It is easy to assume that the differences between a beginning pianist and a proficient one are readily apparent to any listener. However, the aspects that are obvious are actually the results of their differences. The difference between a novice and a success, behind the scenes, comes down to two factors: time and habit. The right habits, practiced over time, are what lead to success.
There is no shortage of evidence about the positive aspects of learning an instrument. The science is in, proving the benefits for young and old alike. As with learning anything new, establishing good habits from the outset pays off in the short and long term. Over time, small adjustments to create good habits will lead to big payoffs, such as mastering a beautiful piece of music for others to enjoy. But even from the very beginning, establishing successful habits will pay off with easier practice time and faster and more satisfying progress.
#1: Slow down to speed up.
Sloppy finger movement will lead to frustration and poor results. Slow down. Every new piece, no matter how astounding the finger work seems by performance time, begins with precision. Trying to go too fast too soon will only delay the desired results. An adage so old it eludes attribution says, “the amateur practices until he gets is right; the professional until he cannot get it wrong.” As precision becomes more and more reliable, that is the time to pick up tempo.
#2: Focus, not fingers.
When violinist Nathan Milstein asked his teacher, Leopold Auer, how long he should practice each day, Auer famously replied, “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.” Sports psychologists who work with visualization would support the same principal. Mental repetition, engaged focus, and visualization of the desired outcome all augment physical practice in astonishing ways. While muscle memory plays a role, it is focus that will make the difference.
#3: Break down practice time into smaller goals.
Of course, learning any new piece begins with breaking the piece into smaller goals. However, beyond this, setting measurable, attainable goals for each practice session will lay building blocks that add up quickly. In addition, dividing practice time this way allows for variety. By breaking down more obligatory work into attainable pieces, time can be scheduled for more enjoyable playing as well. This avoids overwhelm and helps build momentum and motivation.
#4: Practice every day.
This may seem simple, but the reasoning supporting it is multifaceted. Interest will start strong and motivation will be high. However, motivation will wane over time, often right at the moment before significant progress or a breakthrough emerges. Those who study motivation and success preach the power of habit. Habit is what will sustain progress when enthusiasm weakens and life gets in the way.
There are many ways to support a new habit while it takes hold. While there are many theories on how long it takes to build a new habit – anywhere from 21 to 66 days – consistency in the beginning is key. Making the new habit among the first things one does each day is a great way to make sure it does indeed get done. Another motivator is to link the new habit to good feelings and positive emotions, such as by getting endorphins flowing with some physical exercise before sitting down, rewarding oneself afterward, or using affirmations to get into a positive and happy state of mind before beginning. A practice called habit stacking is another way to support a new habit in its infancy. In this practice, one simply links a new habit to an ingrained existing one, such as practicing each evening right after dinner.
Habits are the secret to success. They build their own momentum and have a cumulative effect over time. Once put into action, they gain power like a snowball rolling downhill. Successful pianists know this. They stick to their habits even when they have reasons not to.