By Hal Leonard Corp., Adam Perlmutter

Most musicians at some point find themselves in a rut in their practice sessions. If you’ve reached this point on the piano, don’t despair. You can reinvigorate your sessions with some fresh approaches, such as the following. Some of these ideas may seem unconventional or even counterintuitive, but when used thoughtfully, each one is all but guaranteed to yield great results in both practice and performance.

  • Don’t play from start to finish. When working on a new piece, reading through it from the first bar to the last may make the most sense. But don’t do this every time you play a piece that’s giving you trouble, especially when first tackling it. Instead, divide the music into discrete segments and practice them in random order. Doing so can help keep you on your toes, because you’re forced to kind of mentally reset at the start of each new segment, resulting in better retention of the music than if you practice it in a more linear way.

  • Experiment with the tempo. Piano students are commonly taught to practice a piece slowly, gradually working up to a given tempo, which is useful advice. But after you have a piece firmly in your fingers, don’t be committed to a fixed tempo. Play around with it. Practice fast music faster than it should be, and slow music slower, to help you find what feel like the “right” tempos. Then find more than one “right” tempo — remember, music should be a living, breathing thing.

  • Make things up. Try interspersing the practice of repertory with improvisation. For example, when you first sit down at the piano, set three minutes aside to play something extemporaneously. Do it again about halfway through your allotted practice time and finish your practice session the same way. These improvisations can be based on the pieces you’re practicing, or they can be completely free. Either way, improvising allows you to be creative and explorative while acting as a kind of palate cleanser between segments of your practice session.

  • Break things up. If you find yourself getting tripped up by a certain passage of music, practice it hands separately before combining them. Doing so can be especially helpful for music that includes a note-intensive bass part, because the left hand is often weaker than the right (or the opposite for lefties). But take things a step further. In each hand, practice the different layers separately, for example, all the up-stemmed notes in a treble-clef part, then all the down-stemmed. Doing so allows you to efficiently commit the music to your fingers, and it also helps you gain an appreciation for the architecture of the music.

  • Be a troubleshooter. Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. Many musicians have their insane moments when trying to learn music by stumbling through it. The next time you’re practicing and your fingers don’t do what you want them to, use the opportunity to problem-solve. First identify what’s giving you trouble, be it a poor choice of fingerings or an awkward shift in the music. Then, come up with a solution — an alternate fingering or an efficient means of handling the shift. That way, you can make the most of your practice session while minimizing your frustration with yourself and the piano.

  • Be analytical. Before you begin working on a new piece on the piano, study it carefully on multiple levels and pencil in your findings on the manuscript. Label its key(s) and time signature(s). Try to identify the structure, the different sections, and the length of each section; look for the different melodic phrases and the corresponding chord and accompaniment patterns. If not included in the music, assign chord symbols where applicable. Try to decipher the scales and modes at play. This sort of preparatory work strengthens your understanding of music while helping you learn the piece faster than you would just by plowing through it on the piano.

  • Transcribe and arrange. Use your practice sessions not just to work on playing the piano but to pursue other musical activities as well. For example, try transcribing some music and notating it with pencil and paper or on a computer program like Finale or Sibelius. Your ears will thank you for this. Or try making an arrangement of a piece not originally written for the piano — a fun way to explore all that the instrument is capable of doing. Both of these activities are excellent complements to working on piano repertoire and serve to enhance your overall musicianship.

  • Record yourself. You’ve probably heard a recording of your voice and been surprised by how it sounds. The same thing may be true for your piano playing. To hear yourself as others do, record yourself with regularity. Don’t worry too much about fidelity here — a cheap recorder or a smartphone is plenty adequate for the task at hand. Recording a new piece that you’re working on is a good way to identify trouble spots that you may not have been aware of. Making successive recordings as you learn the piece is a fun way to track your progress on the way to mastering the music.

  • Refer to outside ears. Sometimes, even with the benefit of a recording, hearing yourself objectively isn’t easy. So, take advantage of available ears around you and ask anyone — a parent, a sibling, a friend — to listen to part of one piece that you’re working on, if even for just a few minutes. It helps to play with someone else listening before you hit the stage. The listener doesn’t necessarily need to be a professional musician or teacher. These outside ears can help suggest modifications that you may make for the very best performance of a piece.

  • Step away from the piano. Some people think that the only way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice 12 hours a day, whereas the wisest musicians generally agree that the best way to make progress is to have shorter but much more focused practice sessions. If, in a given session, you find your mind wandering and your fingers flailing, you’re unlikely to get in any more useful practice. In fact, you may sabotage the progress you’ve made. Step away from the piano so that you’ll feel reenergized for the next session.