Hello piano friends! In this post I’ll address some of the most common questions that piano students have about what is needed for good piano practice.
I’ll touch on a number of topics like structuring a practice routine, practicing more efficiently, the question of slow or hands-alone practice, ways you can practice away from the piano, and which other tools, like apps and metronomes, might or might not be useful for you.
In my over 20 years of teaching (and many more years of practicing) I’ve found that individual students’ piano practice needs vary widely, so I’ve tried to include a diverse array of strategies that you can choose to try out and see if they work for you—but your mileage may vary, as they say.
I. Practice Routine
II. What to Practice
III. General Practice Tips
IV. Practice Tools
V. Common Mistakes
VI. More Resources
I. Practice Routine
What is a good practice routine for piano? How should I structure my piano practice?
This will vary by person and project. However, the way I structure most of my students’ piano lessons also tends to work as a practice routine.
My students’ lessons are frequently ordered as follows:
- Chromatic scales, in either parallel or contrary motion and as many times as needed to warm up the muscles that connect to the thumb
- A selection of major and/or minor scales, depending on any trouble with scales the student had during the week and which scales we covered in previous weeks (rotating through chunks of the Circle of Fifths if there’s no issue with specific scales)
- A selection of cadence progressions: we chunk them into sharp majors (C-F#), flat majors (C-Gb), sharp minors (Am-D#m) and flat minors (Am-Ebm) and rotate through those so students play all 4 chunks for me within a month. I joke that it’s like a weekly school cafeteria menu.
- A selection of arpeggios, chunked out much like the scales and cadences are, but more flexibly since we can get through a lot more of them at once than the 3-form minor scales.
- Current repertoire—in lessons we focus on what needs my help the most urgently, but in your practice routine I’d suggest going with the least technically challenging piece first as you continue to warm up physically. I enjoy warming up with Bach, as long as it’s not a “fingerbuster” piece like much of the C minor Partita. Your teacher will point out what needs work in each of your pieces specifically—maybe this week you need to use staccato practice to clean up some passagework or analyze a portion of a piece with big chords that are hard to play at sight. A good teacher will spot the issues and lay out those goals for you during piano lessons.
- If you work piano sight-reading practice into your routine—for my students this depends on their level and needs—you might choose to do that before or after your repertoire. ADHD students tend to need to do it before the repertoire so they don’t attempt it while mentally tired.
Take frequent breaks if you’re practicing for long periods. At minimum, break every 45 minutes.
How many hours a day should I practice piano?
How long you practice piano is something that varies by individual.
I really don’t prescribe a particular amount of practice time in my studio. I make sure that my students know what their piano practice goals are for the week—to master an additional 8-measure phrase of their current piece with the hands together at half tempo, to gain fluency in the C# harmonic minor scale, or to erase a baked-in note or rhythmic inaccuracy in their Mozart sonata—and the time needed to do those things will vary by student and by task.
I find that students will get too wrapped up in counting minutes and that often detracts from the quality of the practice happening. I’m sure I wasn’t the only tween who would practice a little bit of something one-handed and use the other hand to inch the egg timer just a little further so it would go off earlier than it should have.
That said, I agree with Frédéric Chopin that putting in more than 3 hours a day is not usually any more helpful than stopping at 3. In my observations/experience, it’s usually a sign of inefficient piano practice or having committed to too many collaborative piano projects at once.
I’ve had friends get chastised by their professors for putting in 6+ hour practice days, with those professors pointing out that it’s just as (or more) important to gain life experience that can then inform deep and satisfying musical interpretations. Even great piano masters followed this practice tip – Rachmaninoff once mentioned the need to “step away from the piano” to Horowitz.
When should I practice piano?
This depends on your personal body clock and schedule.
The practice rooms at my university would usually open at 6 am, and some people really love practicing that early and having the rest of the day to do other things. However, I think it’s a bit more common for musicians to be night owls and enjoy late-night practicing.
Try a few different times of day, keeping in mind what noise restrictions and your own obligations will allow, and see what feels best for you. I discovered that I enjoy evening piano practice only a few years ago!
Is it possible to practice too much piano?
Absolutely. Overuse injuries are a possible result, and of course, spending all day at the piano rather than gaining life experience can stunt a younger student’s ability to develop enough emotional intelligence to offer deeply musical interpretations of their repertoire or socialize with audiences and colleagues as is expected.
This point is mentioned (as Point no.2) in this post on what NOT to do while practicing.
How is practicing different for beginners vs. advanced students?
To be honest, the overarching principle of setting forth practice goals and then focusing on those is really not any different for a beginner vs. an advanced/conservatory student. The only differences are how many goals are to be tackled in each practice session and, of course, the repertoire difficulty.
Beginners will also likely need a lot more guidance in how to set and tackle a practice goal, which is why I’m a big fan of having beginners attend at least 2 piano lessons per week if they can. Having more frequent teacher guidance can be very helpful at this stage.
Additionally, children—certainly those under age 10 and often somewhat older ones too—will really need a parent to supervise the practice session and make sure the goals set out at the lessons are being addressed. This is something that parents often don’t realize or get properly briefed on when they enroll their children in piano lessons.
II. What to Practice
How should I warm up before piano practice?
Having some type of warm up routine at the piano is essential to preventing injury.
Before starting to play in the lesson, I have students do something I call the “Wiggle Warmup” for lack of a better name: they gently rest their 2/3/4 fingertips on the edge of a surface (often the edge of the music rack or fallboard), then gently wiggle their thumb and pinky fingers, just enough to bring awareness and blood flow to the muscles that connect to the thumb and pinky.
Playing with a stress ball also serves the same purpose of activating these muscle groups, but a brief wiggle is convenient and often especially welcome in cold weather.
What piano exercises should I practice? (ex. arpeggios, scales, trills, rhythm, etc.)
I don’t require or endorse doing exercises beyond major and minor (all 3 types) scales, major and minor arpeggios, and I-IV-I-V-I progressions in all keys. For the majority of students and repertoire selections, this is enough.
I’ll also make small etudes out of nasty passages in a repertoire piece for a specific student (which is much more efficient than separate exercises anyway).
Of course, some students may be taking RCM/ABRSM exams or the like and will have additional technical exercise requirements.
I also don’t use Hanon: he was an organist and we can’t even find historical evidence that he studied the piano at all. Organ technique is very different from piano technique so I leave Hanon to the organists.
Czerny tends to be harmless, but is less musically fulfilling than simply playing through parts of Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven piano sonatas, which have the same technical content.
As always, certain students may require me to make exceptions: I once had a teenage transfer student with ADHD whose “stim” (self-regulatory sensory stimulation technique) was to play through one specific Hanon exercise first thing. This regulated her and got her into the right headspace so we could then dive into that week’s lesson content.
Here's a post with more ideas on how to approach piano technique practice.
III. General Practice Tips
How can I practice piano more efficiently?
Practice Strategy #1: Putting the hands together right away (if you can)
Yes, you heard that right! When you learn repertoire hands separately by default, what happens is that you teach separate brain areas (or bunches of brain cells) how to play their parts: a part for the RH, a part for the LH, and then a third part for the hands-together playing.
What tends to happen, then, is that when you put the hands together, you feel like you’re back to Square One, and for the neurons that control hands-together motion, it is Square One, because it’s the first time that those neurons are being activated in that way. This creates frustration and extends the amount of time needed to learn the piece. This study may tell us why, although it doesn’t involve the piano.
It’s more efficient then, in most cases, to simply have the hands together from the beginning, but go so slowly that it’s doable.
Of course, certain passages may have unusual technical demands and you might have to isolate a hand for that (like Beethoven’s notorious 4-5 trills with other stuff happening below). While I don’t tell my students they absolutely cannot separate the hands in practice—I encourage them to do what feels best because a positive psychological state really helps with piano practice—I never require it.
Practice Strategy #2: Backwards-ordered chunking
Divide each piece into reasonable chunks (could be by phrase or subphrase, depending on what makes musical sense for your piece and level) and learn those chunks in backwards order.
Start with the very last chunk, maybe 2-4 measures. Then add the chunk before that. Then add the chunk before that one...
This prevents you from doing the typical piano student thing in which you simply play through from the beginning and then stop when it gets hard. If you only ever play from the beginning, the usually easier beginning portion gets far more repetitions than the usually harder stuff near the end, so you’re compounding the difficulty disparity and making poor use of your practice time.
Two examples of pieces that will convince you to try this approach are Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 7 – iii. Precipitato and Chopin’s Ballade no. 1 in G minor, op. 23. Both are orders of magnitude more difficult near the end than near the beginning, so chunking them out in backwards order will give you that needed extra time with the ends.
Practice Strategy #3: Using a Measure Practice Chart
This is an Excel spreadsheet with numbered squares representing measure numbers of each piece, then a blank square next to each that you can check off once you feel secure in your playing of that particular measure.
This really helps you zero in on areas in each piece that need to be worked on and is a way to make practice time efficient when you have a lot of repertoire to learn in less time than you’d like.
As a collaborative pianist I’m often in situations where multiple gigs are coming up at the same time—the holidays are notoriously filled with repertoire piles for me. In December 2022 I was working with four different choirs plus a couple individuals! Without measure practice charts set up for each piece, I would’ve just stared at my ForScore playlists and gotten overwhelmed.
With these charts, I could see immediately what needed work and if I had a few student-free minutes to be at the piano, I could, say, work through a few difficult measures of the Arutunian trumpet concerto or some newly-added transitions in the H. Leslie Adams choral piece I played with the composer himself conducting.
Practice Strategy #4: Creating a chart to track which keys you practice in scales/arpeggios/cadences each day
Rather than trying to cover all 24 major/minor keys in scale/arpeggio/cadence practice every day, which takes up more practice time than my adult students tend to have, I suggest doing a few each day so you can eventually hit all the keys over the course of a week.
In my face-to-face teaching days at Indiana University, I frequently worked with graduate students in the sciences who were very busy with research and TA obligations, so they needed very efficient ways to practice technical rudiments. One such late-intermediate student—then a PhD student in physics, meaning she’s much smarter than I am—created a beautiful chart listing each major scale, each type of minor scale (natural/harmonic/melodic), each arpeggio, and each cadence progression, with checkboxes she’d mark if she did that particular key that day. This ensured she would get through the whole set within a week. I totally regret not having taken a photo of this chart before she graduated and moved away!
Practice Strategy #5: Listening to your repertoire while doing other things
This is a big one that, in my experience, students don’t do often enough. Here’s a way to do that:
Make a "Current Repertoire" Playlist consisting of each piece you’re working on (preferably 2+ contrasting interpretations of each piece) and loop that playlist on Spotify, Pandora, or—if you’re old-school like me—an iPod. You can have this rep list playing while doing chores, cooking, showering, etc.
One of my non-music hobbies (raising butterflies) involves a lot of walking around outdoors without access to WiFi (to collect eggs to raise), so my 15-year-old iPod has become a valuable time-maximizing piano practice tool. I can also plug it into the USB port in my car so I can listen to my repertoire on my sometimes long church pianist gig commutes.
Personally, I have found that I need to engage with the sheet music at the piano first before this rep listening begins to have any impact, but that’s not necessarily typical, and some students really find it comforting to listen to their new repertoire first, before even opening the score.
Spotify and Pandora only host commercial album releases, which eliminates the possibility that you’ll go on YouTube and stumble upon a random 6-year-old playing your piece—which could either be demoralizing (if they play well) or misleading (if they play with any inaccuracies).
As a bonus, particularly when I am accompanying singers, I can go back to some of these playlists and see what I performed with each singer, which has helped me make repertoire recommendations later. And sometimes it’s just a fun nostalgia trip to listen through part or all of a playlist that really captures the time in your life when you were working on that rep.
How can I motivate myself to practice piano?
This is a super personal question—that is, it will very much depend on the person and what motivates them.
For me, looking toward a future performance is motivating. I want to create a fulfilling musical experience for my performing partners and audiences, and the knowledge that a deadline is approaching will kick up some adrenaline that I can (ideally) channel into the needed mental energy to practice piano. I’ll sometimes hang up my chosen performance outfit in a visible location, like outside my closet door, to remind myself of the upcoming performance.
On the (maybe) flipside, it’s always really fun for me to start looking at new repertoire after I’ve gotten through a performance whose repertoire has started feeling stale, so the excitement of getting to do something new can help.
However, someone who only wishes to play for personal enjoyment and has no need to perform for others will find their motivation elsewhere. For more ideas, I'd suggest checking out this post on maintaining your piano practice routine by Juliana Han.
Should you practice piano slowly? Is it better to practice slow or fast?
Generally, I actually recommend dividing up problem passages into tiny slices and trying them as close to tempo as possible. The reason for this is that very slow practice may make certain fingerings and arm shifts seem doable that will, in fact, not be doable or practical when you get the piece up to tempo.
If I took it slowly enough, I could plunk out the right hand of Chopin’s op. 10/1 Etude with only finger 2, but of course, trying to do that at anything resembling a performing tempo would be laughably impossible. Ideally, no student would actually attempt to do that, but this just illustrates how tempo can substantially impact our fingering decisions.
With that said, there are instances when it is just simply impossible to dive in and play something anywhere near tempo the first time. Therefore, some slow practice will be essential in these situations.
The point is to get these passages to the fastest doable tempo that you can manage as soon as possible so you don’t bake in fingerings and motions that will not serve you at the full tempo.
(While I’m thinking of Chopin, two of his pieces that forced me to practice significant chunks under tempo were the op. 10/4 and op. 25/11 Etudes. However, it was important for me to get the tempo up quickly so I could determine which fingerings would actually work.)
Other piano practice tips
Record yourself while practicing!
This is one of the most effective ways, for many people, to induce the same adrenaline kick that you’ll experience when you get up to perform and experience stage fright. It’s extremely instructive to experience (and later hear) how you play when you also have that extra adrenaline in you. It’ll usually reveal areas of insecurity in your technique that might have sounded fine when you weren’t recording yourself. If you’ve gotten nervous to play for a teacher and butchered your piece as a result, you’ve experienced this adrenaline kick—and part of developing performance skills is learning how to work with the adrenaline and not be surprised by it. One of the most common sayings among my students (and probably any students) is “but it sounded great at home/when I was practicing!” That’s because adrenaline kicks in when they’re suddenly playing for a person or for a recording device (in many cases).
One way I inject a little bit of fun into this self-recording is to turn on the voice memo/recording function in Facebook Messenger and then play small snippets of my rep for various friends. When we do this for each other, it helps us discover new rep—in particular, a grad school friend who is an organist (and now lives too far away for in-person hangouts) has introduced me to a lot of great organ music I never knew before, because she’ll record parts of practice sessions for me, and I do the same by sending her bits of the collaborative piano literature I’m studying.
Create and start practicing at “star checkpoints”
In case you ever have a memory slip or lose your place in a performance, having specific sections of a piece that you practice starting at will build muscle memory so you can jump to one of those checkpoints and salvage your performance.
What’s a “star checkpoint,” you ask? Well, fellow Millennials might remember the Sonic the Hedgehog videogames—and other videogames most likely have similar things—where the player will pass through a checkpoint midway through a level and it will “ding.” In Sonic 2 it was a little star on a stick (hence my term). If the player loses a life after that point in the level, they don’t go back to the beginning of the level, but go to that checkpoint and retain some of their progress. (Here's a link to way too much information about the different Sonic game checkpoints if you want to go down that rabbit hole...)
Star checkpoints do this for your musical memory and understanding.
The number and location of appropriate star checkpoints will vary by piece, and if you did the backwards chunking that I defined earlier, it’ll just be a matter of choosing the most musically appropriate checkpoints from your chunk boundaries to keep after you have the whole piece in your fingers.
IV. Practice Tools
What is the best app for learning piano?
I’m not a big fan of apps in my studio—if someone relies on them entirely, their technique is not being supervised by a real person, and I’ve seen that lead to overuse/misalignment injuries very quickly, particularly in adults who are excited to learn the piano and will spend many hours enthusiastically practicing over a short timeframe.
However, as a supplement they can inject some fun into the practice routine. Apps like Sight Reading Factory and Piano Marvel can make sight-reading feel more fun, like a videogame, when that is needed.
Should you practice piano with a metronome?
Frankly, I much prefer to help my students develop an internal sense of steady pulse (I encourage students to dance to their rep and other pieces in meters they’re having trouble feeling, and I once instructed a teen student to create a whole playlist of waltzes and minuets for his pizza delivery routes so he could feel triple time more easily), and I’ve found that many students will just start to ignore/not hear the metronome when it’s clicking.
However, I use it in very specific situations, like checking tempos for collaborative rehearsal purposes or recording “COVID Karaoke” tracks for which the person requesting the track wants a specific tempo marking. In that case I put my phone on silent and let the metronome app tick visually next to my iPad as I play, though, so it’s not audible.
The one time I’ll really use it with students is when I can hear that the student’s tempo is unstable and I want them to hear for themselves how quickly they’re getting off the pulse. It’s a bit like a rhythmic tuning fork/app that gives you an A—you probably won’t have the tuning fork or app blaring the whole time you’re playing through a piece, but you’ll use it to check yourself before and/or after you play.
How do you keep track of piano practice?
Many of my students keep a Practice Log in another tab of the same Google Sheet I use for their weekly piano lesson notes. The grids keep things neat and then the lesson/practice notes are in the same vicinity for easy access.
I don’t look at the practice logs unless students ask me to—it’s almost like their piano diary.
How to record your piano practice?
Voice Memo or a similar app should be more than sufficient – no need to get too fancy.
Other useful practice tools (ex. notebook, pencil, books, etc.)
- A Measure Practice Chart (defined above in “How to practice efficiently”)
- Mechanical pencils so you’re not stuck with a dull one
- A really good eraser
- If you’re on an iPad, the ForScore app is the gold standard for music display and annotation. You can customize different highlighter colors on the app to mark different things for your attention—I have a special highlight color I use when I want to indicate where I need the sostenuto (middle) pedal, since most sheet music won’t ask for it, but it’s useful when playing orchestral reductions.
V. Common Mistakes
Why isn’t my practice helping me improve?
There’s likely something inefficient in the way you’re practicing, so I’d jump up to the “how to practice more efficiently” section above for some ideas.
It’s also likely that you are improving, but at an incremental rate that makes it difficult for you to see. This is part of why I encourage my students to record themselves playing repertoire they’ve just polished. When they save their recordings they can listen to their playing over time and hear improvement much more readily—plus those recordings can be shared with friends and family as musical gifts.
I regret not recording myself more often in my precollege and college years, in particular.
Why does practicing piano make me tired?
It can be hard mental work! Therefore, mental tiredness can happen, although I’d suggest stopping for a break when you feel noticeably mentally fatigued.
If you’re physically tired after a normal amount of practice, though, it’s time to look at your physical technique and see if you are carrying out some of those motions inefficiently, expending more energy than you need to.
A great teacher will spot these inefficient motions and teach you how to do more with less motion.
Can you practice piano quietly?
There are acoustics with silent systems installed, which allow you to play with headphones and hear a digital approximation of what you’re playing, but they tend to be expensive.
You could also practice on a digital with headphones, but digitals produce sound differently and require anything from somewhat to radically different physical technique. Therefore, a pianist not trained in digital-specific technique could quickly get injured by switching to digitals for practice (I nearly did during quarantine), and I don’t recommend this.
Digitals can also have fairly noisy key actions—my college sophomore-year suitemate could still hear my digital’s key action through our shared wall.
How can I practice without a piano?
There are ways to further your musical understanding away from the piano, although in my experience, there’s no real substitute for practice time on the bench when you simply need to get your fingers around a piece physically.
People like Walter Gieseking were apparently able to learn pieces on trains or planes simply by reading the sheet music, but people who do this successfully usually have world-class physical technique already.
Non-physical ways to reinforce learning away from the piano include:
- Making a "Current Repertoire" Playlist and listening to that on loop (I defined this earlier in “how to practice efficiently.”)
- Creating a musical “map” may help with memorization if that’s something you’re working toward. See Rebecca Payne Shockley’s book Mapping Music for some ways you could create a graphic map of your piece.
- If you want to go into mental practice Beast Mode: I’ve known some teachers to make their students take blank staff paper and write down—from memory—every note of a particular piece in their repertoire. This will certainly make sure that you have the piece in your head and not just in muscle memory, as physically gifted pianists with too much rote training sometimes rely on.
I could certainly go on for hours with additional and more varied practice tips, but I think these are quite enough to get you started!
The big takeaway I hope you receive from this post is that practicing is really a very individual thing, and what works for you may not work in the same way for another student. Therefore, feel free to try lots of different strategies to see what works best for you and where you are in your pianistic journey.
Here are some more free resources that might offer some valuable insight into your piano practice routine:
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