Optimising the Adult Piano Journey

Guest post by Howard Smith

With time always moving on, some adult piano learners are keen to understand how to optimise their practice time so as to achieve the goals they have set for themselves. After all, beyond a certain age, there is a finite window of opportunity to get on top of any complex new skill, and piano is surely that. This reality certainly plays on my mind. While age can be immaterial and attitude is all, the brain does lose plasticity over time.

With the above in mind, I posted a question to the Piano Network UK (PNUK) on Facebook. I asked: Assuming a normal regime of scales, arpeggios, exercises and grade pieces, what ELSE would you recommend for ACCELERATED progress? The long list below is a summary of their answers.

I stress: personal context is everything. Not everyone wants or can allow the piano to dominate their life. Take from the list what’s practical. I will certainly be doing so.

  1. Be clear about your long term goals.
  2. Quality of deliberate practice is more important than the quantity of practice.
  3. Hours per day is a debatable issue. Break up long practice sessions (multiple hours) with breaks. Not everyone can work as if they are a concert pianist.
  4. Easy to forget: practice hands separately (of course) before hands together.
  5. Use time away from the piano for other complementary kinds of music study. For example, studying scores, understanding how professional musicians work.
  6. Listen to as much music as possible. Listen carefully. Listen intelligently.
  7. Interweave ad-hoc practice into the everyday. Do not limit touching the keyboard to formal ‘sit down practice’.
  8. Learn to play different styles of music. If classical focus, do some jazz. And vice versa.
  9. Return to the music you love, find out how much you have progressed.
  10. Meet up with other musically interested people, e.g. a piano circle.
  11. If possible, collaborate with other musicians, a band, duets, etc.
  12. Record and listen carefully to your playing. Comparing it to the professionals.
  13. Understand the score beyond ‘the notes’, patterns, contours, harmony etc. Theory again.
  14. Look for supplementary advice to formal teaching, e.g. YouTube channels.
  15. Feel free to spend some time in mindless wandering at the keyboard, improvise, have fun!
  16. Don’t forget about the importance of written theory in bolstering practical.
  17. Ask your teacher to diagnose any problems, dedicate a lesson or two to that.
  18. Build a strong technique. Yes, scales and arpeggios count.
  19. Build strong sight reading skills. Difficult for many adults.
  20. Make sensible use of a metronome.
  21. Short ‘studies’ (or extracts of pieces) help build skills more quickly than longer pieces.
  22. Observe other players, go to concerts, or watch online.
  23. Select repertoire you love and come back to it time and again. Make a list of your conquests.
  24. Carefully plan out your practice time between the different work required.
  25. Vary tasks throughout the practice session. Create variety in practice: different keys, modes, contrary motion, legato staccato, pulse (4, 3, 2), unison, in 3rds, in 6ths, intervals, chords, etc.
  26. Listen to what your teacher is telling you, think like a child.
  27. Don’t give up on daily practice, at least five days out of seven if at all possible.
  28. Play with recorded or computer-generated accompaniments for fun.
  29. Practice slowly, build tempo gradually, fingering correct from the get-go.
  30. Hear the music in your head, feel the contours before you start.
  31. Efficiency may not be the right metaphor, enjoy the challenge of working on difficult pieces.
  32. Grades and exams are important but are not for everyone, time can be lost.
  33. Always be on the lookout for new ways to practise.
  34. Never underestimate the benefit of proper finger, hand, arm, body movement and posture.
  35. Seek out high quality challenging repertoire that can gradually introduce new requirements for learning.
  36. Introspect, look for what limits you, and then focus there.
  37. Work with teachers that have ambition for you, push yourself forward.
  38. Recognise there are limits to learning piano, it’s just hard.
  39. Being in a hurry can itself limit your progress. Patience yes, but keep an eye on your learning. Is what you are doing working?
  40. Always have a pencil, sharpener and rubber to hand at the piano. Make notes, for example, fingering, chord changes. Scribble all over your scores!
  41. Don’t forget to have a bar of chocolate or a cup of tea/coffee to hand … but not too close to that precious piano!
  42. And go back from time to time to play to refresh and enrich your older repertoire.
  43. There will always be more.


I hope others will find this list useful. I’ve printed it out and pinned to the wall in my music room.

Howard Smith

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Header image: participants at a piano course in France


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