What Learning to Play the Piano Can Teach You about Studying for the GMAT

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Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - What Learning to Play the Piano Can Teach You about Studying for the GMAT by Ryan Jacobs

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Before I was a GMAT teacher, I was a piano teacher. At my first job out of college, I would go house to house giving piano lessons to kids. The most important lesson I had for them was always the same: practice slowly, correctly, and in small, manageable pieces.

In the GMAT courses I teach now, I ask my students to take practice tests throughout the course. Some students improve 50 points, or even more, in a given 3-week period. Other students may not improve at all. I generally ask the latter group how they are doing their homework. Are they doing it slowly? Are they doing it correctly? Are they doing it in small pieces?

Back to music for a minute. Let’s say you’re a piano student learning Bach’s Invention No. 8. Unless you are Claudio Arrau, you won’t just sit down at the piano and play the whole thing perfectly the first time. Instead, you will learn just the first line of music, note by note (manageable pieces!); in fact, if you’re a hack at piano like me, you will probably spend an entire day just learning that first line.

That’s not even the worst of it—if you make a mistake, you can’t just keep powering through, because that would mean reinforcing the mistake! Instead, you have to stop what you’re doing immediately and correct the mistake before it becomes learned behavior (practice correctly!). It’s not just which keys to play that you’re worried about, by the way: it’s also which fingers you’re using, how loudly or softly you’re playing, and a number of other considerations.

In order to attend to the piece of music with this level of detail, you can’t just start off playing at performance speed (practice slowly!); when I was learning piano, I would routinely learn pieces at half the speed at which they were intended to be played.

There is, however, one silver lining in all of this. If you really do practice like this, it’s actually pretty easy to put everything together in the end. If you can play a piece perfectly when you play it slowly, then speeding up is a relatively minor (no pun intended) task.

Now consider the GMAT. Let’s say that you are at the beginning of studying for the GMAT. One thing you certainly do NOT want to do is try to learn every single topic on your first day. Instead, you want to focus on, say, percents (manageable pieces!). Better yet, don’t just focus on percents, focus on percent increases and decreases. You grab your Manhattan Prep “Fractions, Decimals, and Percents” Strategy Guide, you read the “Percents” chapter, and you pay special attention to the section covering percent increases and decreases.

Then, you get your Official Guide to the GMAT and you find some problems with percents in them. Do NOT do these problems with a timer! If you do, you’re setting yourself up for either failure (when you run out of time) or a useless study session (if you can already do the problem under a time constraint, then why bother studying that problem at all?). Instead, give yourself unlimited time to do the problem (practice slowly!).

As you’re going through the problem, it’s okay to make mistakes! Just try to notice when you do. If you are struggling with a certain step, especially if it relates to the topic you are trying to study (percent increases and decreases), it’s totally okay to refer back to your Strategy Guide so that you learn to do the problem the right way; avoid making a mistake and then continuing to work (practice correctly!). When you have the answer, remember that you’re not finished yet—try to refine your technique so that you work as efficiently as possible. Use the answer explanations in your book, or in our Navigator system if you’re a Manhattan Prep student, to help you.

This may sound like a lot of work, but remember that there’s a silver lining to studying for the GMAT. Go back to that same Official Guide problem a week later, and get your stopwatch out this time. If you’ve really practiced correctly, speeding up will be easy, and that is the payoff.

If you approach the piano assuming that you’ll be able to sit down and immediately play a full-length piece of music at concert tempo, you may be in for a bit of a shock. Similarly, if you approach studying for the GMAT assuming that you’ll be able to do a couple practice tests and watch your combined score improve to a 700, then you have some bad news coming your way (unless you are the Claudio Arrau of the GMAT). But remember, anybody can learn to play the piano if they approach their practice sessions the right way: slowly, correctly, and in manageable pieces. The GMAT is really no different. 📝


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ryan-jacobsRyan Jacobs is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in San Francisco, California. He has an MBA from UC San Diego, a 780 on the GMAT, and years of GMAT teaching experience. His other interests include music, photography, and hockey. Check out Ryan’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.

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