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"What should I practice at the piano?" It's a question we all ask ourselves, whether we are just beginning our piano training, getting back into some lessons after time away, or looking for ways to re-invigorate our study. Think of the things you practice as items on a menu, and your goal is to select items that help you build a balanced, nutritious diet.
What menu items fall into this category? "Technique" is all about getting your fingers loose, limber, and stretched. If we were to compare ourselves to athletes, technique exercises at the piano would be equivalent to stretching and any pre-game activities (layup drills, batting practice, light jogging, etc). For beginners, technique exercises include playing through the 5-finger scale (in parallel and contrary motion) or practicing the "grab" technique. For more advanced students, technique exercises may include scales, arpeggios, or Hanons. It's a good idea to start your practice session with technique exercises since they can be viewed as the warmup portion.
Example (in a 30-minute practice session): 5 minutes of Technique exercises
The great thing about rhythm practice is that it is inherent in everything we do, so we are able to incorporate our rhythmic practice into other tasks at the piano. But for beginners, it's important that we isolate some of our rhythm practice. This includes being very familiar with (and able to quickly recognize) whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and 8th notes (for starters). Clapping and vocalizing rhythms is a great start and can be done away from the piano (in the car, at the gym, in the shower - anywhere!)
Example (in a 30-minute practice session): 5 minutes of Rhythm practice
Ear-training refers to the skill (a long-term, acquired skill) of being able to accurately identify the things you hear. This means being able to play at the piano the things you hear (for example, a song on the radio). But it can also mean simply being able to associate the things we hear with musical concepts: is that song in a major or minor key? Does the melody go up or down in pitch (direction of the notes)? What is the rhythm of whatever is being played?
Example (in a 30-minute practice session): 5 minutes of Ear-Training practice
Ahh, the grand-daddy of them all. Reading music is all about looking at notes on the page and being able to play them at the piano. This requires us to learn about the grand staff, sharps and flats, time and key signatures, and pitch and rhythmic notation. Usually a student will be assigned a song to learn, challenging the student to call upon all of the above-mentioned skills in order to be able to competently play the selected repertoire.
Example (in a 30-minute practice session): 10 minutes of Reading Music practice
Every practice session should include a time for fun - a free, no-rules section that allows students to explore whatever they wish. We call this "improvisation" simply as a catch-all term. It can mean trying to play through a favorite song, writing or playing your own musical ideas, or simply exploring the sonic capabilities of the piano (low and high registers, chords, dissonance vs. consonance, etc).
Example (in a 30-minute practice session): 5 minutes of Improvisation practice