Learning to play the piano is a process

Refining your piano playing is a life-long process. Each player’s skills are individually structured and focussed, consist of various elements and are created over a long time through a maximally diverse repertoire. Player proficiency is an individual characteristic depending on what criteria are emphasised and on the choice of repertoire. The role of individual teachers is significant. Research results indicate that many factors influence success in piano studies: practising, parental support, motivation, personality, previously acquired skills, the ability to understand instructions and one’s attitude towards learning.






Child learners acquire new skills one at a time at the initial stage of their piano studies. Gradually their timing and coordination improve and they manage to handle musical entities as well as stringing together the necessary movements. It takes time to mature, but the amount and regularity of practice play a crucial role. The different stages of learning a new piece follow a spiral pattern and consequently partly overlap. Teachers have to accept that children play clumsily at first, and should strive to bring about a gradual improvement.

As skills are acquired and the musical works studied become more and more demanding, pupils need to be more strongly oriented towards autonomous practising. Adopting the accepted piano-practising strategies is a challenging process. When they practise, musicians are honing not only their precision and fluency, but also their musical expression. As the strategies become more refined, the practising itself becomes more productive, challenging and purposeful. Although the amount and quality have a bearing on the refinement of skills, extensive practising does not guarantee a successful result. It is, primarily, a question of motivation supported by advanced practising strategies and metacognitive skills.

Piano studies are commonly taken up early and beginners tend to be small children. Initiating them into practising may well be a challenge. Most of them do not have a clue about what practice is. They are too young to have developed self-assessment skills, and do not necessarily notice when they play a wrong note. Children also tend to find it difficult to identify and define tricky passages, in other words those they should put more effort into. To them, practice just means playing through the pieces. If they spot a mistake, they will often get stuck on one note, instead of practising short, say one-bar fragments.

Research results indicate that many children find practising tedious and tiring, and some feel they need parental support. On the other hand, interference in the practising may cause tension within the family. Goal-oriented exercises as well as setting short- and long-term targets boosts motivation, as do ensemble playing, public performances, learning favourite pieces, wanting to please teachers and sometimes a love of the instrument and of playing. Conversely, motivation is undermined by disruptions (such as from an interfering younger sibling), having to play uninteresting pieces, other hobbies and even bad weather.

It has also been found that teacher-pupil cooperation in drawing up individual study plans and keeping personal practice diaries, for example, boost practising efficiency. Keeping a diary appears to increase the amount of practice in quantitative terms, but does not seem to improve the playing in public performances. This highlights the complexity of the process and the significance of personal motivation. All scientific studies point to the individual’s capacity for autonomous learning as the main determinant of successful practising. Pupils who are able to influence their studies, set targets and choose their repertoire are more highly motivated, and the more autonomy they have, the stronger is their personal commitment to the learning process.

Practising is motivated by internal factors such as the wish to learn a particular piece, and external factors such as the wish to learn a piece to be able to perform it in concert, presumably in combination. As a rule, practising intensifies when level tests or concerts are imminent. At such times it is essential for teachers to keep presenting the studies in a positive frame so that pupils have adequate targets and enough opportunities to perform in public.

As a rule it is beneficial to use a piece that is, as such, easy when introducing a new technical issue. We have also noticed that “warming up” old pieces for level tests, for instance, fosters the development of tonal and musical abilities. The focus shifts from the technical realisation of the piece to a musical, artistic presentation, which pupils often experience as very rewarding. As mentioned elsewhere, it may also help to set and monitor targets - short-term to play a piece fluently from the score, medium-term to play the same piece by heart, and long-term to play it in concert. Discussing the achievement or non-achievement of these targets may also help to maintain motivation: pupils need feedback, recognition and praise.


Does this subject interest you?

Read more (research results with source references). Junttu 2010 pp. 103-105

(http://www.junttu.net/ / /raportti.html)  

For more details about the figure, see Junttu2010 p. 170

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