Whether you are a beginner or an advanced player, there is a right and wrong way to practice.
The right way to practice is very simple – go slow! Now this may seem rather obvious and straight forward, and it is. But how many times have you sat at the piano to learn something new and have tried to play it at the normal speed? And what happens? Unless it’s a piece that’s below the level you are currently at, then you will have made mistakes, and probably lots of them. However, it might not be easy at first to force yourself to play really slow, but in the long run you will get much more out of it.
First of all, if you try to play a difficult piece at the normal pace then you are bound to make mistakes, and if you are constantly making the same mistakes over and over, then you will only get frustrated and possibly stop playing it altogether – which I’ve done myself many times. If it seems frustrating at first to play something really slowly, then try to remember how many times you’ve attempted to learn a difficult piece, but gave up in the end because you couldn’t do it. So give yourself time, and above all have patience. It will definitely pay off in the end.
How slow you need to practice really depends on the difficulty of the piece, and subsequently how many mistakes you make when you attempt it. So the idea is to play at a speed whereby you don’t make any mistakes, and if this means you have to go super slow – then so be it. Don’t worry too much about the rhythm of the notes to begin with. You need to first of all focus on playing the right notes with the correct fingers, and then move onto the note values. And if at any point you are making a mistake on just one bar, then you need to slow it down even more until you don’t. You’ll notice I also said ‘the right fingers’. This is just as important as the right notes, because without the right fingers you will not be able to play it correctly, and at the correct tempo.
Also, you need to make sure you don’t attempt the whole piece in one go each time you practice it. Try each bar or section at a time, until you can play to at least a moderate pace in relation to the full speed it’s meant to be played at. There are two ways you can approach this. First of all, you could practice each bar until you can play the whole piece at about two thirds of the correct tempo, and then attempt the whole piece when you are practicing, rather than bar to bar. That way you have a good chance of slowly raising the whole pieces tempo to the full speed, without making any mistakes. But you have to be careful with this, as you might fall back into the habit of playing it too fast and making mistakes.
The second approach is more advisable, and this basically means you must only practice a bar, or a few bars at a time, depending on how the piece is structured. For example, if you are practicing a piece that has a lot of back to back quavers or semi-quavers, and they roll over to each bar; then you may decide to group a few bars together for your practice. Otherwise it may be too difficult to keep stopping yourself at one bar, and then trying to pick it up again on the next. But again, try to keep each bar or section you are practicing down to a minimum.
The most important thing to remember is why you are trying to learn something new in the first place. And that’s because you want to play it, and you want to play it well! So what would you rather do – try to play it fast, but then give up in the end and never learn it because of all the mistakes you’re making? Or take it really slow and methodical, and no matter how long it takes you, be able to play a new and difficult piece in the end?
The choice is yours, but I know what I’d rather do…