Unveiling piano practice for diverse goals

In a previous article, I provided a general guideline for beginners, suggesting that at least 30 minutes of daily practice is essential for laying a solid foundation in piano playing. However, the question of how long to practice piano is far more nuanced and depends on individual goals, learning styles, and circumstances. To address this complexity, let’s examine the practice regimen of three hypothetical piano students, each representing a different learning stage and aspiration.

The Casual Performer: 30-60 Minutes of Enjoyable Practice

Let’s meet “Robert” (fictional name), a 39-year-old man with a passion for music and a busy lifestyle. Robert took lessons as a kid, achieving Grade 4 with Merit, and after a long hiatus from playing he decided to rekindle his love for the piano, however no longer pursuing grades. His primary goal is to enjoy playing the piano casually, accompanying himself and his family while singing and exploring the world of pop music.

For Robert, short and consistent practice sessions of 30-60 minutes daily are perfectly sufficient to achieve his musical objectives. These focused periods allow him to maintain a connection with the piano, practice his accompaniment skills, and explore new pop music pieces. Dedicating time each day, even if it’s just for a short while, helps him stay engaged with the instrument and maintain a consistent improvement pace.

Robert’s Practice Routine

Here’s a glimpse into Robert’s practice routine, tailored to his casual playing style and musical goals:

  • 5-10 minutes Warm-up: Begin with technical exercises to prepare his fingers, prevent injury and gradually widen the scope of technical proficiency.
  • 10-20 minutes Accompaniment Practice: Focus on accompanying pop songs from a chord chart or lead sheet, emphasizing rhythmic accuracy and coordination with singing, patterns, styles, etc.
  • 5-10 minutes Harmony Exploration: Practice harmony-based piano exercises designed to impart an understanding of the theory behind chords. Apply this knowledge to the process of harmonising pop melodies
  • 10-20 minutes Self-expression: Dedicate time to improvisation and creating his own arrangements of pop tunes.

Balancing Practice with Life

Robert’s practice schedule aligns seamlessly with his busy lifestyle. He finds opportunities to practice during short breaks in his day, such as during his lunch break or before bed, maximising his time efficiently. This adaptability ensures that piano playing remains a manageable and enjoyable part of his routine.

The Aspiring Exam Candidate: 2-3 Hours of Dedicated Effort

Our next hypothetical piano student is “Melissa”, a 17 year old young lady who has been taking lessons since childhood and is building up a very good standard of playing. Melissa has chosen to go for her Grade 5 with an examining board which has a reputation for applying “strict” marking criteria.

The requirements for such exams usually consist of these main areas:

  • repertoire pieces: the chosen piano pieces selected from a list
  • technical work: scales, arpeggios, broken chords
  • sight-reading: to play at first sight a never-seen-before piece of music
  • aural test: listening-based tasks and musicianship
  • discussion: questions are asked by the examiner on some theory aspects about the music performed

It must be pointed out here that Melissa’s teacher’s approach (i.e. my approach) is not to barely chase the exam certificate by making it the only focus of her piano journey, but rather to include the examination within a wider and wholesome framework of musical upbringing: aural awareness, sight reading, music appreciation, critical listening, theory, composition and improvisation are all included in such approach.

Repertoire pieces are all initially acknowledged by having a playthrough for each of them, then three are selected for practice. When a repertoire piece is deemed to have reached a Distinction level of musical performance a new piece is selected for practice and the older one will receive “Maintenance work”.

Melissa’s Practice Routine

With that approach in mind, Melissa’s daily practice regime, tailored to her current goals and circumstances, would look thus:

  • 10-20 minutes technical warm-up: scales, arpeggios, broken chords and the whole technical side of the exam can be used as clever warmups to begin the practice session.
  • 20-30 minutes repertoire piece: focused, mindful and goal-oriented practice on a chosen repertoire piece.
  • 10-20 minutes aural: aural training includes singing at sight, repeating melodies from memory, melodic and harmonic dictation, etc.
  • 10 minutes sight-reading: reading at first sight a never-seen-before piano piece of approximately grade 3 standard.
  • 20-30 minutes repertoire piece: focused, mindful and goal-oriented practice on another chosen repertoire piece.
  • 10-20 minutes quick study: a quick study is an extra piece assigned for the following lesson. Each week a different piece is chosen and prepared to the best possible standard, within the time constraint.
  • 20-30 minutes repertoire piece: focused, mindful and goal-oriented practice on yet another chosen repertoire piece.
  • 10 minutes theory: harmonic, melodic, formal analysis of a simple piece of grade 3 standard or lower.
  • 10 minutes exploring new music: active listening of a never-heard-before piece of music, reflecting and taking notes about musical features such as key / tonality / mode, tempo, articulations, dynamics, texture, melodic shape and direction, form, etc.

By following this practice regime Melissa will grow as a musician, and therefore achieve a distinction in a piano Grade 5 examination as a simple matter of course.

The music improves as the musician grows

One important concept to realise is that a piece of music is not going to improve by playing it over and over countless times, aimlessly. It’s rather the other way around: the piece of music only improves proportionally to the overall growth of the musician, and that can only happen when all aspects of music education are addressed.

The Prodigious Talent: 5-6 Hours of Rigorous Training

Step on stage “Chris”, a 7 year old young boy from a musical family. Having shown an exceptional musical talent from a very early age, Chris has been attending musicianship and music appreciation classes since age 4, revealing an innate musical mind. His approach to the piano demonstrates natural technical ability, his sense of beat is already developed and he seems to possess an instinct for harmony and a knack for improvisation.
Above all, Chris enjoys all of it: he goes to the piano on his own accord at any available opportunity.
Chris’ parents’ aspiration is for him to become a world-class concert pianist, and with the support of their extensive network in the local music scene, he has been able to secure mentorship from a top-tier piano teacher.

Chris’ Practice Routine

With such premises and goal in mind, Chris’ daily practice routine might be thus:

  • 3 hours practicing repertoire
  • 1 hour theory / solfege / sight-singing
  • 1 hour technique
  • 1 hour sight-reading

You might notice this practice regime is not as specific as Melissa’s, the reason being Melissa’s goal is more specific. The fine details of Chris’s schedule will change according to the goals and requirements of the life of a young prodigy: upcoming recitals and concerts, recording sessions, examinations, competitions, radio interviews, etc. Whichever way this time is distributed amongst musical activities, a young promising prodigy such as Chris is looking at a daily regime of at least 5-6 hours of practice. Other activities such as active music listening, exploring new repertoire and ensemble music happen normally in Chris’ musical household.

Concert pianists as athletes

If all of that sounds like hard work, it’s because it is and there’s no ways around it. Aspiring concert pianists must think of themselves as professional athletes: they must dedicate themselves to their craft, push their limits, and never give up on their dreams. While natural talent certainly plays a role in pianistic success, it is ultimately the combination of hard work, dedication, and a passion for music that propels prodigies to the pinnacle of their craft.

So where do YOU stand?

We have been exploring the question of piano practice duration, examining the practice regimens of three hypothetical piano students who represent different aspirations and skill levels. Robert, the casual pianist, finds fulfillment in short, enjoyable practice sessions, while Chris, the prodigious talent, dedicates hours to intense practice, driven by a dream of world-class success. Melissa, the exam-focused pianist, strikes a balance between enjoyment and structured practice, aiming for high-level proficiency while maintaining a passion for music and growing as a musician.

These three examples fall on the extreme sides (Robert and Chris) and roughly halfpoint (Melissa) the varied spectrum of piano practice, highlighting the fact that there is no single “right” answer to the question of how long to practice each day: the ideal practice duration varies depending on individual goals, learning style, and level of commitment.

To find out where you stand within this spectrum you need to have a conversation with your piano teacher and together lay out a plan for your musical journey.