Your piano teacher has asked you to practice a piece — let’s say Burgmüller’s “Arabesque.” So you sit yourself at your piano, put the sheet music in front of you, and decide to practice. Within a few minutes, you’ve played from first measure to last. You might be tempted to quit now, but your mom says you’ve got another five minutes of practice, so you play through the “Arabesque” once more. Before you know it, your ten minutes are up. Hot dog! You’ve practiced!
Or have you?
As you might’ve guessed, the answer is “no.” You didn’t spend the last ten minutes practicing the “Arabesque,” you spent the last ten minutes playing the “Arabesque.”
What’s the difference?
In a nutshell, playing is what happens any time you sit and play through a piece from beginning to end. Practicing, on the other hand, is always geared toward (1) identifying which spots in the music need improvement and (2) improving those areas. Spending ten minutes practicing the “Arabesque” might include: working on controlling the crescendo through the opening measures, correcting errant fingering leading back into the A section, or making the jump to the final chord more accurate.
Every practice session — no matter how short — should have some sort of purpose. If you’re just playing through, you aren’t practicing, and you probably aren’t improving as a musician. And if you really don’t know what needs improvement, ask your teacher!