I want to just jam with my friends.”  Sometimes it means not wanting to do something, as in “I don’t want to play scales and arpeggios” or “I don’t like music theory,” or “I hate recitals.”  We will address some of these explanations in later Just for Students entries.

Maybe you really mean, “Piano used to be easy.  I didn’t have to practice much to learn the music and make it sound good.”  If so, read on, since that is what we will talk about here.

It sounds like your music is getting more challenging for you to learn.  Maybe you are wondering what happened – and what can you do about it.

Well, what happened is that your piano music was easy.  Then it became more complicated.  It is supposed to be that way.  Not to torture you  – although it may seem that way – but to make the music sound good!

Do you remember how you smiled when you added two or three left-hand chord notes to the right-hand melody notes?  It made the music seem much richer and more complete than playing one note at a time.  All of the details you see in your music now – notes, rests, various rhythms, dynamics, articulations – add to the interest and fullness of your music.  The more details you add in, the better the music usually sounds.

But those details do make your music harder to learn at first.  And your music will not sound good without the at-home practice your probably know you are supposed to do.  “But I am practicing!” you now exclaim.  Good!  But if piano still is not fun, have you thought about how you are practicing?

When the music gets more complicated, practice means more than the just the day before your piano lesson.  Otherwise, the details get lost.  It also means spending time on the hard parts instead of just playing through your pieces once.  Sometimes you just have to persevere until your music is easier to play and sounds good.

“Wait, Ms. Susan,” you may be thinking.  “That does not sound like fun.“  Well, maybe you are not the kind of person who finds practicing fun.  But good practicing can help you have fun.  It is easier to have fun with piano when you understand your music and can make it sound good.  Your teacher should help you with this at your piano lessons.  But unless you spend time at home with your music, you may forget what you learned and how to play your music so it sounds good.

“Oh, no,” you may now object.  “I don’t have time to practice that way.”   Yes, you are busy.  But with some creativity, you may find just enough time to practice to make your music sound good.  For some helpful ideas, you may want to read “When Life Makes You Busy” (the first entry in Just for Students).

Now, if you truly do not like playing piano, then you probably will never have fun with it.  But if the real issue is your needing to put in the time to make your music sound good, then you know what to do.  Try putting in good time.  You may be surprised that piano is fun again.


3) But I Knew It At Home

(This LONG entry explores why your pieces seem to go better at home than at your lesson.)

The dreaded scenario has happened.  You have played through your assigned pieces at home.  You have worked out most difficulties and are enjoying what you are playing.  You feel pretty confident when you start your lesson.  Then, at your lesson, a passage in the piece suddenly looks weird.  Your fingers struggle with measures you never had a problem with at home.  You fight your way through the passage and know it was not good.  It affects the whole piece.  When you finally finish, you turn to your teacher and wail honestly, ”But I knew this piece at home!”

What happened?  What turned your Dr. Jekyll of a piece into Mr. Hyde?

It probably has to do with one of two aspects of at-home playing:

  • You repeatedly played something other than what is written in the music at home. This is also known bluntly as “learning it wrong.”
  • You were playing exactly what is written in the music at home – but weren’t paying attention. This is what can be described as “mindless playing,” the opposite of mindful playing.

Either way, because you are so focused on your music at your lesson, it is there that you have the disconnect between how you played at home and how you play at the lesson.   Let’s explore these ideas a bit.

Learning it Wrong: There are two primary ways we learn something wrong: simple errors and fundamental misunderstandings.

  • Simple Errors: You overlooked something in the music that you otherwise generally know.   Maybe you ignored a key signature.  Maybe the written rhythm is different than how you played it.  Maybe you listened to and imitated a recording that had errors.  (Just because someone posts a recording online does not guarantee it is good.)

These simple errors are often easily corrected.  Instead of complaining or beating yourself up, correct the mistake.  It may take several repetitions the correct way for the passage or piece to feel and sound natural.

  • Misunderstandings: You did not understand a fundamental musical concept or application.  So you either guessed incorrectly what to do or ignored the concept or application entirely.  Maybe you did not understand key signatures and thus did not realize that some black keys needed to be played.  Maybe you did not connect the different numbers in time signatures to different pulse or beat patterns.

Again, this happens.  Review the correct concept or technique at your lesson – speak up if you remain confused – and incorporate your new understanding in your playing. Hint:  I prefer that my students contact me between lessons when they are at home and realize that they cannot figure out something they do not understand.  It is amazing what can be worked out through a quick phone call or online message.

“Okay,” you now admit.  “Errors and misunderstandings mean I truly did not know the piece at home.  But what about the passage or piece I know I played correctly at home?  Why can’t I play it that way at my lesson?” 

Mindless Playing may be the culprit.  When a passage or piece is easy, we often do not take the time at home to understand or analyze what is happening in the music.  We just play.  At lessons, however, we usually pay a lot of attention to the music.  Then those passages that weren’t organized in our brains look like we have never seen them before.  In a way that is true.  We have not truly seen (i.e., understood) those passages before.

So what can you do at home to play your piece a little more mindfully?  A good start is to pay attention to the structure of the music.  Not that every measure and phrase of the piece requires formal musical analysis.  But taking just a little time at home to identify what is going on even in seemingly easy parts of  the music helps the brain stay organized and focused at the lesson.

Some examples of not-too-technical mindful playing:  “Here is part of a descending C Major scale.”  ”Here is where the tension starts building.  That’s why there is a crescendo.”  “Here is the recapitulation, so I should expect the tonal center to start differing from the exposition.”  (Okay, that last sentence reeks of formal musical analysis of sonata-allegro form.)

An added benefit of mindful playing:  When you truly understand the structure of a passage or piece, you will find it easier to keep going if you make a mistake at your lesson.  You stay focused on the whole and do not let an inadvertent slip of the fingers throw off your overall understanding or playing.  And you feel better about your playing at the lesson.

Note that I have not addressed one other factor that creates the “But I Knew It At Home” syndrome:  discomfort or outright nervousness during lessons or performances.  This issue deserves a blog entry of its own  . . . . Stay tuned!

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