I love practicing the piano, often for hours a time. I don’t say this to brag, but rather to point out that there are specific steps you can take to make practicing piano a joyful part of your day.
I’ve practiced thousands of hours, in order to get my degree in piano performance, to learn songs alongside the advanced students that I teach, and in my role as FPC’s main performance artist (if you haven’t checked out Family Piano’s Youtube channel, I recommend it!).
I’ve compiled all the fundamental principles of a good practice routine, plus all the tips and tricks I’ve picked up from my own time on the bench or from other great musicians.
My goal is to give you all the knowledge I have about creating the perfect piano practicing routine in one convenient, well-organized place that you can easily reference. Since we’re ALL a work-in-progress, as I learn new things, I’ll continue to update and add to this piece.
We’ve included a table of contents so you have a quick overview of everything we’ll dive into on how to practice piano. While it’s optimal to read the whole thing from start-to-finish, it’s structured so you can jump to any particular area.
The Principles of How to Practice Piano
Becoming a competent piano player can happen much quicker than you might think and it doesn’t depend on starting when you’re young or following one specific method series. The single most important variable in how quick you can learn is yourself!
At the end of the day, the speed at which you can grow your piano skills will come down to a combination of these factors:
- Discipline and Dedication
- Quality and Quantity of Practice
- Innate Musicianship/Natural Talent
- Prior Musical Experience
- Quality of Instructiony
- Quality of your Instrument throughout your life!
The two variables that impact the speed at which you can learn piano that you have the most control over as a student is the quality of your practice and your own will to learn.
The quality of your practice in particular is perhaps the single biggest driver of how quickly you will grow and develop your skills at the piano. This is something that is very commonly overlooked – many teachers will religiously tell you again and again to practice, practice, practice.
But many piano teachers don’t spend nearly enough time teaching you how to practice!
Getting in quality practice is just as much of an art form as any other – and the skills and discipline it requires will prove very useful for any other skills you learn throughout your life!
How Often to Practice Piano?
As important as learning how to practice piano is learning how often to practice piano.
Consistency is the key to learning any new skill and piano playing is just the same in that regard. Learning to play piano is both a mental and a physical process.
When practicing, your brain’s neurons are constantly firing -commiting to memory spatial distances, tactile sensations, notes, articulations, dynamics, interpretative details, and your whole set of learned physical behaviors while playing (known as piano technique).
Your body is also fully engaged when practicing piano from your posture down to your foot, arm, wrist and finger movements – all training to become strong, highly efficient and fluid.
Each piano practice session is essentially a training session for your brain and body and just like when training to run a race or to lift heavy weights, improvement comes from a consistent training schedule.
Your consistency of practice will be more important than your overall quantity of practice – consistency helps you get the most out of your dedicated practice time.
Take a student who practices 4 hours a week – 2 hours the day after their lesson and 2 hours the day of their lesson. Due to the way your brain responds to the stimuli of piano practice, these two longer practice sessions would actually produce the most benefit spread out over 4 days one hour each, exposing the brain to twice as many “workouts” without any significant gaps in practice.
Ideally, practice should take place daily for the quickest growth in piano skills but understandably for many students that is not a practical option.
To get the most out of the time you do have available for piano, practice at least 4 times a week spread as evenly through the week as possible.
The lengths of the practice sessions can vary depending on what you’ll be practicing (The length of practice sessions is not always as important as the purpose and efficiency!), but should ideally be no less than 30 minutes.
Create a Practice Environment
- Eliminate distractions
- Make your environment comfortable
- Make yourself comfortable
The establishment of a great practice environment is too often an afterthought for piano students but it can make a tremendous difference in the quality, quantity, and efficiency of your practice sessions and help you accomplish your musical ambitions sooner! Your practice environment should promote focus, inner calm, and be kept clean and orderly.
With all the distractions of modern life, your practice environment should become a home away from life stressors. Removing anything with a screen (computers, TVs, tablets, etc.) from the practice environment is essential. Make a habit of setting your phone aside and placing it on silent mode. Try to plan your practice sessions for times when your home is quiet. Removing sources of distraction improves your sense of focus which allows your practice to really sink in.
Eliminating distractions also means creating an environment that makes you feel as stress free and comfortable as possible. Keeping your practice room tidy goes a far way – clutter has a stressing effect on the mind. Mind the lighting as well – your practice environment should be well-lit at all times. Make sure you’re comfortable on your piano bench as well. You want to make your practice environment a “unique” experience in your day to day life – an environment where you can comfortably focus on building a finely-tuned skill!
The Perfect Piano Practice Routine
- All at once or multiple times a day?
- Taking breaks
- When shouldn’t I practice?
A big part of discovering how to practice piano in a way that works best for you is finding out how to piano into your daily life.
There are about as many different approaches to practice routines as there are piano students – everyone finds different habits that work best for them to get quality, focused practice on the piano.
Many students operate best with one single longer practice session per day. Particularly as students advance their skills, more practice time overall is required to work on more complex skills and music. With the fast paced lifestyle most of us live today, we find ourselves fitting in practice time where and when we can. To achieve fast, consistent growth in your piano skills, there’s quite a bit of work that needs to be done and many find the best option to have multiple shorter practice sessions throughout the day. This can be quite effective as long as each shorter practice session is warmed up for and is based around the realistic, distinct goals we will discuss later on in this article!
Taking breaks is another contentious topic in piano practice. In general, breaks can be helpful during longer practice sessions but should be mostly avoided during shorter practice sessions. Shorter practice sessions (under 45 minutes) should be as focused and self-contained as possible and a short break can undo that focus. Usually breaks are best taken in between two major practice goals – say, when you’re changing from working on one song to another. A short mental break before you switch gears can be beneficial – but it’s important not to let a brief mental break become a vacation. Ideally, breaks should be kept to under 5 minutes and should be reflective, peaceful periods of time that don’t break your flow of concentration. Checking your social media, watching a short video (other than a recording of music you’re working on), or having a conversation should be avoided to keep your mind in practice mode. Of course, breaks are also highly encouraged if ever in the course of a practice session you feel any arm/hand/wrist great build up of tension.
Another topic not often discussed is when should you not practice – and there are different schools of thought on this. Ideally, practice is done when you are feeling alert, energized, focused, healthy, etc. As piano practice is both a physical and mental workout, good practice is done when you are feeling your best. Particularly bad times to practice would be if you are sleep deprived, very hungry, feeling more than mildly sick, or recuperating from an injury that interferes with piano playing.
Now that you’ve set a consistent practice schedule and set up a great stress-free practice environment, it’s time to talk about how to practice piano!
The Piano Practice Session
Remember to Warm Up
- Stretching, arm rolls, wrist rolls
- Scales, Arpeggios, Exercises
- Sight Reading Practice
- Play through something you’ve “mastered” and enjoy
A focused, effective practice session all starts with a well thought out 10 to 15 minute warm up routine! Just like warming up for athletic events, the warm up routine for a piano practice session is going to prepare you for what’s to come. Typically, it may take a piano player a full 30-45 minutes of playing before they are in fact fully warmed up – but the first 10 to 15 minutes of warming up gets you most of the way there and ready to work on the core content of your practice session.
Starting off with some quick light arm stretches and shoulder and wrist rolls can be a great way to get yourself physically ready to play piano. This is the time to start being mindful of your physicality – minding your posture, arms and wrists. Check that your bench is parallel to the keys and placed at the proper distance away from the keys – roughly with the edge of your knees under the keybed. Consistency of the distance and orientation of your bench to the keyboard is essential for proper practice – you want your brain processing all aspects of your practice session from the exact same vantage point!
With a minute or two of light stretches, it is now time to start playing. The playing part of your warm up routine presents excellent opportunities to get some of your most important practice in – scales, arpeggios, exercises and other technique practice. Start with slower scales, arpeggios, exercises before moving on to slightly more complicated material.
Practicing some sight reading can be a fantastic use of your warm-up time. Good sight reading practice material is going to be relatively simple music (think some material that you could learn and have performance-ready within a few days) that you can coherently play, roughly, by sight. A book of hymns or anthology of simple piano pieces is always a great resource to keep in your practice room for sight reading. Sight reading is a massively valuable skill as a pianist – one that is oftentimes overlooked in traditional piano lessons! It can help you to learn new music much faster and opens up many opportunities to accompany other musicians and overall play much larger quantities of music. Just incorporating 5 minutes of sight reading practice into your warm-up routine will reap major benefits as well as help you to get warmed up!
Nothing in your warm up routine should be so difficult as to strain you – the focus is on getting your wrists and hands moving in a fluid, efficient way and your brain thinking musically. Your technical exercises double both as a great way to get warmed up while also training some of your most essential piano skills. Typically I prefer to end a warm up session by playing through a piece of old repertoire – a piece of music I’ve already learned, “mastered” and can play without difficulty – to get fully warmed up and ready to move on to the main focus of the practice session.
Combine the warm-ups you like from our advice with ones you like from the countless videos of warm-up routines available online!
Set Goals for Practice Sessions
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew in a single session
- Divide and conquer
- Setting practice time length vs. practicing to reach specific goals
Every practice session should be purposeful with a specific, realistic, and measurable goal (or goals!) attached to it. These goals should be kept as relatively simple as “I want to play this section of this song smoothly and in tempo” or “I want to learn the notes to the first two pages of this song”. Entering each practice session with specific goals allows you to focus your time and energy into accomplishable tasks rather than just an abstract directive to “practice”. Each of these goals should be reasonable to complete within a single practice session – but of course they will combine together to take you towards your long term goal of becoming a better piano player!
As I mentioned, the best practice goals are going to be specific, realistic and measurable. Specificity refers to setting clearly described goals within clearly delineated sections of music (“Today I will memorize the notes from measures 8-24 of this song”). These goals should be realistic – accomplishable within a single practice session. This often requires taking a larger, long-term goal (“I want to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata”) and breaking it down into more mid-term goals (“This week I’m learning RH notes, next week LH notes, next week putting them together, next week start getting it up to proper tempo and including dynamics, next week working on interpretation, etc.”) which are accomplished through daily practice goals (“Today I’ll practice RH alone for measures 1-24”) using the “Divide and Conquer” method. This method is really the basis of efficient piano practice – it’s always a process of breaking larger problems down into the smallest possible digestible units so you can utilize your own time the most effectively!
Setting appropriate concrete goals to accomplish in a practice session and basing your length of practice around accomplishing these goals leads to quicker, more focused progress in comparison to simply setting a time based goal (“I’ll practice for 45 minutes today!). Getting into the habit of practicing with specific goals to accomplish before you end the session encourages efficiency and focus in your practice which will accelerate your overall progress.
If you’re a beginner/intermediate student, a major focus of the opening stages of your journey is learning how to practice piano – you should work alongside your teacher to set practical practice goals and work out exact methods for accomplishing them. As your teacher familiarizes themselves with your own learning styles, available practice time, learning speed, strengths and weaknesses, they can offer you more individualized advice about how to best focus your practice based on your own needs.
Mind Tempo, Rhythm and Pulse
- Using the Metronome
- Internalizing the beat
There’s a reason piano teachers are so meticulous about tempo, rhythm and pulse – it’s the lifeblood of music! There’s a simple reason us humans are so drawn to and calmed by the repetitive nature of a steady pulse – it mimics the heart beats of our mothers we heard for nine months before being born. And as a new born child, listening to heart beats while held by parents and family keeps the child calm and content. The steady rhythmic beat in all our favorite songs has the same effect! Learning to internalize different rhythmic figures, pulses, time signatures, etc. is a great focal point of your practice time. You’re not just learning a collection of notes – you’re learning how these notes relate to each other on a scale of time! The importance of rhythm should be kept to the same high standard as the importance of playing the correct notes.
In your practice, strive for “correct” and “in-beat” over fast but sloppy. Setting a proper practice tempo for each song is essential – and this tempo will likely be much slower than what you had in mind.
My piano professor in college had some simple advice for setting an initial practice tempo, “Take the speed you feel you can get through the piece at now and cut it in half”. In effect, had I brought in a piece that is performed at 140bpm and struggled through it in my lesson at 100bpm, I should go home and start practicing it initially at 50bpm.
Another standard piece of advice I’ve heard is one third of the performance tempo – start practicing the 140bpm song at a crawling 47bpm. This initial practice speed should be sped up in small intervals as you progress through the piece but great restraint should be taken to hold to slower tempos until your sense of rhythm and pulse is fully established at each tempo. Using a metronome to find these tempos is essential.
In fact, the metronome should become a very good friend of yours in your practice. At the very least, it should be used to find and internalize each tempo you set as well as turned back on when working through any rhythmic issues.
Some teachers advise using a metronome up to 90% of your practice time, some emphasize more of a need to internalize the beat without the constancy of a metronome and there are good arguments for either case.
Personally I tend to veer towards using the metronome to set and internalize specific tempos (particularly when changing tempos within a single piece of music or between pieces of music), to solve specific rhythmic problems, while slowly working through complex rhythmic sections, and to smooth out sections that tend to unduly lag or speed up.
For beginners and intermediate students, make sure to figure out how to practice piano with a metronome! Using one is critical as your internal sense of pulse and rhythm will take time to develop. The metronome is the very best tool for instilling a deep sense of rhythm and tempo within yourself – which is a major core musicianship skill that helps make all of your playing much more enjoyable to listen to!
How to Practice Piano with Purpose
- Make all of your practice time purposeful
- Playing for Enjoyment vs. Purposeful Practice
- Practice in chunks focusing on problem sections
Making all of your practice time purposeful is the best way to ensure steady growth of your piano skills! This means that from your warm-up routine to the actual core content of your practice sessions, you’re maximizing the amount of time spent completing “useful” practice and avoiding inefficient practice habits. Inefficient practice habits are, generally speaking, when a significant portion of your musical effort is being inefficiently used in a way that will slow down your growth.
For example, envision a practice session where a student spends one hour working on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata Mvt I by playing the piece repeatedly 10 times over. Let’s say they were having trouble in two sections – the RH cadenza on the third page and the coda ending. In those ten repetitions, they played through their trouble sections ten times each but without particular focused energy on these sections. Other smaller rhythm issues, pulse issues, and interpretative issues slightly improved but were not isolated and fully resolved. Overall, their performance of the piece was likely better on the 10th iteration than on the 1st, but the progress was inefficient as so much of the time was spent on sections of the music they already were confident in and the effort on the troubled sections was not consistent, focused, and no measurable goals were set other than to play the piece ten times in a row. Too often, this example becomes representative of a typical practice session that leads to slower growth as a pianist.
In fact, straight “play-throughs” will be rare and almost never done repetitively until late in the progress on a specific piece, oftentimes coming around the same time as memorization occurs. The student practicing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata would have been much better served spending roughly twenty minutes working through each trouble section (further broken down into 2-4 measure chunks, possibly hands separate) and the last twenty minutes working on smaller digestible details like the dotted rhythms, the balance of voicing of the melody versus the bass, dynamics, etc. Perhaps the practice session can be ended with a single straight play through of the piece to cement the progress made in the practice session over the larger context of the whole piece of music.
Of course, when you’re striving to make all of your practice time meaningful and highly productive, the thought might occur – “well when do I get to just sit back and play just for enjoyment?”. And that’s fair – after all, at the end of the day we are putting so much work into improving our skills that we deserve to sit back and just play through our favorite pieces. Try to separate your “enjoyment playing” from your dedicated “practice sessions”. Enjoyment playing should be done on top of your practice sessions, but should not take the place of focused practice or be considered as a regular, productive practice sessions. One or two longer sessions a week of “enjoyment playing” (perhaps an hour of playing through old repertoire) can be great for keeping your old material fresh and ready to perform and your passion for music going strong – there’s definite value to it, just not to the level of an efficient practice session. Adding ten or fifteen minutes of sight reading practice perhaps as a warm up to an enjoyable playing session can make the session even more useful to your long term growth as a musician!
Improving Outside of Piano Practice
Research Your Music
- History of the piece, history of the composer/songwriter.
- History of the musical period
- Musical Structure
- Performance Tradition
A musician does not just play music, they tell stories!
To properly tell the story of a piece of music, it helps to know quite a bit about the piece of music from a historical, biographical, and musical standpoint. This is essential to every musical genre – not just for classical music!
Getting to know your music in multiple contexts is key to giving a great performance – whether in a concert setting, a recording setting, or just playing for yourself.
You should always strive to know as much as possible general background information about the music you’re learning:
- Who wrote it?
- How is this music reflective of the person(s) who wrote it?
- What does it tell us about the person(s) who wrote it?
- When and where was it written? Does the place and time hold any significance?
- What styles of music influenced this piece?
- What emotions are expressed in this piece? What narrative does it tell?
- What larger significance does this piece have on its musical genre?
- What performance traditions are there for this piece of music? (Is there a traditional “right” way to play this piece?)
- How is this music structured?
- Overall musical form, structure, harmonic progressions, etc.
Oftentimes learning the piano is centered around the “how” – how to practice piano, how to play this song, how to achieve this technique, how to articulate that melody – instead of the “what” and “why”.
Becoming a capable musician is putting all three of these parts together – the how, what and why of playing music. With the “what” being the piece itself and its historical context/background information, the “why” is why you are choosing to play it. This may at first seem to be a simple answer “because I like it” or “its sounds good” but the intent behind the question of why should be articulated more as “Why perform this piece?” instead.
Even if you have no intention of bringing this piece of music in front of an audience, it’s best to get in the mentality of preparing music with a theoretical audience in mind. Not only does this help with self-analysis (we’ll get into that topic below!), it encourages you to dig deeper into your music and think about it from a perspective outside of your own.
Listen and Learn
- Learn to positively self critique
- Record yourself!
- Listen to other players in person – listen and observe closely
- Listen to recordings of pieces you’re working on.
Listening is perhaps the single most important skill when learning how to play piano. We need to learn both how to constructively listen to our own playing as well as the playing of those around us live and on recordings as well.
Learning to listen to your own playing is a deceptively difficult task. On one hand, you’re always hearing yourself play – but hearing and attentive listening are not the same thing.
Learning to listen to your own playing is a critical part of learning how to practice piano. Self-critiquing your playing requires intensive focus and objectivity — another skill that improves over time with practice. The act of positively self-critiquing your own playing has two central requirements – that you objectively know how your playing currently sounds like and that you know how the music is supposed to sound like. The self-critique comes from comparing your playing to the “ideal” version – what your playing ought to sound like.
Especially as a beginner to intermediate student, your self-critique is limited as you’re continuously building your understanding of what good piano playing sounds like and what physically goes into it. You’re also limited by your perspective of hearing your own music while actively playing it – which acoustically, visually, and mentally limits you to one perspective (the perspective of sitting and playing at the piano) instead of being an audience member who can concentrate fully on listening. While your understanding of both how your own playing sounds versus the “ideal” develops, recording yourself and listening back can be a fantastic tool for working on positive self-critiquing. This puts you in the role of listener so you can fully focus on listening and learning from your own playing. You can directly compare your recordings to professional recordings of each piece of music, giving you the most objective comparison possible.
While learning to listen to yourself through both self-recording and during your playing, you’re learning the process of positive self-critique. This involves openly and honestly analyzing your own playing and distinguishing specifically what’s going right from what’s going wrong – as well as discerning what can be done to improve your playing. Developing this skill takes time and involves improvements to your overall musicianship skills – your sense of harmony, voicing, pulse, rhythm, and other fine musical details. As such, as you become a better musician, your ability to self-critique improves in a positive feedback loop. In earlier stages of learning the piano, you’ll be much more dependent on your teacher for criticism of your playing but later on as your self-critiquing skills grow, progress will accelerate as you can start to “fill in” for your piano teacher during your own practice sessions.
Attentive listening/watching piano performances both live as well as recordings also develops your ability to critique your own playing. Attending piano recitals or any chance to see a professional play piano live is an excellent chance to both watch and listen to high-level piano playing. If you’re able to find out what will be played at the concert beforehand and can bring copies of the scores to follow alongside with, even better – listening alongside the sheet music is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with how a professional piano player brings their music to life. Focused listening to music while following along with the sheet music is a fantastic way to improve your reading and musicianship skills while away from the piano!
Listening to recordings of the pieces you’re working on during your practice sessions can be highly helpful as well. Usually this is best limited to listening to the specific sections that you’ll be working on during that practice session – this allows you to listen attentively for detail and use the recording example to inform your playing. Don’t limit yourself to a single recording – Listen to different pianists with differing interpretations, taking different tempos, different articulations etc. This will help to decouple your idea of how a certain piece should be played from any single specific recording – it’s never a good idea to just try to exactly copy the way a specific recorded performance is played. You want to build your own informed interpretation of a piece up from multiple credible sources!
So How Long Will it Take to Learn Piano?
One of the great things about learning the piano is how open-ended of a skill piano is – there is no real end point to learning piano and all of your progress will enrich you for a lifetime!
However, by making a concerted effort to learn how to practice piano efficiently, consistently, and often, your progress will be as quick, steady, sustainable as possible. What’s more, the overall skill-building tactics you learn will carry over into anything else you try to learn in life!
Okay yeah but really, how long until I can play *insert song title here*?
Like I said, there’s a lot of variables at play but this article will help get you there as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Piano playing is no easy thing – that’s why people are so impressed by and drawn to good piano playing! With patience, dedication, and discipline, you will get where you want to be in due time – and before long you’ll go much farther than you originally thought possible!
Read our other article for a more concrete answer to the “how long does it take to learn piano” question!