Establishing good habits from the first time you sit down to practice piano is vital, just like the good habits you’ve already established for health, relationships, and work.
I’ve crystallized these 7.5 habits (I’ll explain the “half” later!) from many years of teaching adults piano, along with adult learning theory acquired in my master’s program.
I’ve also included suggestions for forming these habits based on principles from the popular book Atomic Habits, by James Clear.
Habit #1: Practice Regularly
Bet you didn’t guess this one.
For sure, the amount of time you spend practicing matters. Though possibly not as much as practicing regularly. Remember how cramming the night before a college exam never paid off as well as studying over a period of days or weeks?
Here’s something important: practicing isn’t the same as playing. Practicing requires focus and effort (so does playing, but not as much). Practicing is work – it won’t (and shouldn’t) always feel easy.
If you love the work you do for money, or at least some of the things you do for work, you know that it can be just as enjoyable as leisure. Maybe even more enjoyable, if you know how to enter a flow state.
Habit forming tips:
- Prioritize it. If necessary, give practicing priority over other, less-important habits (like watching TV or getting lost online).
- Regularize it. Practice at the same time every day. Try “habit stacking” it with something else you usually do. For example, practice right after dinner.
- Track it. Track your daily practicing in a notebook.
- Reward it. Can dessert be a reward for practicing?
Habit #2: Practice Smart
Here’s a saying worth remembering: “Practice as well as you would like to play.”
The mental and physical habits for playing are formed by what you do. It’s a physiological fact that if you practice a piece correctly, it’s more likely you’ll play correctly the next time. If you make mistakes, it’s more likely you’ll make them the next time – probably the same mistakes, because you learned them!
Here are four useful practicing strategies from the Creative Keyboardist Adult Piano Course:
- Break things down. Break the music into its components. For example, practice only the rhythm by tapping and counting.
- Practice in short chunks. Short, focused practice sessions are more profitable than long ones.
- Practice slower. Practice slower than you think you need to play, or want to play.
- Focus on trouble spots. Focus on trouble spots instead of playing a piece over and over.
Habit forming tips:
- Pair the satisfaction of playing a whole piece with the good habit of practicing the trouble spots.
- After some slow practice, reward yourself by playing at the tempo you want to play.
Habit #3: Track Practicing
According to James Clear, “Habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement can make your habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress.”
Track the amount of time you spend practicing each day.
Habit forming tip:
- Make it easy by keeping a practice journal near your instrument.
Habit #4: Drop the Comparing Habit
Sometimes a good habit involves dropping a bad one.
It’s all too easy to find yourself comparing your abilities to those of your teacher, your sister who has played for 30 years, or even your kids!
There will always be better players than you, but if you play at all, you’re already a better player than someone who has never touched a piano.
Adults progress faster at piano than kids because of their established motor skills and intellectual faculties. Given time and practice, adults of any age can become excellent keyboard players.
Habit #5: Appreciate the Skills You Have
“I wish I could play….”
Your goals probably include playing music that’s much more difficult.
Just don’t neglect to appreciate and enjoy what you can play today.
Habit forming tips:
- Don’t only practice. Give yourself the pleasure of “just playing” sometimes.
- Play for others who are likely to be appreciative. Their admiration and enjoyment will remind you of how skilled you already are.
Habit #6: Be Honest With Your Teacher
Adult learning theory informs us that adult learners are:
- Self-directed. You want control and decision-making over your learning.
- Goal-oriented. You have learning goals.
- Relevance-oriented. You want to understand how each exercise, assignment or piece relates to your goals.
Be honest and transparent with your teacher about your musical interests, your goals, and your need for relevancy.
Didn’t practice much since last lesson? It happens. Tell your teacher. It’s useful for us to know. Maybe the lesson is better spent working on something else.
Don’t like an assigned piece? Ask for a different one. There are millions to choose from!
Habit #7.5: Think Long-Term
Learning to play piano well takes time. When you play a piece of music, you’re on a journey. You probably don’t care about the ultimate destination (the end). If you did, why not just play the end and be done with it?
Likewise, learning to play is a journey. But unlike a piece, there’s no final closure. There’s no point at which you’ll arrive. There’s always another skill to learn or improve. There’s always the next piece to tackle.
Thinking long-term requires patience and fortitude.
So what’s the half habit? This one: think long-term. It’s at least one and a half times as important as the others!
Because it’s not always going to be easy. If it were, would it even be worth doing?