Many students write in to me every week asking how to improve their piano playing. In this article, I’m going to lay out some of my ideas and the concepts that I’ve learned over the years that will help you improve your piano playing skills.

Step 1) Be Realistic

This is not meant to sound harsh, but many students set unrealistic goals and milestones for themselves. I’ve been guilty of doing this myself. We’re all human and tend to “dream and scheme” which sometimes gives us lofty ideas of what we can accomplish and how long it should take. So, the first step in improving your piano skills is to evaluate or re-evaluate your piano goals.

Why do you study the piano? You should have a clear answer to this. The answer can be as simple as “Because it makes me happy to play the piano.” Start by answering this question and we will come back to this in a minute.

Second, what do you want to do with your piano playing skill? Do you want to play gigs? Record? Teach? Play at parties? Write music? All of these things? Having a clear idea of what you want to do with the skills that you are attaining will help to define your direction.

Step 2) Unlock Your ‘Inner’ Pianist

Getting better at the piano is dependent on both physical and mental practice. The physical practice, though time consuming, is the easy part. You learn songs, practice scales, rhythms, etc. The mental practice is often more difficult. So, what do I mean by mental practice?

Mental practice can be thought of as practice away from the the piano. Spelling chords in your head while in the car for example. However, this is not the mental practice that I am referring to here. The mental practice that I’m referring to is “how to keep yourself in the right frame of mind.”

Playing an instrument is a mind game. How many times have you said to yourself “I can’t play hands together,” or “I’ll never be able to improve my piano playing!” Maybe you’ve thought “I’m not as good as that piano player,” or “I don’t practice enough to improve my piano playing.” On and on it goes. We as humans have a wonderful capacity to be incredibly hard on ourselves. I personally have said every one of these statements and others!

Unfortunately, this mental “garbage” blocks us from progressing at our instrument. Let me share a story…

In my 20’s I had my own trio that I would play with and write songs for. When writing songs, I would often think “What will other musicians think of this piece? Will they like it or think that it is good?” I spent years thinking this way. I would often wonder if what I was playing was “right” or if I was even a jazz pianist at all since I really didn’t feel as though I sounded like other players. This was garbage thinking.

You can’t see the floor in a basement filled with garbage. In the same way, I could never know the pianist inside if I was so worried about the pianist outside. Luckily when I hit 30 I had an epiphany. For some reason, I just stopped caring about what others thought of my playing. I guess I figured that I had been playing professionally for 15 years at this point, I must be doing something right.

Letting go of my preconceived notions of what I should sound like as a pianist, an artist, helped me to unlock the pianist inside.

Step 3) Align Your Practicing With Your Goals

Unlocking the pianist inside might take just reading this article for some, while it may take years of introspection for others. Regardless of how long it takes, we can start aligning our goals with what we practice.

Let’s go back to the two questions I asked you earlier:

  1. Why do you study the piano?
  2. What do you want to do with your piano playing skill?

To align your practice with your goals I suggest this formula. Bear in mind, this is only a guide, not an absolute. You might decide to practice more or less than my suggestions.

1) Start with “Why do you study the piano?” Look below to see which answer is closest to yours:

  • Just for fun (2 days)
  • To play for friends (3 days)
  • To play with others (4 days)
  • To play professionally…to gig (5 days)

2) Next, think about your goal and pick the option below that most closely matches your piano goal:

  • In my mind, I think my goal is pretty easy to attain (30 minutes)
  • I think I can attain my goal, but it will take work (60 minutes)
  • I’d feel pretty lucky to ever attain my goal (90 minutes)
  • I’ll never attain my goal (180 minutes+)

Step 4) Piano Playing Math…

Taking the numbers in (parenthesis) from both lists, we can create a basic practice schedule for ourselves. The more honest you are with yourself, the better the numbers will be.

In list 1, the number that matched your answer the closest is how many days you should practice. In list 2, this number tells you how many hours per day to practice.

For example, if you said that you play the piano “To play for my wife once a year on our anniversary” and your believed your goal to “pretty easy to attain,” then you should practice for about 30 minutes, 3 days a week. A focused 30 minutes a day, 3 days a week would most likely get you to your goal.

You’ll notice, the closer to a professional player you want to be and the harder the goal…the more you should practice. This is just one way of looking at practice and in many ways it is more of a novelty than a scientific method of calculating how much you should practice. There is an ulterior motive!

My goal for you in doing this exercise is to gain a more realistic approach to how you see your piano goals and practice to help you improve your piano playing. So often I see students that are so hard on themselves. They feel really low about their piano playing skills and their abilities. This pains me because music should be fun! It usually comes out that their goals or expectations are just way ‘out of whack’ with what is possible.

Shooting for the moon is noble, but if you shoot for the moon and make it only to the couch you’re likely to feel pretty low. Small, attainable goals are the answer. Better to have a goal of playing one easy song than to try booking a gig at Carnegie Hall and feeling upset when they don’t call.

So here’s to you getting to the next level with your piano playing! In part 2, I will discuss a structure for our lessons based upon your goals.

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