Piano Practice – A Practical Guide

Become a better piano player faster with our guide on how to practice piano

Last Updated: Nov 2020

Piano practice is probably the most important part of becoming a better player.

We’re going to lay out the perfect practice plan for any skill level below.

You can learn all the scales, modes and chords you want, but it’s the practice you put in that determines how well you play piano.

Here’s our take on how to practice piano effectively. Let’s get it…

Piano Practice Guide

How to Practice Piano

Most people practice in a half-hearted way – if they even do it at all.

I can’t blame them – this shit’s boring as hell. We just want to get it over with.

But what if I told you to 10x your current skills, you only need about 20 hours of practice. But it has to be consistent, focused, and difficult practice.

That’s the key.

Set up a time for practice every day, and stick to it religiously – like it’s your job. You have to be on time, every day and just put in the work.

It also helps to think of “practice” more like a “work out.” You’re exercising and even though it can suck, it’s the best thing for you.

But when you are practicing, make sure you’re FOCUSED on what you’re doing. Don’t just go through the motions to get it over with. Pay attention to what you’re doing with the intention of improving your speed/accuracy/whatever.

It’s also important to know the fundamentals of piano fully – the best way we’ve found is this.

Structuring Your Practice

You likely want to divide your practice sessions up into different sections, based on the particular skills you’re trying to get better at.

These could be anything, including:

  • technical skills (example: finger independence, sight reading, etc)
  • building blocks (example: scales/chords, inversions, etc)
  • advanced theory (example: progressions, voicings, etc)
  • song playing or songwriting/composing

So first things first – sit and think. Pick 2 or 3 very specific areas you think will take you to next level fast. You’re going to focus on these 2 or 3 things for the entire 20 hours.

Don’t worry, the practice isn’t for 20 hours straight.

But you do have to commit to practicing at least 30 minutes a day – every single damn day.

It’s even better (and faster for you) if you can dedicate 60-90 minutes a day to practicing piano.

BUT

Do NOT practice any more than 90 minutes a day. That seems to be the ideal maximum amount of practice time.

One last thing to consider – before you start practicing, spend a couple minutes stretching yourself. Loosen up. Stretch your wrists, fingers, neck, shoulders and arms.

It helps a lot.

A Piano Practice Plan for all Skill Levels

At Deviant Noise, we’re all about making music – that often means songwriting and composing. So our approach to practice is very much geared around this.

Below is a plan you can follow every day that focuses on building your muscle memory (to play piano by ear) and the “repertoire” of songs you’re able to play.

It’s a 90 minute session, but if you don’t have the time, you can split it into two and do each part on alternating days.

Here’s the overview:

  • WARM-UP – 5 minutes
  • Scales Practice – 15 minutes
  • Scale+Chord Focus – 20 minutes
  • Chord Progression Focus – 20 minutes
  • Song Focus – 30 minutes

Always remember to stretch before starting the practice session.

Here’s how to build each section above for yourself…

Warm Up Section

The purpose of the 5 minute piano warm-up is to get you into “piano playing” mode.

Basically you just need to work your fingers and wrists out. Try doing some finger independence exercises here. Using the C Major Scale, get your fingers moving up and down.

Start with your right thumb and left pinky on C notes and play the scale up to the 5th degree (the G note) and back down to the root (C note).

Do one hand at a time, then combine both hands. Once you are better at that, try going in opposite directions with each hand.

After that you can alternate notes using your fingers. Still using the C Major Scale, play the following pattern with your right hand:

  • C/D/C/D/C/D/C/D (thumb and index fingers)
  • E/D/E/D/E/D/E/D (index and middle fingers)
  • E/F/E/F/E/F/E/F (middle and ring fingers)
  • G/F/G/F/G/F/G/F (ring and pinky fingers)
  • E/F/E/F/E/F/E/F (middle and ring fingers)
  • E/D/E/D/E/D/E/D (index and middle fingers)
  • C/D/C/D/C/D/C/D (thumb and index fingers)

That will help improve your finger dexterity and independence. There are a ton of other warm up exercises you can do, but those 2 are a great start.

Scales Practice Section

For the next 20 minutes, you want to focus on getting better at scales and modes.

This is probably the most boring part of the practice, but it’s essential – especially if you’re planning on playing piano by ear or being a songwriter/producer.

What you want to do is start running up and down all the major and minor scales for every key on the keyboard. Some people like to do 2 octaves, but it’s fine if you just want to run up/down one octave of the scale.

It’s a good idea to move in Perfect Fourths, since that’s generally how music likes to move.

So, here’s what to do:

  • Start on C Major – run up and down the scale a couple times
  • Next, do the C Minor scale – up and down
  • Move to the Perfect Fourth of C – the F Major Scale, run it up and down
  • Now do the F Minor Scale, run it up and down.
  • Next, move a Perfect Fourth above F – the Bb.
  • Run up and down the Bb Major and Minor scales
  • Continue moving in Perfect Fourths and practicing the scales until you reach C again

The idea of this practice section is to build your memorization and muscle memory for the main scales you’ll be playing a lot of music in.

It’s also a good idea to say out loud, each note as you play it so that you can memorize which notes are which scale degrees for all the scales. This is helpful when you’re writing music and practicing chord progressions.

Once you’re doing great with the Major and Minor scales you can move on to other piano modes and scales. Do the same thing where you’re practicing the mode up and down in each key on the keyboard.

Scale and Chord Focus Section

For the next 20 minutes of your practice, you’re going to hone in on one single scale and practice the different piano chords you can make using the keys of that scale.

For example, you could pick the C minor scale to work in for a while.

The notes of the C minor scale are – C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb

Start practicing the different types of chords you can make using those different notes:

  • triads
  • 6th chords
  • 7th chords
  • extended chords
  • suspended chords

When you’re better at these chord types in root positions, try new inversions and voicings.

It helps to know the rules of diatonic harmony, so you know whether each scale degree/note should be major or minor based on your chosen scale.

Again, with this section of practice, you’re working on memorization and muscle memory.

Chord Progressions Focus Section

For this next section, you’re building on the practice you did in the previous section.

Stay in the same scale you chose above and choose a common piano chord progression to practice (example: I-IV-I-V-I, etc).

The key to this section is to experiment. Don’t just play the chord progression over and over, try different things until you land on a progression you’d love to use in a song/production.

Here’s a couple tips on what to try out for this 20 minute section:

  • Start playing the progression using basic triads in root position.
  • Next, try using extensions or other chord types for various notes (ex/ try a seventh chord on one of the notes, etc) to see how it sounds in the overall progression
  • Try using different chord voicings and inversions for various notes (ex/ play the I chord in second inversion, etc.) and see how that sounds.

The goal is to have a beautiful, unique chord progression you love by the end of the 20 minutes. But don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it. Just trying will improve your ability to make and play music immensely.

Song Focus Section

This section is pretty straight forward. For the last half hour of your piano practice session, just work on playing a song you love.

We recommend buying some sheet music for your favorite songs and learning them, since you also end up practicing your music sight reading skills.

But if that’s not your thing, feel free to browse YouTube for piano tutorials of your favorite music and just learn the song.

The idea behind this section is to actually get you playing REAL music, faster and more effectively. There’s no point in just practicing the building blocks if you don’t practice how they get put together to form songs by the greats in music.

So spend some time everyday learning and playing songs.

13 Crucial Piano Practice Tips

Here are some practice tips you should pay attention to to make the most of your practice time.

Don’t sleep on this stuff – it’s the little things and details that make the biggest differences.

Remove All Distractions

The only way you can practice effectively is if you focus. Leave your phone in another room (unless you need it as a metronome) and turn off the TV/music/anything distracting.

Stretch and Hydrate

It sounds weird, but it’s still important. Hydrating and drinking water helps keep your body moving well. Stretching can help your fingers move better and help you stay relaxed while playing.

Be Mindful with Repetition

Don’t just repeat things for the sake of getting them done. Pay attention to what you’re doing – which note you just played, what scale it’s in, how well your rhythm is, etc.

Practice at Slow Speeds

When you’re practicing something new – especially a song – go TURTLE SPEED slow. Like so slow the song or piece or scale isn’t even recognizable. Gradually increase your speed as you get better at playing whatever it is you’re playing.

Always Practice With a Metronome

Rhythm and timing are extremely important, so whatever you practice – whether it’s scales, chords, progressions or songs – do it to a metronome. And constantly be trying to improve your groove/feel/rhythm.

Record Yourself and Review weekly for feedback

When you’re learning how to play piano by yourself, it can be tough to get feedback that helps you improve. That’s why it’s good to record yourself practicing (preferably on video) and review it once a week. That way you’ll be able to spot areas you need to improve upon – posture, timing, etc.

Pay Attention to Your Posture, Fingering and Wrists

Playing with bad posture, incorrect fingering or improper wrist position/movement is not only bad for the song but bad for your body, too. Pay attention to correct posture and use the correct fingering and wrist movements/positions.

Treat Practice Like a Workout

Practicing piano is kind of like working out. So if you wanted, you could structure it like a workout – for example when practicing scales, doing all 24 major/minor scales is one “set” and you perform 3 of those “sets” during your session.

Further, try to vary your technique. Once you get good at something, you stop growing unless you keep challenging yourself. So try changing things up to make it more difficult for you. Kind of like adding weight to the barbell once it becomes too light.

Reward Yourself Every Time

Face it, practice sucks. No one wants to do it. But if you promise yourself a reward everytime you complete your practice, it makes it easier to stick to it. So do something nice for yourself everytime you do a full practice session. If you miss practice, you don’t get to do whatever the reward was until you make up the practice time.

Focus on Practicing What You Suck At

It’s easy to think that you can just blast through scales over and over and get better. But the truth is, practice is only effective if it remains hard. So find something that you absolutely suck at, and practice THAT most often. Once you get good at that, find something else you’re not good at.

Stop Looking at Your Hands

It’s gonna mess you up – don’t do it. Or keep it to a minimum. You want to develop muscle memory so you can play without constantly looking at which notes your fingers are hitting.

Count Out Loud to Improve Your Rhythm

If you’re having trouble with rhythm and staying on time, try counting out loud as you play. It’s remarkable effective at improving your timing ability.

Practice Both Hands Together

It’s ok to practice your hands separately when you’re first learning something, but quickly move to using both hands at the same time. It’s how piano is actually played, so it’s best to use both hands as soon as possible, even if it’s too hard for you.

And that’s that folks – our complete guide on effective piano practice.

Our favorite tools for helping us practice piano are Melodics – check out our review here and Quincy Jones’ Playground Sessions.

Return to our main piano section for more great content about playing piano, like “how to teach yourself piano.” Or read our Piano For All review or if you want something more traditional read our Piano Marvel review!

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