23 Ways to Improve Piano Playing


Ways to Improve Piano PlayingWhether you’re a complete beginner or advanced, every pianist should be working to improve their playing. Even if you’re just playing it for fun and not trying to be too serious about it, at some point it pays off to really develop your playing skills. Besides, the more you improve, the easier it will be to play the music you already love to play. This helps open up your ability to be more creative artistically as well.

Unfortunately, some people play the piano all the time and are not improving. That’s because they mistakenly believe that improvement simply comes from playing a whole bunch, but it’s actually quite the opposite!

Your progress on the piano depends on many factors outside of practicing. Things like investing in a solid teacher, being consistent with your technique, choosing the right repertoire, and knowing when to take time off just to name a few.

I want to share some of my favorite ways to improve piano playing that I think would benefit you tremendously. These are 23 little strategies that I’ve used over the years and my success is a result of taking action on those strategies. You can implement some of this right away, and the rest you may want to gradually work in.

Here are 23 ways to improve piano playing.

1. Switch To The Right Teacher

This tip is for those who are really advanced pianists, but a beginner might find this suggestion to be reasonable too. I recall growing up I had many great teachers, but I seemed to always outplay their teaching after a while. Because of that I had to make the tough decision to switch teachers, and I did this on several occasions.

Switching piano teachers is not an easy thing to do when you already have such a rapport. The reality is that if you’re not developing and the teacher is holding back then it’s important to do this. Also if you have a bad teacher there’s no need to stay with them anyway.

Outside of needing more technical development, sometimes piano students need new inspiration. Each teacher is going to have their area of expertise. Perhaps you want to be better at Bach and Scarlatti, but your teacher only has helpful suggestions for Rachmaninoff and Beethoven. The person coaching you has the biggest impact on how much you can potentially improve as a pianist.

2. Practice Piano More Consistently

I’ve mentioned this tip in some other articles, but jamming all of your practice into one session is not a great thing to do. When you miss days practicing this is sometimes a pianists first instinct, but it’s a detrimental one.

You would be much better off staying consistent with practice. After a while your brain checks out, so knowing how long to practice is really up to you as the individual. I like to chunk music and work on it a little bit at a time. Once I’ve hit my quota for the day I’ll stop practicing, get a good rest and then come back to it the next day and repeat the same process.

Your practice should be about building the piece over time and not trying to do it all in one setting. Approaching piano this way will help you achieve more consistent results than going on a practice frenzy!

3. Play For People

Some of us need a boost to our public performances, so playing for people is a great way to improve in that area. I try to play for people as much as possible. Sometimes that might just be a snippet of something I’m working on.

Other times I might play an entire concert’s worth of music just to test things out. Playing for people helps improve confidence and teaches you how to prepare the right way.

4. Record Yourself

Pianists sometimes think that everything they hear during practice is all they need to determine what’s good and what isn’t. Turn on a tape recorder and you just might be surprised with what you hear. I’ve found that recording myself on a consistent basis has allowed me to easily find my mistakes and areas where I need improvement.

Listening to recordings is a better way to pick out those trouble spots. The good thing is that you can listen to recordings over and over again to see what else might need changing.

For young students I think recording yourself is the fastest way towards improved playing. It also gets them digging through their repertoire, sorting through it and making helpful notes in the score.

5. Develop Your Technique

Some pianists will develop their technique only so far, and try to play music beyond their technical ability. Without working on your technique, more demanding repertoire is only going to be tougher to master.

It’s always best to be technically sound early on in your playing, but it’s entirely possible to develop even after you’ve developed a certain playing style.

I remember when I started playing a lot of music that had chromatic thirds; something I didn’t play much of at the time. Still I knew that if I gradually worked on the skill I would be able to master it comfortably. I used a combination of technique books like Hanon and Czerny’s Art of Finger Dexterity to help polish those skills.

I also worked on repertoire that was shorter but featured some of those same techniques in them so I could work on it little by little. By the time I did all of that I was able to easily hop into the real difficult music and execute those thirds comfortably.

Now, there’s all sorts of ways to develop your technique, but I find it easier to do by combining both exercise material and then related repertoire. It’s better to work on the areas that you’re weak in rather than taking on the full scope of piano playing technique. Adjust things along the way and I think you’ll see a gradual improvement.

6. Have Your Piano Assessed

Every now and then I’ll work on a piece of music and can’t seem to make much progress. My first thought is that it’s me, but further investigation shows that it’s actually my instrument needing some work. This happens to a lot of pianists actually.

They’ll overplay and basically battle the instrument trying to make those scales go faster, those trills to be cleaner and much more. Most teachers won’t tell you this, but the reality sometimes is that the instrument itself needs work (or an upgrade).

I would have a piano technician come out to the home and assess your piano. They can lubricate the keys to get them back up to speed, tune the instrument and more. Technicians can even customize the playing style of your piano so that it does everything you need it to.

An instrument that’s working properly has a lot to do with your overall improvement. Every couple of months take a few moments to check your piano out for tuning, responsiveness, voicing, and overall wear and tear.

7. Do Chord Analysis

The deeper you dig into the repertoire the more connected you will be musically. Chord analysis is something that’s heavily focused on in colleges and piano academies, but young students need exposure to this too.

With chord analysis you can find all of the climatic parts of the music and even determine which sections deserve some artistic creativity. Chord structures also really help with memory and anticipating what notes are coming next. I found that when I started doing chord analysis that my ear developed quite a bit.

This doesn’t need to be a really long process. I would spend 10 – 15 minutes every day going through the music and picking it apart. Combine this with form analysis too to make the most of it. To help you with this I recommend checking out this theory book by Alfred.

8. Incorporate Games Into Lessons

This tips is for piano teachers, but students can do this on their own too. Playing games is a great way to get inspired about piano playing. Sometimes going through the same practice routine every day can get mundane, so switching things up will get students excited about piano again.

Some great games for piano include: matching, online ear training, notation, and rhythm replication. A quick Google search will show you results for all kinds of virtual games that students can play.

Most of the in-lessons games can be created on the spot if you wanted to. At most all a piano teacher needs is a white board, some cards, and a couple of pens and markers to create all kinds of customized games for their students. You may want to check out some of these amazing piano games for beginners.

9. Use A Metronome

Solid rhythm is something all piano players need. Without a good sense of rhythm it’s tough to play pieces when they require faster speeds. This is why I suggest getting a metronome to help you with this. Metronomes are great for counting rhythms, working out sections at varying speeds, and even trying out incremental tempos.

Choosing a metronome is actually quite easy once you know how each type works. The best metronomes for piano are those that are digital or quartz based. Traditional click wand metronomes are okay, but I find them to be a little inaccurate sometimes.

To improve your playing the metronome should be solid with counting, and allow you to pinpoint the exact tempo and meter you want.

10. Get Rid Of Distractions

When I started studying piano back in the 1990’s there were no smartphones or tablets to worry about. At most there was maybe the little beeper packs that people carried on their waist. Other than watching TV and playing sports, piano was much easier to practice at the time without getting distracted.

In 2018 things are much different. Kids have smartphones and portable video games to keep them distracted. They can even watch TV on their personal devices now which makes practicing the piano even more difficult. It’s not until you fully cut those distractions out that you’ll see real improvement in your playing.

Trying to play a few passages, check a text message, practice a few more, watch a video clip and more is only going to ruin your focus. Practice sessions should be completely focused periods of concentration. My advice to you would be to shut off all devices and activities that might get in the way of your playing.

12. Follow A Practice Schedule

Without a solid schedule your piano practice sessions might be a little worthless. Everytime you approach the instrument you’re just playing whatever comes to mind, and that’s no way to really improve. A sample schedule might look like this

Monday 

8:00 – 8:30 – Chopin Prelude in E minor

  • 16th notes at measure 37 (15 mins)
  • Chord Analysis (15 mins)

8:30 – 9:45 – Practice Break/Eat Breakfast

10:00 – 12:00 – Mozart Piano Sonata C Major

  • LH opening passage (30 mins)
  • 2nd movement (15 mins)
  • Play full sonata 3 times (45 mins)

12:00 – 3:00 – Practice Break (hangout with friends)

4:00 – 6:00 – Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata no. 2

As you can see from the mock schedule, there’s plenty of breaks built-in. Each practice session has a clear goal associated with it. It’s not even the same piece for each session, but it’s okay if you do want to work on the same piece multiple times per day.

Within each practice session I have also included specific things to work on. Things like working on the chord structure, chord analysis, and more. It’s all very detailed and scheduled out.

This schedule is designed to maximize every minute of practice so real improvement can occur. After you’ve made a schedule, stick to it and then you’ll see how the consistency makes an effect on your playing.

13. Create A Warm Up Routine

I don’t like jumping into a practice session without doing some kind of warming up. Everyone has their own preferences here, but scales are often suggested. I think scales are good, but there’s some exercise books that offer some more musicality to them.

The Moszkowski etudes are actually really fun to play, and they sound like recital pieces too so their’s some musical benefit to them. If you don’t fancy technique books then you can even play pieces you already know.

If my hands are feeling a little cold and tight then I’ll play a couple of chordal passages just to get the blood flowing. If you’re an advanced player it’s actually okay to play something really easy too.

I’ll sometimes go back to really simple pieces like a Bach chorale or Minuet & Trio passage by Mozart just to build some early confidence. The point is that before you get into the meat of your practice, make sure the fingers are awake!

14. Play Slower

Slow practice is the best kind of practice. Anytime you try to jump into new music at a fast tempo, chances are you’ll run into a roadblock. This is usually a mental one, but also technically some bad habits might arise too.

Practicing slow allows our brains a chance to pick out what exactly is going on and to digest things better. Sometimes I’ll play the same passages from my practice routine slow for several days before I start to speed it up. This gives me a chance to see exactly what’s going on, to adjust my finger height and arm as needed, and to produce a consistent rich tone.

Once everything is really internalized in my fingers and mind then I’ll start notching it up. I find a lot of the time that I can jump to the fastest tempo; all without missing notes or having bad technique to achieve it.

15. Pat Yourself On The Back

Look, playing the piano is a real talent! It’s not as easy as it looks, and sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in all the practice. Since you work so hard, it’s important to pat yourself on the back every now and then.

That tough passage of falling thirds you struggled with? Not so hard anymore right? Celebrate that achievement! Maybe you just had your first recital and nailed all of the notes correctly; celebrate that too!

How you feel about your playing really has an effect on your development as a pianist too. Anytime I achieve something difficult, complete a piece, or have a great recital I make sure to feel proud about it. That helps build confidence that I’ll need later on for more difficult repertoire.

16. Listen To Recordings Of Other Pianists

I know many teachers advise against doing this, but I’m going to take a different tune. I think it’s a great idea to listen to recordings of other pianists. This isn’t just the greats like Horowitz and Ashkenazy, but others who are not well known.

YouTube is a huge place to go find and listen to recordings of the pieces you’ll be playing. Live recordings allow piano students a chance to see how other pianists are using their fingers, taking musical liberties, and doing some showmanship too.

As a kid growing up I listened to a ton of recordings and always took inspiration from them. To some degree those recordings helped shape my playing today, but it was really great for my musical ear.

On another note, studying recordings can help pianists figure out how to play certain rhythms, trills, spot incorrect notes and more. There’s a wealth of knowledge in those recordings, as long as you approach them the wrong way.

17. Attend A Concert

Outside of listening to recordings on YouTube, I always encourage my students to attend piano concerts. This is their chance to see professional artists perform music at the highest level. It also teaches them a little bit about how to behave during a concert and the whole process too.

Not all pianists are going to want to go the Classical route, so it’s definitely fine to suggest Jazz concerts, R&B, and other genres of shows to go to as well.

18. Play With Your Eyes Closed

It’s really easy to stare at your hands when playing. For some piano players that works just fine, but I often look away so I can feel the music more. Staring sometimes gives the audience a sense of a robotic musician.

Often times playing that way makes you come off bland. Work on playing with your eyes closed and I bet you’ll see a clear difference in how everything sounds and feels. Don’t do this the whole time you play, but work it in periodically to free up your playing.

19. Use Protective Earplugs

Playing the piano a lot can be fun, but without proper hearing protection it’ll lead to hearing loss. With that said I recommend picking up a pair of high fidelity earplugs like the ER20XS. These allow you to still hear high frequencies while also reducing the dB levels in the room. If you play in a room that gets loud then this will allow for longer, more effective practice sessions.

20. Mix In Jazz, Pop, & Other Genres

Everything about piano doesn’t have to be Classical. Growing up Classical was my main thing, but even I got involved in Pop and Jazz and Gospel to mix things up. There’s a lot of inspiration you can take from the other genres. The biggest thing is that they can develop your harmonic awareness as well as rhythmic versatility.

If you’re a teacher trying to teach these styles and aren’t familiar then fear not. There’s plenty of awesome method books out there that spell things out in a fun way for young pianists.

21. Set Short Term Goals

No matter what level musician you are, it’s really tough to look at short term results and get excited. These results are the building blocks to your long term goals though. Maybe you want to finish a simple Charlie Puth piano cover by next month and have not gotten anywhere yet.

What I suggest doing is breaking the piece up into chunks, adding it to your practice schedule and then setting short goals in between.

Maybe 2 weeks from now you can have the opening and ending finished, and then by weeks 3 and 4 have the rest put together. Approaching piano bit by bit is the best way to build confidence, see your progress and then reassess along the way.

22. Memorize Your Pieces Early

Getting buried in sheet music makes it hard to be musical. There were times in the past where I would know a piece, but I couldn’t play it without the sheet music and tried to memorize things later.

Now I advise my students to learn notes as early as possible. Memorizing things earlier allows you to work on some of the dynamics, polishing rhythms, pedaling and other aspects a lot sooner. Trying to do all of those at the same time can get tricky and simply slow you down.

23. Enter Competitions

I’m not a huge fan of piano competitions, but they are almost a necessity for those trying to break into the music business. You’ve seen the shows like American Idol, and X-Factor, and with concert piano it’s much of the same.

The process is rigorous, and a high level of playing is required to even compete in the first place. Preparing for a competition is a nice way to push yourself to be excellent and on top of everything. I find that when I do this everything else seems to come together.

My preparation is solid, my scheduling is detailed and well thought out, and all of the distractions are cut out. This doesn’t always mean I win the competition, but I always come out of it a much better pianist.

Even for young pianists, or those just doing it as a hobby it’s fine to enter a small local competition just to get used to being your best. Honestly you might try it out and realize competitions aren’t for you. That’s okay too!

 

Joshua Ross

Hello & thanks for stopping by! I'm a professional concert pianist and piano instructor. In the United States, I've given successful performances in several places including New York, Florida, Connecticut, & New Jersey, I have also performed internationally in Italy and made my Carnegie Hall debut in 2014. I enjoy blogging about the piano, the art of performance, general music, current events and the latest in music production.

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