Hands playing a piano

How to Practice Piano Efficiently

Many people simply stop at the fact that they must practice, and don’t really consider how to practice.

This does them a disservice as quite often the ways we naturally practice if we don’t really think about it aren’t the most efficient.

Having played the piano for nearly 30 years, I’ve experimented with a lot of different practice methods, and those methods have evolved for me over time.

Overall what I’ve always searched for is how to get the most out of my practice without actually spending very much time doing it.

Don’t get me wrong; I love playing the piano. However, what I’ve found is that if I can make my practice extremely efficient, I have a lot more options. I could add more music to my repertoire each month, or sight-read something new and interesting, or work on my improvisation (which still needs a lot of work!).

Also, for me it’s really important to have a life outside of piano practice in order to avoid musical burnout. I’ve known people who spend every free moment practicing. I applaud their focus and discipline, but that will never be me. I will always want to have enough time to go outside, cook good food, pursue other interests, and enjoy being with the people I love.

If you feel the same way, you’re in luck because I’m about to share with you some key components to practice I’ve found over the years that allow me to accomplish my piano goals with less daily time commitment. Enjoy!

Make a Plan

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Whenever you’re going for maximum efficiency, proper planning is usually heavily involved. If I don’t have my practice plan all mapped out, my practice sessions quickly become chaotic and I end up wasting more time and accomplishing less in that time than I’d like.

Because my practice plans are so specific and efficient, sometimes I spend more time on planning day than on practice days! If you are new to planning your practice in detail, don’t be surprised if it takes awhile to get your plan all mapped out. Give it a chance and see how easy it is to practice once you have your detailed plan.

Here are the 3 steps to creating your practice plan:

1. Compile Music

Piano with on music score

First figure out what you actually want to play and gather that music all together in one place. What that looks like for me right now is about an hour’s worth of music all photocopied, placed in non-reflective page protectors, and compiled together into a single binder.

(I also make sure to number the measures if they’re not numbered already. This is very important if you want to follow my specific practice planning method.)

The pieces are in performance order and I practice them in that order (or reverse order to mix it up) to save time searching for the next piece. I have one binder like this for each month and rotate them as the year progresses (more about how I design my monthly programs in a later post).

Depending on your level and your goals, you may want to start with just one or two pieces. I highly recommend photocopying them and putting them together in some kind of binding. This way when practice time comes along there’s no time lost looking for music, or even flipping through a book to get to the correct page.

2. Set Goals

Notebook with goals/notes written at the top

Now that you know what you want to play, you need to have an idea of when. This can be an arbitrary goal date, but it can be even more effective if you have a specific performance coming up for which you would like to play your pieces. (If you’re not sure where to start, I highly recommend checking out a local retirement home. They may even be able to pay you!)

Note: Make sure your goals are realistic. This can sometimes take a bit of trial and error to get right. Typically what I do is try to learn a new piece by about a month before the first performance. Often I have the notes learned by then, but it still needs quite a bit of work. I then try to get it up to speed by about two weeks before the performance, leaving the last two weeks to polish. This will look different for you depending on what your abilities are. Be kind to yourself and set gentle goals at first.

3. Write It Down!

Blank notebook

Calculate exactly what you need to accomplish day by day, measure by measure, tempo by tempo, in order to reach your goals.

Make these daily achievements as small as possible. Ideally they only require about 15 minutes of practice time. That makes them much easier to accomplish, and easier to come back to each and every day.

It’s so important to have these daily goals written out because that’s how you hold yourself accountable. It’s also how you make sure you’re making steady progress.

I like to put a check mark over each assignment as I practice through them, not only because that way I know I’ve done it, but because it gives me a little burst of satisfaction and accomplishment each time!

For an even more detailed discussion of creating the perfect practice plan, check out the entire series I have on the subject, starting with Preparing to Make a Practice Plan.

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

Create a Practice Habit

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For many people, this is the most difficult aspect of learning an instrument, but it’s also the most important.

In order to make steady progress, it makes sense that you also need to practice on a regular basis. The practice plan you write down should help you do this. It will also take a fair amount of discipline to make sure you keep coming back, day in and day out.

One trick to make this easier is try to make sure your daily assignments aren’t too much, as I mentioned above. Practicing every day for even 10-15 minutes is better than practicing for an hour or more just once a week.

Like any habit, you’re the most likely to succeed if you to try to practice at the same time each day, ideally with another daily habit triggering it.

For example, you could practice each morning while you sip your coffee, or each evening right after dinner.

Practice Mindfully

Man meditating

Many people simply play through the piece they’re working on a few times and call it good. This is probably one of the most inefficient ways to practice out there.

Not only are you wasting time repeating the parts you already know, but you’re not spending enough time working on the parts you don’t know, and are quite possibly making them worse by practicing the same mistakes over and over again.

If you are playing all the way through a piece, be sure to stay mentally present the whole time. Make note of any sections that need additional work. Also try to anticipate places where you’ve made mistakes in the past. Then do your best to avoid making them again lest you form a bad habit.

Pay Attention to Your Body

Woman flexing
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If you pay attention to how your body feels every time you practice, your progress and technique will improve tremendously.

Soon I’ll publish a post about how to play with good technique, which will have steps for you to follow. It’s important to play with good technique each time you practice until it becomes second nature.

Playing with good technique not only makes the way you sound better, it makes everything easier to play as well. Why wouldn’t you want that??

You can also vary the way you play something each time in order to get even more out of your practice.

Take Breaks

Coffee mug that says break on it
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This is one of my favorite aspects of practice: Sometimes, you can accomplish more by not playing than by playing.

If you’ve been practicing diligently for awhile and are finding yourself struggling or becoming frustrated, allow yourself to take a few days off. Sometimes our frustration blocks us from making progress. If we allow that to subside and come back to the piece after some relaxation, our playing can often be magically better!

Similarly, if there’s a specific piece you’re working on and you just can’t get it right, do what my childhood piano teacher used to call “Putting the piece to bed.” This means just set the piece aside for a while–Maybe a month, maybe a few months. Work on something else instead.

When you come back to the piece, you’ll probably be a better player from whatever else you were working on. This piece will suddenly feel much easier than before!

Note: Don’t set the piece aside for two long as it will be hard to get it back if you’ve completely forgotten how to play it!

Be Kind to Yourself

Hands making the shape of a heart

Sometimes, learning something new can be frustrating. Perhaps you’re not making progress as quickly as you’d like, or you can’t seem to get your tempo beyond a certain point. Perhaps someone else you know was able to learn the same piece twice as quickly as you were.

Remember that this is not a contest, and that any progress is still progress. As with many things, it is definitely true with music that often slow and steady wins the race. If this is an issue for you, you may like to read my post, When Practice Doesn’t Go Well.

If you keep creating tiny daily goals and accomplishing them, you’ll be amazed at the strides you will end up making! If you still need help making the perfect practice plan, be sure to check out the Piecewise Practice Planner I made–It’s free!

Good luck and Happy Practicing!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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2 thoughts on “How to Practice Piano Efficiently”

  1. I love the planning and organizing to be intentional about learning piano. Already organizing my own book.
    thank you

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