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Let them eat cake! The pros and cons of layered practice for the elementary piano student.

Jane arrives for her piano lesson, new book in hand. In just a few months of lessons with you, she has flown through her primer method book; she is excited to start her new book and play her first "real songs." As you open to the first page, her eyes widen. "This looks hard," she says. She places her hands on the piano and dives into the first line of the new piece. Quickly, frustration sets in. Jane never had a problem playing the pieces in her old book correctly on the first try. But this book is different. "There are so many notes, " she says with a sigh.

Tommy arrives for his lesson, eager to show you what he has accomplished with his new piece this week. He runs to the piano and begins to play. With dismay, you hear that although Tommy has a great feel for the musicality of the piece, his playing is riddled with inaccuracies in notes and rhythms--as usual. You settle in for a long lesson full of "unlearning" bad habits.

Do these scenarios sound familiar to you? Over the years, I have had many "Janes" and "Tommys" in my studio. These students are fast learners; they often move quickly through the method books during the first few months of lessons. But they have a difficult time transitioning from sight-reading, something they were able to do quite easily with their earliest pieces, to practicing, a skill they will need to develop as they progress to more difficult repertoire. Like Jane, they may be intimidated by the visual complexity of more advanced pieces. Or, like Tommy, they may learn a piece quickly but completely overlook important details in the music.

As teachers, we often forget just how much information even a simple piece of piano music might contain. Two staves, finger numbers, various rhythm notes, legato and staccato markings, dynamics ... The amount of information contained on a single page of music can be overwhelming. So what can we do to help our students better organize and absorb all of this information? I have found most of my beginner students respond well to a layered approach to practice. This approach, however, has its advantages and disadvantages. In this article, I will outline how I use layered practice in my studio, its benefits and how to avoid the potential problems associated with layered practice.

The Practice Cake

In my studio I use a fun visual representation to introduce layered practice to my beginner students: the practice cake.

When using the practice cake approach, a piece of music is divided into layers. Each layer, from the bottom to the top, should be securely learned before proceeding to the next. Within each layer, more traditional methods of practice, like slow practice, hands separately practice and such, can be used. These layers can be adapted to fit the specific needs of any piece of music.


Rhythm is the foundation of any piece. By learning the rhythm of a piece before playing the notes, students can identify rhythmic patterns as well as hear the correct rhythm before adding it to the melody and harmony.

When practicing the rhythm layer, a student might clap and count out loud; clap along with the metronome; tap the rhythm of both hands on the piano lid; or clap and sing the words (if any) to a piece. Repeated rhythmic patterns also can be identified and marked in the music.

Notes And Fingering

It is important to learn the notes with the correct fingering, thus developing muscle memory. The notes and fingering can be learned slowly on their own and then combined with the rhythm layer as soon as possible, preferably within the first few days of practice.

When practicing the "notes and fingering" layer, a student might start by identifying and playing the scale or pentascale used in a piece. They might find and circle any finger crossings or hand movements as well as look for chords and intervals, since these use predictable finger patterns. Finally, they might practice slowly hands separately and together.


At the elementary level, students will primarily be learning to contrast legato and staccato touches. Once a piece can be played with correct rhythm, notes and fingering, these touches can be added.

When practicing the articulation layer, a student might first "play" the piece on the closed piano lid, focusing on the correct hand and arm movements to achieve the necessary articulations. Sections of the piece with multiple articulation changes might be practiced separately. Students might also start to look for phrases and make note of any phrases that repeat in the piece.

Dynamics And Tempo

Forte, piano, mezzo (with forte or piano), crescendo and diminuendo will be the most common dynamics for the elementary student.

When practicing the dynamics layer, a student might first practice dynamic changes on the closed piano lid, using arm weight for forte sections and light, firm fingers for piano sections. Sections that use crescendo and diminuendo may be practiced separately while listening carefully for gradual changes in dynamics. Students might look for patterns in the dynamics that help delineate the form of the piece.

It can also be helpful to create a story or use imagery to explain what is happening dynamically in the music. Having students label sections of the piece with their own descriptive adjectives can help them create a successful performance and lay the groundwork for interpretation, a skill that will be developed more fully when students progress to more difficult repertoire.

This would also be the time to work on any tempo changes; ritardando is the most common tempo change in elementary-level music. Students might also work on gradually increasing the tempo of a piece, if necessary.


Pedal is the last step, if necessary. Students should know a piece securely before adding pedal, as the pedal can often hide mistakes in articulation, such as not playing with a smooth legato, or amplify incorrect notes.

When practicing the pedal layer, students should focus on correct pedal technique; if using overlapping pedal, students may find it helpful to first practice hands separately with pedal.

Benefits To The "Practice Cake" Approach

I have found many benefits to using the practice cake. First, it provides students with a visual and systematic approach to practice. When assigning a new piece, the cake can be drawn in the assignment book as a visual reminder for the student when practicing at home. (My students find this much more fun than a list of instructions!) And by following the practice cake, students should know exactly how to begin work on a new piece, since we always start practicing each piece of music the same way.

The practice cake also encourages students to use their time efficiently. The layers can be practiced separately over the course of a week or more. For example: rhythm can be practiced on day one; notes and fingering added on day two and so on. For students with limited practice time, I sometimes assign only the bottom two layers for the first week.

By learning each layer securely before adding the next, students develop a firm musical foundation for each piece of music. This eliminates the challenge presented by a student like Tommy, who, for example, practices a piece for an entire week with perfect articulation and dynamics, but incorrect rhythm.

I have also found the practice cake approach provides me with a framework for evaluation during the lesson. It allows me to organize my comments on a piece in a way that students can easily understand and even predict. First, we address any rhythm issues that may be present, followed by any incorrect notes or fingerings. I often find myself telling students, "Excellent job on the notes and rhythm! What layer of our cake should we focus on next?" Right away they know what the focus of the next segment of our lesson will be. Very often, my prompt will lead them to identify and correctly add the next layer of practice to the piece on their own without any additional help.

Avoiding Problems Associated With Layered Practice

Of course, the ultimate goal of any music student is to be able to read all the layers present in a piece of music simultaneously. To this end, I always supplement the practice cake approach with sight-reading. Think of sight-reading examples as "cupcakes"--bite-sized pieces that should be consumed in one sitting. Students get 30 seconds or so to think through the layers of their sight-reading example before they try to play. In this case, the practice cake becomes a checklist that helps students ensure they aren't overlooking any important details in the music.

While some students have no trouble combining the layers of the practice cake, others may memorize their pieces so quickly that once the rhythm and notes are learned, they struggle with adding articulation and dynamics. For these students I often divide their pieces into "slices" of four or eight measures, so they can work through all the layers in the practice cake for that section in one sitting. The first section can be done during their piano lesson and others assigned for practice at home. This prevents any habits from being formed with one layer before the others have been added.

Another concern often associated with layered practice is musicality. How can students create a musical performance if they are focused on the individual layers of the music and not the piece as a whole? While some students have no problem producing a musical performance after assembling all the layers of their "cake," other students need more help playing with musicality. Teachers can help their students in this regard by demonstrating a complete performance of a piece before starting layered practice. This way, students have an aural model in mind during each step of the practice process.

I have also found using creative imagery for each layer of the practice cake is beneficial to developing musicality. For example, while practicing the rhythm layer, I might ask the student to describe what images the rhythm brings to mind--a galloping horse? An elegant waltz? When practicing the notes and fingering layer, I might have students choose an image they believe depicts the sound they are creating, for example, a brassy trumpet, a singing bird or a bubbling brook. Incorporating imagery at every layer of the practice cake, and not just as a finishing touch, can be helpful for many students.

Finally, I have found just like any method of teaching, layered practice is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is a tool that can be adapted and used--or not--to fit the particular needs of a student at each stage of learning.


Eventually, I find most of my students outgrow the practice cake or adapt the layered practice approach to fit their own practice needs. This is a good thing! This tells me they are becoming independent musicians, capable of doing their own problem solving when practicing a piece of music. They are also becoming more capable of visualizing multiple layers in the music at once. They progress to more difficult repertoire; repertoire that creates different practice challenges, such as voicing, phrasing and interpretation, just to name a few. However, the organizational skills students have acquired through using layered practice remain invaluable.

And practicing difficult repertoire? It's a piece of cake.

Chrissy Ricker is an independent piano teacher and composer from Raleigh, North Carolina. She received BM and MM degrees in piano performance and pedagogy from Meredith College. Her piano compositions are published by Kjos Music Company.
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Author:Ricker, Chrissy
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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