A Time and a Place to Practice

It may be necessary to learn to feel deeply before you can express strong emotions through music, and large doses of “Deliberate Practice” may be necessary to develop the skills that you need, but before either of those is relevant you need to organize your life and surroundings to create the conditions to learn. That means having somewhere to practice, and enough time to devote to it.

Time is not much of a problem for a complete beginner. A few sessions of 10 minutes each day is more than enough in the early stages. It is not too bad for a child either. In general parents will provide an instrument, and as the child does not have a job to go to, and probably does not cook or shop or wash clothes time ought not to be a problem.

It is Tougher for an Adult
It is quite different for an adult, needing to work, look after a house, and maybe look after a family too. It gets worse as you improve. The better you get the more difficult it becomes. You don’t need to progress far before one or two hours a day seems hardly any time at all. And if you are going to reach your potential you will eventually want to work more like 3 or 4 hours a day at the keyboard. That is about the limit. Not many of us can sustain over 4 hours daily of useful practice.

We all have 168 hours per week!
So how can the adult with job and/or family and/or other committments find time to practice. It is useful to write down the magic number 168. It is the number of hours in the week. Then subtract from this the number of hours you need for sleep, that you spend at work, travelling, cooking, washing, cleaning, eating, … and continue until you have fully accounted for all 168 hours. Now you can see EXACTLY where you spend time. With luck there’ll be some time in there that is wasted. Or there may be things that you could do faster, or that you could employ someone to do for you (like gardening). Perhaps you can eliminate shopping time by ordering on the Internet and having everything delivered?

Freeing up Time
For someone that spends most of their days at home they might be able to squeeze in their practice in several 5 and 10 minute sessions of otherwise wasted time. But for most of us there will be hard choices to make. To free up enough time there may be no option but to give up some other interest, or spend less time with friends and family. And for many wannabe pianists those other interests, or family or friends can turn out to be more important than playing the piano.

Commuting – The Big Time Waster
The biggest item for many people will be their job, and the time travelling to and from it is often significant too. If that is the case, and if the piano is important enough then a drastic solution is necessary: shorter hours, moving closer to work to reduce travel time, or finding a new job entirely. It is also possible that a job can be too tiring and stressful to leave enough energy to work hard at the piano.

How Important is the Piano to You?
It is a question of how much learning to play means to you? How big an effort are you prepared to make to create the right conditions? Changing a job to play piano more may seem drastic, but if it is taking all your time and energy, and if piano matters enough what other choice is there?

Musical instruments are noisy and the traditional piano is one of the noisiest. It can easily generate over 100dB. When most of us live in small terraced houses or poorly designed semi-detacheds (or worse – a converted flat in an old house) this is a problem. The neighbours may not hear everything you do, but they will certainly hear that piano! This may not have mattered in the hey-day of the piano, before radio and TV, but it is now a big problem.

Adding Sound Insulation is Rarely Effective
What is to be done? Adding insulation to an existing house is expensive, and not that effective. The drastic solution is to move house, to somewhere more suitable (e.g. detached). Or perhaps you have an outbuilding that would convert into a music studio, or space to build one on the side of the house? It is even possible to build an acoustically isolated room-within-a-room, and there are expert companies that will do this for you.

Practicing Outside the Home
Or you could look for practice facilities outside the home. A teacher could arrive at school an hour or two early and use a school piano. Or you may negotiate to use a piano in the church hall or community centre. There are also piano practice rooms at many music shops, but most of them charge an hourly rate that rules out using them for 2 or more hours every day. I am very lucky to live in a town that has practice rooms available at an Arts centre, where members of the public can make use of them for a modest annual membership fee.

Electronic Keyboards are Useful
A more practical solution for most people is to use an electronic instrument and use headphones, or speakers turned down low. There is a lot of prejudice against electronic pianos, and it is true that the best of them are still noticeably different than an acoustic instrument (the subject of a blog to come).

Other ‘Silent’ Keyboards
But regular practice on a ‘silent’ keyboard is a lot better than no practice at all. A clavinova is an excellent practice instrument. Alternatively a hybrid acoustic-silent piano as pioneered by Yamaha actually has all the mechanism of a standard acoustic instrument so the feel under the fingers is very authentic. The cheaper, portable electric pianos are also satisfactory, but feel less like the “real thing” and are not built to last – they will be loose and clattery after a few years of hard work.


One response to “A Time and a Place to Practice

  1. I agree completely Tom, and add that as the music gets more physical that building up stamina is required. If a Piano is going to be struck at a volume of 100kdb for up to 30mins and it is a cast-iron framed overstrung instrument, then a fair bit of force is going into that instrument. Much as (in my case) any one from a petite woman can play the piano at a high level they have to build up playing for a reasonable length of time. There is a reason why when naming pianists it is easy to name the men, then come up with a couple of women. It is physically hard work and not gentile and lady-like.

    Be prepared for the physicality to increase as the repertoire gets harder. To produce a concert fortissimo requires the strings to be hit hard and fast, a controlled pianissimo requires controlled weight. This is why this instrument is so hard to play well