Part of my job as a piano teacher is to not only remind students to practice, but to also teach them how to practice. After all, I only see my students one day a week; the majority of their progress depends on how much they can accomplish the other six!
To help my younger students learn how to practice, I have them imagine a layer cake with many layers. We focus on one layer at a time and work on different ways to practice each one before assembling the entire piece of music. Just like a baker builds a layer cake from the bottom to the top, decorating each layer before he adds the next, we can practice a piece of music one layer at a time. These musical layers, and some ways we practice each one, are:
Rhythm: clapping and counting; singing the words to a song; practicing with the metronome.
Notes and fingering: practicing hands separately; drilling tricky fingerings; circling patterns; marking changes of hand position.
Articulation: practicing legato and staccato movements away from the piano; drilling sections with quick changes in articulation.
Dynamics and tempo: practicing arm weight/light touch movements away from the piano; drilling sections with quick changes in dynamics; practicing with metronome to increase tempo.
Pedal: practicing hands separately with pedal; highlighting pedal markings in the score.
I find this method particularly helpful for students that get overwhelmed with the amount of information in the score (“this looks hard!”) and students that aren’t detail-oriented (“I didn’t see that!”) For other students, even intermediate and advanced students, we use the layer cake as a check list to make sure that every detail in the score has been observed. I ask students to self-assess with questions such as: am I playing with a steady beat and correct rhythm? Do any passages still feel awkward under my fingers to play? Did I listen carefully for big contrasts in dynamics and articulation? Did I listen for smooth pedaling, with no gaps between notes?
By using this method my students have become much more thoughtful, independent practicers. The only downside is that by the end of a long day of teaching, I really want some cake. :)