The Three H’s of Practicing

On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As pianist and renowned teacher Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book ‘With Your Own Two Hands’, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.”

To me, this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.


Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.

Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone” or a flow state. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions.

Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality (SB)

Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.

Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.

The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come

Seymour Bernstein, ‘With Your Own Two Hands’ (Schirmer, 1981)





5 common misconceptions about pianists and piano lessons

Guest post by Javen Ling, founder of Alternate Tone Music School, Singapore


“I do not have the potential to be a great pianist as I don’t have long, slender fingers”

Long, slender fingers do not necessarily make you a better pianist. While longer fingers may be an advantage in playing certain repertoire with large stretches, short, fat fingers are also an advantage when it comes to playing other music

Some of the world’s greatest pianists have small hands and stubby fingers. Instead of worrying about how your genetics have not provided you with your ideal fingers, start to work developing your technique and learn to accept your physical limitations. If a piece of music is not particularly well-suited to your hand, find a way to work around it. Every pianist eventually has to learn to live with their limitations and adapt to them.

Great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. There is no specific type of finger size or length that determines your potential.

“When I start learning a new piece, I should work from the beginning to the end”

Typically, most people will learn the piece from beginning to end and continuously practice until they can play the entire piece well. The problem with this method is having the discipline to push forward when music gets harder to play. As you approach a section that you’re unfamiliar with, you might be tempted to stray away from that and repeat the part in which you are comfortable with, rather than working on the difficult sections.

The most efficient way is to learn the most difficult sections first. This allows you to spend more time on the most difficult sections, rather than avoiding them or leaving them until later in your practicing. Thus when you start learning a new piece, scan through the composition, and determine which section/s appears the most difficult and start working on it first. As you become familiar with the harder section, you will tend to practice it more and under practice the easier sections.

“I don’t see any need to practice hands separately”

Professional pianists continue to practice hands separately even after playing a piece for 25 years or more! Many people are usually taught to practice hand separately first in order to reach their end goal of playing their hands together.

The benefit of practicing your hands separately is that you can focus on note-learning, technical sections and nuances of voicing and phrasing that might be overlooked if you practice hands together. So don’t forget about practicing separately once passed the initial phase of learning a passage. Use it as a tool to polish and improve your playing.

“Never look down at your hands when playing”

Most piano teachers encourage their students not to look at their hands. Firstly, this activity can slow down their learning, especially sight-reading skills as it inhibits them from looking ahead in the score. Secondly, students should not be too reliant on looking at their hands to find the right keys. Thirdly, the action of continually looking up at the sheet music and down at your hands can make you dizzy and might make it difficult to keep track of where you are at in the music.

An occasional glance down at the hands is PERFECTLY FINE. The trick is to not move your head too vigorously, but rather to just glance down at your hands quickly before looking back up at the sheet. By that I mean keeping your head perfectly still and just look down your nose at your hands. Lastly, of course, you should know the sequence of the keys well enough to locate them easily!

“I can easily learn the piano on my own”

With YouTube and Google, it is easy to pick up any skill via the Internet.

You can certainly teach yourself about music theory, history and techniques via the internet; however, a teacher’s experience is invaluable in helping you to improve your playing skills and technique, and advise you on common mistakes. In the long run, this will probably save you time and accelerate your learning.

Many people think that by taking piano lessons you have to go through graded piano exams. That is not the case. It really depends on what you are looking for. If you are interested in becoming a piano teacher or a piano professional, then it is advisable to take exams and diplomas. However, if you just want to learn for leisure, you don’t need to take exams and you can play repertoire which you enjoy, whether classical music, jazz or pop. Alternate Tone music school in Singapore specialises in teaching contemporary music and offers personalised lessons, which means you get to play your favourite music no matter what level you’re at!

If you’re still convinced you can get there without any professional help, that’s absolutely fine! There are many great and talented musicians who did not undergo any formal training. But in my opinion, the piano is definitely harder to learn on your own because of the structure of the instrument and its repertoire. If your goal is to play well, I definitely recommend having a good piano teacher to guide you through your piano studies.

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What Are Piano Lessons For?

This is a very personal manifesto about the purpose of piano lessons. You may not agree. You may disagree vehemently. But what you (as a piano teacher or as a parent of a piano student or as a piano student) believe piano lessons are for will affect your level of satisfaction with the piano lessons you are giving, or you or your child is receiving. Elissa Milne

What Are Piano Lessons For?.


The Virtuoso Parent

This post is inspired by the excellent book The Virtuoso Teacher by music educationalist Paul Harris, which I have been reading on the recommendation of George Bevan, Director of Music at Monkton Coombe School, and author of an excellent blog on music teaching and practice. I will distill my general response to the book in a separate future post.

As private instrumental teachers, we interact with the parents of our students on a regular basis. They deliver and collect their offspring to and from our homes or teaching studios, they pay our bills, they (hopefully) recommend us to other parents of potential students: they are, in many ways, our “bread and butter”. It is therefore important that we maintain good relations with the parents of our students.

One of the most crucial roles of the parent is to ensure that the student completes the assigned homework (practising) between lessons, and we rely on parents to do their bit and encourage their children to practice regularly. I am sure all of us who teach privately have come across certain “types” of parent:

There’s the one who feels the teacher should be left alone to do everything, has little involvement with lessons and the teaching studio, and occasionally appears at concerts or other events, usually comparing their offspring unfavourably to other students/performers. Or the one who, on picking up the child, berates them about practising in front of the teacher, or complains to the teacher how little Timothy is “so difficult about practising and never listens”. Then there is the pushy parent who wants to do it all, who regularly questions the teacher’s judgement, pushes for the child to be fast-tracked through graded exams, hovers over the child while he/she practices, and re-teaches the child between lessons, often undoing the teacher’s careful work and, ultimately, leaving the student feeling confused. There are parents who don’t reply to emails or text messages, but who are quick to demand lesson slots are rejigged at a moment’s notice because little Amy has a playdate on piano lesson day, or who never pay on time. These are the petty exigencies of running a private teaching practice, and it is important that we don’t let these niggles get to us too much.

I am fortunate in my own teaching practice that the parents of my students are a really wonderful bunch of people – supportive, enthusiastic and encouraging both to their children and to me, as teacher of their children, and many of them have become good friends. I’ll call these types of parents Virtuoso Parents – and they are worth their weight in gold, so be nice to them and get them on side.

So what makes a parent a Virtuoso Parent? First, don’t confuse the Virtuoso Parent (VP) with the Tiger Parent (or Tiger Mother). VPs know that too much pushing can be detrimental to the child’s progress, and that hot-housing, in any subject, may not be best for their child: equally, they understand that the right kind of support will help the child reach his or her potential. They are interested and enthusiastic.

The VP reads the teacher’s notes in the practice notebook (generally, the teacher-home means of communication), ensures the practising is undertaken, fills in the practice notebook and leaves helpful comments for teacher at the next lesson. VPs also understand that enforced or negative practice sessions are a hiding to nowhere, and that sometimes just being in the same room as the child who is practising can be useful and supportive (piano practice can be a very lonely business!). When I was growing up, my mum used to do the ironing in the same room as the piano while I was practising.

VPs understand that the teacher often works to a tight schedule and relies on students arriving and leaving lessons on time to run an efficient studio. VPs enjoy involvement in the teaching studio, whether by making cakes for student concerts or signing their children up for ‘extra-curricular’ activities such as masterclasses, competitions or trips. They take on board the teacher’s suggestions for “further listening”, watching YouTube clips, or going to concerts. They communicate with the teacher, and are accommodating and sympathetic if the teacher has to reschedule a lesson due to other commitments or illness, and they rarely make unreasonable demands on the teacher.

The best part is that the children of VPs tend to be keen to come to lessons, are eager to learn, and make noticeable progress – because they feel supported both in lessons and at home.

More on how parents can support their children from the Piano Education Page

Myths about piano lessons

Thinking about taking piano lessons, but worried you won’t cut the mustard as a piano student?

This helpful and informative article by Howard Richman dispels plenty of myths about piano lessons and piano teachers, offers sensible advice about how to approach lessons, whether a child or an adult, a beginner or a restarter, and has some thoughtful comments on practising and studying the piano.

Read the full article here

Making the most of your piano lessons

Make sure you get the most out of each and every lesson by following these simple points:

  • Arrive on time for your lessons: get the most out of the time you have each week.
  • Come prepared for your lessons: make sure you bring all your music, tutor book and practice notebook. Your teacher may have copies of the music you use, but it is always better to bring your own in case you and your teacher need to make notes on it.
  • Do your homework! That means practising. Complete the work assigned to you by your teacher each week and you will see your skills at the piano improve. This should give you the incentive to keep practising!
  • Take responsibility for your learning. That means setting yourself achievable goals and high standards, learn music that is at your skill level, and ask your teacher for help whenever you need it.
  • Be intelligent about your practising. Don’t practice without thinking. Study your music and know what you need to do with it.
  • Be patient, positive and persistent in the face of new musical challenges.
  • Listen to your teacher and always ask if you don’t understand something.
  • Be active in your lessons. Talk to your teacher, discuss ideas about how to approach your music and your study.
  • Make notes during your lessons (for older/adult students) so that you have a record of what you’ve discussed.
  • Go to concerts, masterclasses, and talks, and listen to as wide a variety of music as possible. Many orchestras run outreach schemes for children and young people.
  • Take part in festivals, competitions and other playing opportunities outside of your regular lessons. Accept feedback from your peers, teachers, adjudicators and other musicians.
  • Be professional: you may not be a professional musician (yet!) but you can still behave in a professional way. Be punctual, prepared, courteous and honest.