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  • Lynne Phillips

Practising on a Budget

Piggy bank with spectacles looking at a calculator
Image credit: saba

It’s that time of year again.  Exams.  I’m sure I’m not the only piano teacher in the country seeing a sudden dearth in practice time in students who are in their final years of GCSE, AS, and A-levels.  But is there any need for practising to tail off in the way that it usually does?  In previous years, I have accepted the usual cries of, ‘I haven’t had time to practice!’ without question, but this year, I’m starting to think that there may be a way around this. So let’s start at the beginning; let’s assume that students in these critical school years genuinely do not have time to sit down for their usual practise sessions, which, depending on their playing level, will range from 15 minutes to over an hour.  But is that any reason to stop altogether? Mentally and emotionally, it can seem so.  After all, in can seem to students (indeed, this goes for most of us, I think) that they have already failed when they can’t spare enough time to do a ‘proper’ job. But what if that is a myth? What if a student  can  manage something really quite substantial in a much smaller amount of time? Take the example of an A-level student studying post-grade 8 repertoire.  Ideally, students at this level should be practising for an hour or more every day.  But that’s simply not going to happen at the moment, and any attempt to try is going to end in an awful sense of failure.  So what are the alternatives? Micro-practices! Micro-practices are ten to fifteen minute bursts of practising, as many or as few as are achievable, each one with a different goal in mind.  Here are some examples:

  1. Major, harmonic minor, and / or melodic minor scales, 1 octave only

  2. Single page of piece A, left hand only, concentrating on pedal

  3. Half a new page of piece A, working out new notation etc.

  4. Slow and steady practice of half a page of piece B

  5. First two pages of piece A, working on right hand alone, phrasing and projection

  6. Major and / or minor arpeggios, root position, two octaves

  7. Listening to both pieces on youtube, following with score

  8. Run through and individual section practise of single page of piece A

  9. Run through and individual section practice of single page of piece B

  10. Rhythmic improvisation of piece B, single page

  11. Try to figure out harmonic base / progression of piece A, single page

  12. Work on dynamics whilst only playing left hand accompaniment, piece A

  13. Double check consistency of fingering throughout, piece B

None of these are not achievable in short bursts, and looking carefully at them, they are really only one normal length practise split up into its individual components.  And with students playing at more elementary levels, these micro practices can be tailored for very short time periods (as little as three or four minutes each for beginners), with each goal worked out to roughly comprise of an individual component of the ‘usual’ longer practice session. And who knows, with achievable micro-practises to hand, busy and stressed out students might even manage to find that getting away from the pressures and strains of revision and coursework deadlines helps them to relax and cope better with their exam workload.

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