Efficient Practicing for Busy Parents

I’m gonna be totally honest here. I am not very good at practicing. Hold on though, let me rephrase that. I am a great practicer, I know how to practice well, I love practicing, actually, and love to learn new pieces. The part I am not good at is finding the time in my busy mommy schedule to actually sit down and do it. So it doesn’t happen very often. Please tell me I am not alone??

This is how practicing looks like at my house. Adorable – yes. Buuuut – not so conducive to learning new pieces. (Who can name that piece?)
I’ve covered this topic before, but just humor me, alright? Typing it out again helps to remind me that I can still make time for practice, and I can use the little time I do have more wisely to still be the pianist I want to be. Thanks! And hopefully some of you will find some kind of motivation in this post as well, and we can practice better together!
Gone are the days of quiet, uninterrupted hours of practicing. I think maybe I should have appreciated those more when I had them. Oh well, moving on. I absolutely adore being a mom. My three kids are wonderful and are so important to me. But I still want to play the piano. It’s important! It’s important to me that my kids hear me play, and hear me practice. My husband plays too, and we love to play together and hear each other play. 
I also have the words of my former teacher, Bonnie Winterton, in my head a lot. She is a great example to me of lifelong learning and piano practice. She always told me that I should always be working on: 1) a Bach prelude and fugue, and 2) a Beethoven sonata. I would love to do this. I need to be more disciplined at getting this done. But see, here’s my problem:

Practicing these days consists of me sitting down at the piano to play, and after about 2 minutes somebody comes and climbs onto my lap to play with me. So I continue with one hand, perhaps up an octave since some of the keys I need are taken by little fingers. Then there is the inevitable screaming and sibling rivalry going on in the other room. Or somebody needs my attention. You get the picture. 
I think there is a way, though! Obviously, when you are a busy parent or busy teaching a whole lot you are not going to have as much time to practice as you used to. But there are a few important principles and techniques that help me, and if used consistently (even in 20-minute or 10-minute sessions) I do think that improvement will be made.

1. Practice in small sections

Like, really small. I like to sit down and say to myself, “Self, just learn these 2 measures.” Progress is progress, even in small amounts. Take it hands alone in these small sections, then put them together. You can make amazing progress (on this small little section) even in just a few minutes. Rather than try and play through a huge chunk of the piece, then get interrupted and feel like you didn’t make any progress at all, you can use good practice techniques on this small section and have it all learned and even memorized.

2. Write down your fingerings

This is always the first thing I do as I learn my little section. I find the fingering I like the best and write it in. You are never going to remember your fingerings from one short practice session to another, with lots of parental duties and life in-between. Write it in! I also love to do certain things to help make it easier to learn, such as circling all of the notes played by my thumb. This helps amazingly on fast arpeggiated passages.
Circling the notes played by the thumb is a nice visual cue to prepare to cross under!

3. Apply memorization techniques as you go

Be really focused, analyze and memorize major chord progressions. Find small patterns to remember, such as the movement of the bass note, or the movement of your right hand thumb. Just find some pattern to memorize and use as a landmark. Memorize different “starting places” as you learn each little section, so you can start the piece anywhere.
Whatever chords will help you to learn a piece, write them in!
A sticky little section that somehow got easier when I memorized the movement of my right hand thumb. Write in or circle whatever will help you!

4. See the overall picture

It’s easy to stay focused on tiny little sections when that is all you have time to work on. So don’t forget to get the big picture: listen to recordings by different pianists. Hear the overall dynamic phrases and structure, find the climax and the overall direction of the piece. Get out some colored pencils and mark/analyze the overall structure and form of the piece. Find and mark all of the thematic sections and recaps. In a fugue mark each reiteration of the theme. Decide what story you are trying to tell, or what scene you want to picture as you play, or what mood you want to evoke through the piece. If the overall piece makes more sense to you, you will learn it better, and learn it right the first time.

5. Record yourself

Don’t forget to record yourself at the end of a quick session to see how that little section really is sounding! You are your toughest critic. Listen with an objective ear and decide what needs to be fixed next time.

You can do it. Even with a baby on your lap and a toddler sitting next to you, you can work on a little section with one hand. This is the ultimate test in piano practicing focus! If you can do this you can do anything! You are a super hero. Seriously though, throughout your day, during nap times or after the kids are in bed, or even with them sitting next to you, you can continue to develop your talents. And what a blessing that example will be to them when they start taking lessons and developing talents themselves.

And while I am mostly talking to myself, YOU can do it too! My goal is to get at least some quality practice time in each day, even if it is short. What’s your practicing goal?

Jennifer Boster

6 Responses to “Efficient Practicing for Busy Parents

  • My 3 kids are in their 20's so I can usually play the piano as much as I want. But here's something I found valuable when they were at the constant interruption stage: deep breathing/visualization/meditation before practice time. Even 3 deep, mindful breaths can switch you from thinking about the family to focusing on the music at hand. If you have a bit more time, the visualization and meditation will help even more. This way you won't waste those few minutes of practice thinking about the laundry, the bills, the past, the future, etc. You only need the present when you are playing music.

    • Great idea, Megan! Thanks for sharing! That is a great point – it is so easy as a mom to be in multi-task mode rather than truly focusing on the one thing in the present.

  • And comment number 2 on this topic (it isn't only moms of young children who can't organize their thoughts,) is, forget a Beethoven sonata! You'll be at that thing for a couple years! Choose shorter pieces. Need Beethoven? Pick the bagatelles or the first couple of variations of a set. Or get to know Mompou, Turina, Sibelius, Griffes, etc. etc. There is tons of wonderful music that is challenging, satisfying, sophisticated and SHORT!

  • As a mom in this stage, I love this! When I only had one baby, I could often get by with him in a high chair watching me practice. That didn't last very long though. I basically gave up on learning other people's music and took the opportunity to write more of my own. I think it was a good way to embrace the situation, but I would definitely like to be learning more classical rep again. Now that you've given labels to these practice techniques, I can more deliberately follow them and hopefully make some progress.

  • I am terrible at making time to practice… I force myself to do it when I book a gig (like a wedding) or when I'm accompanying for student musicians, but I know I need to practice all year long.

    I decided to do a simple practice incentive/tracking activity this year; I'm going to put up a "jar" for each of my 12 students and we'll be putting marbles in for each day they practice during a week. All of the students will be able to see all of the jars, even thought they seldom see one another in person.

    There will be a 13th jar on the shelf for me. SCARY!!!

    My 9-month-old son has made things really busy around here, but I am STILL hoping to get some bench time in for myself this year. I'm hoping the marbles-in-the-jar thing will be a good motivator for my students, and that it will be an even better motivator for me!!

  • Your comments about "sibling rivalry in the other room" or the child climbing on my lap the second I try to practice made me smile because it is way too familiar 🙂 At least now some of those climbing on the bench are getting old enough to play simple duets with me which is definitely rewarding, even if its not improving my abilities.