Teaching students how to practise

As an instrumental teacher, I’m often asked by parents how much they think their children should practise their instruments, or told proudly that they practise every day or even twice a day. In turn, I often ask my pupils how much they practise, which is most often met with a sheepish grin and a muttered ‘…um…’

We all know the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’, and as a professional musician myself, I know from experience that this is all too true. Behind every polished performance are hours and hours of dedicated rehearsal, practice, memorisation and close analysis of problems and their solutions. What not everyone knows, however, is how to practise so that the time spent practising is spent in the best possible way; in other words, how to achieve the most in the limited amount of time that is allotted to practising.

Many children, and adult learners for that matter, have not been told the fundamentals of how to practise a piece in order to correct the mistakes that their teacher points out to them. How to practise is part of the fundamental toolkit of every musician, which includes basics such as how to tune your instrument, how to hold it correctly and make the best sound from it, and how to improve your own playing.

As a teacher, I don’t like to spoon-feed my pupils – I like to try and challenge them with questions about what they are playing, why, what this means and so on. But I had sort of assumed – and this was a dangerous assumption – that most children know how to practise in such a way that they can improve and see their own improvement. I now know that I should be telling all my pupils the basics of how to practise a piece, and not just assume that this is obvious – as to an adult, practising the difficult bits of a piece more than the easier bits is common sense.

In my experience as a teacher, children tend to play their pieces through from beginning to end, often as fast as possible, and it doesn’t really occur to them that this might not be the most effective way of practising them. What often happens is that the same mistakes get repeated every time they play the piece through, and as such become ‘part’ of the piece and the way they play it, making it even more difficult for the teacher to correct when the mistake is pointed out. These habitual mistakes can be addressed, but what is much more effective is pointing out that playing the more difficult bars or sections of a piece on their own repeatedly until they became easier, then fitting them back into the piece, is a much better way of approaching the difficulties of a piece. Of course the piece must be played through from time to time to prepare it for performance, but variety is important – many teachers have emphasised to me the importance of not always starting at the beginning of a piece.

So, here’s my guide to mindful practising:

How to practise a piece mindfully – and really improve

  • Play the piece through to get an overview of the technical and musical challenges presented by it
  • Identify and isolate the difficult bars of the piece
  • Play these bars on their own, slowly if necessary,  become aware of the problems and work out solutions to these problems (e.g. bowings, shifts, fingerings)
  • Once you have worked out the solutions to the problems, play the difficult bars until you are satisfied that they are improving (this may take a long time in the case of very difficult music!)
  • Play the bars in context again, making sure that the join between the difficult bars and the others is practised thoroughly
  • Play the piece through again, this time being aware of the difficult bars and (hopefully) their improvement
  • Repeat the process regularly!

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to learning a musical instrument, but if this kind of mindful practice can be learnt and applied, then it will make the process of learning to play music more rewarding and less frustrating for the pupil. In other words, it is the quality, not the quantity, of practice that really matters!

For more information on how to practise and for discussions of many other issues that musicians face, see the blog of The Bulletproof Musician

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“The right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should
represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with
concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say
that four hours would be a good maximum practice time—I never ask
more of my pupils—and that during each minute of the time the brain be
as active as the fingers.”
 
 -Leopold Auer
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