Have you ever thought about how educators scaffold their lessons for the year? Unless you’re a teacher, you’ve likely never thought about the process of setting up a learning arch over a long period of time. But if you’re planning to learn piano online, creating that learning arch can help you keep track of your progress as you practice. Keeping a practice journal and mapping out a practice calendar is probably the best way to keep track of your learning.
An entire calendar dedicated only to practicing may at first seem over the top, but it can be exceptionally useful in helping you stay on track toward those piano goals. To make a practice calendar, follow these simple steps:
Absorb the Mood of the Piece
Look at the sheet music for the entire piece while listening to your favorite recording of it. While you listen, notice the little nuances you hear throughout and what they look like in the music. Notice how and where the mood changes throughout the piece and how the music represents that shift in feeling.
As you listen to the piece a second time, use circles or brackets to mark out each phrase of music you hear. A phrase is a musical idea. Think of it like the musical equivalent to a sentence. Each musical phrase has its own unique message, but when added to other phrases can create a complete musical idea and mood.
Identify the Difficulty of each Phrase
Listen to the piece again while looking at your newly-identified phrases. This time instead of focusing on the feeling, focus on the technicality. The performer who recorded the piece most likely sounds effortless as they play, so pay attention to the notation of each phrase and mark them using a 1, 2, or 3* based on how difficult you expect it to be for you to learn.
Confirm Your Practice Dates
As we've discussed in other posts, it’s important to have a set routine for when you practice each week. If you haven’t found a few time slots that work each week, stop everything else and do that right away. Your practice calendar, and piano practice in general will be useless without a firmly-established practice schedule. These time slots should be about an hour to ninety minutes and they should happen three to five times a week. When you know the dates and times you’ll be practicing each week, decide how long you want to work on your current piece (somewhere around six weeks).
Assign Measures to Each Practice Based on Difficulty
Once you’ve got the dates put into a calendar, go through your piece and assign the measures that match each phrase with each practice session. Remember, don’t save all the difficult phrases for last, be sure to evenly disperse the easy, medium, and difficult phrases throughout your practicing. Give yourself fewer measures (half of a phrase or less) for more difficult piano pieces, since those will take more time to learn. It’s unfair to hold the difficult sections to the same learning standards as the easy ones. Also, try to review what you’ve worked on earlier that week, either as a warm-up exercise or as a break from something difficult while you practice. Don’t make the mistake of learning the piece in order, and always playing the beginning. To make sure you’re not making any practicing mistakes, check out our other articles about mental practicing tips.
An example practice calendar may look like this:
Monday: Measures 1-25 (easy)
Wednesday: Measures 40-45 (hard), review 1-25
Friday: Measures 30-40 (medium), review 40-45
Saturday: Review 1-25, 30-40, 40-45
After you’ve created a practice calendar, it’s easy to start a practice journal. At the beginning of each practice session, write down the date and the measures you’re attempting for the day. When you’ve practiced and are done for that session, before leaving the piano, write how that day’s practice went in your journal. Were any measures giving you difficulty you didn’t expect? What sounded really great and inspired you? Anything you want to be sure to watch out for next time? These comments are vitally important because the next time you go to practice, you should start by reading your comments from the last practice session. Reading your previous journal entries helps you remember how you were feeling and get right back into practice mode. By reading your feelings of excitement and frustration from the past, you can find the motivation to begin practicing a lot of the same material with obvious goals and a clearer head. The practice journal can also help you see if you’re on track and adjust your calendar as necessary. For example, if one day you planned to conquer 30 measures of music, but only go through 12 of them, you can use your practice journal to make a note and adjust your practice calendar accordingly.
The final purpose of the practice journal is to make you feel proud when you’ve completed a difficult section or even the entirety of your piano piece and look back at your early entries. It’s a wonderful and inspiring feeling to look back and see that certain sections that were especially challenging have now become effortless (or at least accomplishable).
*You might choose any marking system of your choosing to identify difficulty levels. You might use colors or shapes or stick with numbers. You also may have more than three levels of difficulty but try not to have more than five or six.
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