What I remembered about practice from 15 minutes tinkling on the piano

One of the best things about going home to my parents is the piano. It’s probably in second place after the roast dinners. As I was messing about with some carols over Christmas, a few things struck me, that seemed applicable to all sorts of practice.

1. There’s a massive difference between being confident and not – even if it sounds the same to an outsider

The first time you get the whole verse note-perfect might sound the same to an outsider as the tenth, but it feels very different to the player. I wasn’t ready to add on a new element the first time, but I was the tenth.

Takeaway: just because pupils have got it right a couple of times, doesn’t mean they’re  ready to move on. Reams of practice are needed. Getting to that point where you’re really confident is a great feeling. I believe it’s especially important we cultivate this in Maths, where too many kids have felt lost for too long.


2. You get better at the parts you’re bad at by getting the parts you’re good at to great.

When I was struggling with the right hand of Good King Wenceslas, the thing that helped was going back and completely nailing the left hand. Yes, I could do the left hand, but getting it from “pretty good” to “so great I didn’t have to worry about it at all” made all the difference. Suddenly the right hand was ten times easier.

Takeaway: identify underpinning skills. If they’re struggling with division, go back to drilling times tables. When you come back to division again, it’ll fall into place.

3. It’s so much easier when you know what you want it to sound like

Sight-reading a piece you’ve heard before is a hundred times easier than one you’ve never heard. You play the first few notes and get into the swing of it. You can nail the tempo and the rhythm, even if you’re not quite hitting the notes yet. You can make adjustments as you go along. You know exactly what bit went wrong, and what you need to practice.

Takeaway: have model examples displayed or copied into books. Consider giving pupils answers they can self-mark from. Teach them to use the answers responsibly.

Of course, just like a pianist needs to be able to sight-read a piece they’ve never heard, our pupils need to be able to answer questions without these scaffolds. There will be times one should deliberately choose to not to give examples or answers – get them to think and struggle. But we should recognise the difference this makes, and make the decision consciously.

4. Seeing (or hearing) yourself get better is motivation in itself – there’s no need for crazy gimmicks

Since I touch a piano about 4 times a year, I get very rusty. And I’m very bad at first. It can be frustrating. Yet I keep playing. The experience is motivating: every time I play the piece, I feel I’m getting a little better. I can hear it. Even if I have a blip where I mess up completely, the general upward trajectory is clear enough to keep me motivated.

Takeaway: make progress visible. Track it on a scale where pupils can see improvements at least week-to-week, if not day-to-day. A line graph tracking questions answered in a minute gives a nice visual upward trend.

Make the classroom culture one where people are getting better and achieving. Failure is much more palatable if it’s not the daily bread-and-butter. It’s much easier to take a failure as a learning experience if you believe that you are generally going in the right direction.


Four ideas. Not the latest, greatest scientific insights. But important nonetheless. Getting practice right is an art. Remembering what practice feels like can really make a difference.


Found yourself nodding along to this? You’d probably be a great fit at Michaela. We’re doubling in size next year, and therefore recruiting in lots of subjects! Take a look at our ads or pop me an email at bisaksen@mcsbrent.co.uk

2 thoughts on “What I remembered about practice from 15 minutes tinkling on the piano

  1. Peps Mccrea (@pepsmccrea)

    Great piece. Analogy is so powerful, isn’t it?

    The one that made me think most was #3. I wonder if there’s also a #3.1 which is something like:

    ‘It’s so much easier when you understand what you want it to feel like’

    As well as just knowing what you want the track to sound like, you need to know what it means to be a musician. That you understand the process of making music. That it’s about interpreting, not just replicating, and it is a way of thinking as well as doing. And perhaps most crucially: you know what music itself looks like so you know when you’ve made it.

    Clear as mud I suspect.

    Anyway, good to see you thinking on this, and I’d love to read a follow up post: the differences between learning piano and learning maths.

  2. jillberry102

    Really enjoyed this – and thanks to Peps for drawing my attention to it.

    We learn so much about teaching from what and how we’re learning! When I started teaching I also started having singing lessons and horse-riding lessons – it was such a salutary experience to be in the position of a learner twice a week.

    Did you see this post from Harry Fletcher-Wood about what he’d learnt about teaching from learning to dance?

    Thanks again.


Go forth and opine