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Do you teach your students how to practice?

  • Carl
    Carl Swanson

    Over the last few years I have had several students who transferred to me from someone else. Each time I have found, after they had been with me for a while, that they really didn't know how to practice. My most recent work-in-progress, who I've mentioned on here before, is very talented, but had this same problem.


    I've addressed the problem with each of these students by having them come to my home occasionally to practice so that I can hear what they are doing. I ask them to plan on being here for at least 2 hours and preferably 3. From time to time, I go to them and work with them for a couple of minutes and then leave them alone again. This has worked quite well, and has helped to change their (inadequate) practice habits. I want to state clearly here that in no way am I blaming the former teachers of these kids. I think that most students develope their own practice habits right from the begining and that these habits will only get them so far, but will not work on harder repertoire.


    I'm curious to know if you teachers have run into this problem and how you have dealt with it.

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    replies to "Do you teach your students how to practice?"
    • Diane
      Diane Michaels

      I have the same experience.  One student came to me with a few years of piano study under her belt, and our first couple months together led me to find so many things that she hadn't been taught in her piano lessons, practicing well being one of the problems.  Her teacher never established standards for her - right notes and rhythmn, for instance - so it made sense that she hadn't learned any tools for the practice room.

      I think that the hardest thing for most music students to learn is not the technique or repertoire, but good practicing.  I have been unhappy with the progress of some of my students recently, and practicing is at the root of the problems.  Although I do teach them practice skills, and often our lessons seem to be supervised practicing more than anything else, I do take some responsibility for the fact that they are not using my methods effectively at home.  Before this school year began, I started evaluating my teaching methods and goals, and decided to fine-tune them.  I haven't gotten my hands on a copy of The Practice Revolution, but I've spent some time at the author's website, www.practicespot.com 

      He offers some bits from the book and has articles with tips to make practicing fun.  I don't have any really young students, who seem to be his target audience, but he makes some helpful points for all students. 

      I wrote a questionaire for my students to fill in, letting me know about their short term goals, long term goals, how intensely they want to work towards their goals, what is difficult for them, easy, etc...  It's been eye-opening for me, and I hope it will be for the students.  One tells me she is not at all intense, but you should see the look of determination on her face when she is working hard!  Another says she's in a hurry to meet her goals, but she, too, claims not to be intense.  This gives me such persective for each individual student, and how I should push them.

      Finally, before I bore you too much, I addressed the needs of one student, who does not always find the time in the day to practice.  I asked her if, when she only has 10-15 minute chunks of practice time, does she feel overwhelmed staring at all of the notes on her music stand.  She nodded fervently in agreement.  I made a literal practice tool for her:  I took a piece of cardboard and cut 2 parallel slits most of the way across, about 2.5 inches apart.  I cut construction paper into two 1.5 inch wide, 5.25 inch long strips, and threaded each through the slits in the cardboard, fastening them in the back with tape so that they looped around the board and could be slid back and forth on the slits in the cardboard.  Now, copyright protectors, please look away... I asked her to photocopy her music and cut between the grand staves, so that each line of music became its own strip.  Each strip of music will fit on the cardboard between the slits, held into place by the construction paper loops.  With the loops, a small section of music can be isolated: i.e. - if the problem is getting from beat 4 to beat one, and that phrase begins on the and of 3, place the left loop so that its right edge falls just before the note on the and of 3, and the right loop so that its left edge falls just after beat 1. 

      She will place all of the strips into an envelope, and determine by the amount of time available whether it's a one strip day, or 2, or whatever.  The strips will come out of the envelope in a random order, so we are now protected from the problems of her working only on the beginning of the piece, or the easy parts.

      Carl- I love your idea of having practice days at your home.  I have fantasized about such a scheme, but never had the courage to act on it.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Diane- I like your ideas very much. And they address the most common problem. That is, focusing in on the problem areas and not playing the whole page because the student keeps missing two beats in the middle of the page. Along with that I find that many students will always start from the begining of the piece and when they trip or crash, back up and play the difficult spot once and continue on. I simply can't understand why they don't grasp the need to play that spot 15 to 20 times in order to fix it.

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    • Unknown
      Unknown User

      This is a key issue. Teachers with a large studio don't have the option
      of going into every students home. Also, those like me who work
      primarily through a community music school are not permitted to teach
      lessons at another location for legal and insurance reasons. As a
      second option, it would be worth having a monthly, or weekly class in
      the evening with demonstration practice sessions for all the students
      and their parents to attend. Students could take turns being upfront
      with their guided practice session. This is an idea I would really like
      to formalize because sometimes the parents can benefit as well. There
      are occassions where the teacher can instruct the student one way, but
      the parent takes over at home imitating whatever habits were ingrained
      in their own experience. This class setting would also serve a
      secondary purpose of practicing performing. Recitals would consist of a
      similar audience, so the familiarity factor would be in place. It may
      be best to offer a class for the absolute beginners, one for
      intermediate and another for advanced, just to keep it very relevent to
      the student.



      This year I am proposing to conduct sessions to reduce performance anxiety at my
      school. I will say this practice session idea is really gold. Very good to bring
      this to everyone's attention.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Julienne- You've got some good ideas there, and I understand that it would be impractical to have every student you teach practice occasionally at your house. But if you can do it(have the student practice at your house) it's very helpful and revealing. When my very talented student came here to practice, he played for three and a half hours with not break. I encouraged him several times to take a break but he didn't want to. At the end he said,"This is the longest I've ever been able to practice with no interruptions. At home there is a lot of stuff to distract me." I called his mother that night(both his parents are VERY supportive) and told her that if he says he's going to practice from 7 ot 8PM, that there are to be absolutely no interruptions during that hour. If a friend of his calls, tell him to call back after 8.


      But also, while he was practicing, I heard him do several things wrong. When he made a mistake, he'd play it again once and then go on. He didn't make what I call 'variations', for example, playing arpeggios as block chords, or running sixteenth notes in uneven rhythm, etc. When he understood that he had to practice a difficult passage 15 or 20 times, he would back up way too far to start it, instead of starting one or two beats before the problem. The point I'm making is that it can be very very helpful to hear a student practicing alone while you listen from some other part of the house. Maybe you could try it on a student who is really having trouble and not the whole studio. Maybe you could talk to the parent and ask them to put the tape recorder on for a whole practice session. Then you could listen to it as you drove someplace or whatever and analyse it, and then discuss it with the student at the next lesson.

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      Yes, I absolutely spend time on how they should practice. It is up to them to implement it. I know I didn't when I was young. I think it is important for students to have private space to practice in, free of disruptions, distractions, and Mom listening to every note. Too bad so few houses can provide this, especially these new kinds where everything is open.

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    • Rosalind
      Rosalind Beck

      A brief comment on the repetitions of a problematic passage--many conscientious students will drill a difficult spot by reeling off a whole bunch of repetitions without pausing even a beat in between them.  My teacher, Edna Phillips, always insisted that I listen, stop, and think in between each repetition and evaluate whether what I was trying was working or not.

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    • Diane
      Diane Michaels

      Saul- are you counting mom's listening to practicing as a problem? 

      Despite a great deal of talent, someone I know never worked hard while taking lessons and quit private lessons while in high school.  She now has kids who take lessons.  The oldest was dropped by her teacher last year because he didn't like the mother's interference.  And now, the next youngest, who used to play for me over the phone because he was so excited about the piano has been dropped by his teacher because he isn't motivated.  The mother admits to still yelling at the kids to practice, and being critical while they're practicing.

      She actually supervises the practice sessions - I've heard them, and can say that she adds so little that is positive, and so much that is negative that I can't believe the kids will actually touch their instruments.

      My mother nagged me to practice, but it wasn't until I left home at 16 that I started to develop good practice habits.

      It's a tough call - parents should play a role in making kids practice daily, and it's OK for them to have some idea of what they should be hearing from the kid, but unless they have good practice skills of their own, and an ability to motivate rather than scold their kids, I can't advocate too much parent interaction during the practicing. 

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Diane- What a horrible story! I guess the fact that I only take students who have been playing for a while means that they are motivated to practice and have supportive parents. I've never run into anything like what you describe. My problem has so far been limited to students who put in the time but don't get as much out of it as I think they should.

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    • Kimberly
      Kimberly Rowe

      I have a little trick I use to get kids to isolate a passage. It's called the "ten penny" method, and it also works with M&Ms that they can eat if they finish successfully.


      Take ten pennies or M&Ms and line them up on the left side of the music stand. The student chooses a section of music that they think they can play perfectly with no mistakes. If they play their section perfectly they can slide a penny from the left side of the stand to the right. The goal is to play the passage perfectly 10 times in a row, and slide all the pennies from the left to the right. If they make any mistakes along the way, ALL the pennies go back to the left side.


      Usually the first time I try this with a student they choose a section that is too big, and they play it too fast. They soon realize that to finish the exercise they must choose a small section and play it very slowly. The kids seem to really like the challenge of this exercise and it's a good way to get them listening to whether they are really playing perfectly, rather than just playing something over and over again wrong or sloppy.


      Good luck!


      KIM

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    • Unknown
      Unknown User

      What a fantastic idea Kimberly! It adds just the right spark of fun to help the student focus. I'm going to have to try it. :)



      Diane, that is a unfortunate story. It sounds like it would have been
      best if you could have practiced at a school and simply not play music
      at home. How frustrating! A human being is always more important than
      the music they play. If the experience of music making is not
      strengthening the individual, building confidence, developing
      potential, bringing joy, there is simply no point.



      It can be useful to ask students questions about what their practice
      sessions are like, so some of this info can come to the surface. I have
      encountered some problematic dynamics as well. I have learned that in
      the Suzuki method they will sometimes offer parent classes when a
      student begins lessons. This is to instruct the parent about what is
      the appropriate and helpful way to support practicing. This sounds like
      a good idea for traditional teaching as well. This can be an especially
      significant problem because:



      A. Music teachers have not been required to have certification for many
      years, so it's not uncommon for a parent to have misguided music and
      practice habits, and very distorted ideas about music in general.



      B. There can be a great deal of emotional baggage between a parent and
      child that uses the practice session as an opportunity to express it.
      When parents project their own needs onto their children it can be a
      real mess.



      If nothing else, there is some value in writing up a "manual for
      parents" regarding practice which could outline the appropriate
      boundaries. I completely recommend "The Inner Game of Music" by Barry
      Green because he gives strategies to get rid of our inner critic that
      is just not helpful to the learning process. I can't imagine having an
      "inner critic" in the flesh. I understand Beethoven's father pressured
      him to be another Mozart and somehow he managed to hold on to his love
      and meaning in music.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Kim- Your 10 penny idea is great and reminds me of something I heard many years ago. A vocalist friend of mine went to New York to work with one of the top vocal coaches there. The coach did the same thing with the singer, using I think marbles, and moving them from one bowl to another if the singer made a mistake. The singer told me that at first he thought it was ridiclous, but quickly learned that it sharpened his attention to what he was doing.

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    • Kimberly
      Kimberly Rowe

      Carl,


      Yes, I think that's the key, and what Rosalind was also saying. The point is to get the student to understand what they're doing wrong, by listening carefully, and not just keep repeating mistakes. It is hard to get younger students sometimes to stop and analyze something they've just played so they can fix mistakes, rather than just repeating a passage over and over and not thinking about it. It's definitely a challenge!


      Of course this exercise only works if a student can tell if whether what they've just played is correct or not!!! Sometimes that's an even bigger issue...


      KIM

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Kim-I agree with everything you say. The fundamental problem for teachers is that, whatever the student repeats the most(i.e., plays a passage wrong over and over again), that's what they learn. So the challange is to get them to start off on the right foot at the begining of the learning process on a piece so that they don't have to unlearn the wrong way of playing it. I've scolded my student several times by saying,"You've played this passage wrong for a week, and now you played it right once. Which way do you think you learned?"

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      Well, I think there has to be an age at which practice becomes independent of the parent's aid, depending on the child's ability to remember instruction and practice well. I'm not saying they shouldn't help them stay interested and focused, but it seems to me it should be a private activity, just like lessons. It depends on the characters involved, motivations and dependency. I saw a mother who acted like a classic stage mother, talked through 75 percent of the lessons, made career decisions for her teen, even though she really knew nothing about music. Here was a student who was caught in a dependency, smothered, and placed on a track not necessarily best for her, or so it seemed, as she did not communicate very directly.

      I avoid the aforementioned problems by teaching students to practice everything, easy or difficult. If they learn to start beat by beat, then measure by measure, making sure everything is correct and musical, and linked, then there are no extreme problem spots. Learning to break things down is essential. It also eases memorization. I tell students not to count each repetition in terms of the music's progress, for you must do as many as it takes to improve, but to look at how they are changing with each repetition, how their focus improves, and everything else. Using external devices for counting reinforces the external, but the internal progress should be the focus. Nevertheless, one does lose count. I used to use an abacus and slide the beads over. Empty, thoughtless repetition does not lead to the most effective progress, though it may strengthen. If the students learn to repeat exercises, simple ones like four-note scales, and focus on the internal aspect and improvement, then it will be easier with repertoire. And you do find that each repetition has its own quality, the fifth and sixth repetitions are quite different from each other, and it begins to lock in after seven, and eight, nine, ten reinforce it. When it comes naturally, then you can practice longer segments. This is how I practice today, when I'm good, and when I'm bad, I just read through stuff. So it is as important for the professional as the student, and if I had learned this way early on, who knows where I'd be today? The mind is a powerful thing to harness, and a terrible thing to waste. I remind myself of Jennifer Hoult, who was the best student by far, when I entered Manhattan School of Music, and who had terrific concentration and could learn very complex music extremely well. I am easily distracted by environment, and only achieved ideal practice in places like Tanglewood and Camden, Maine, therefore my insistence on quiet, cell-like rooms for practice. Well, maybe a window for light and air. There's nothing like facing up to just you and the harp and even blank walls. Then there is nothing but what you accomplish. The pride and strength one has in what one has grown to do and achieve is a wonderful thing.
      It is interesting to note the difference between students who rely on talent alone and those who work diligently.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      I think that, in order to get students to practice more effectively, they need to understand what the ultimate goal should be. That goal should be: getting the piece to performance level. That means: 1) no wrong notes and rhythms, 2)up to tempo, 3)memorized, and 4)musically expressive. I realize that that is a very tall order, but that's the goal, whether there is a performance coming up or not.


      I've told my current student(with very limited success ;( ) that each lesson should be thought of as a performance, and that when he practices, he should look at a measure, line, page, or the whole piece, and ask himself what it is that seperates the way he plays it now from performance level. Maybe that thought is the preamble to any further discussion about the nuts and bolts of fixing problems.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      I really like Diane's method of getting the student to focus on the problem areas(where she has the student cut the grand staves into strips, etc.). A vaiation on that might be to make a photocopy of the piece to mark up, and to put a box in red pencil around the exact area that the teacher feels is the problem area. The student would then be told to practice only what is inside the box until it is learned, and then incorporate that into the surrounding measures. The student could also be told that at the next lesson, the first thing you the teacher wants to hear is the part inside the boxes. This exercise might help the student to see the piece, and the learning process, in the piecemeal way we have to see it to learn it.

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    • Rosalind
      Rosalind Beck

      Hey Everybody:  I just thought of something else.  Post-it notes are great for easy, fast masking on both sides of a troublesome passage, and it's simple to take them off the page and move them before or after the spot, or to expand or contract the spot by as many beats as necessary.  Eraseable highlighters (the big-box office supply places carry them) are also useful for marking problem spots.  When the trouble is fixed, the highlights can be eradicated.

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      A variation on that idea, that really helps those who are easily distracted, is to take blank paper, and cut out a space for each practice spot, so you only see what you are working on. You can fairly easily make two for each half of each system, as there are usually not that many on each page.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Do any of you teach your students to make what I call 'variations' on the trouble spot? 'Variation' means anything that is different from the way it is intended to be played. A variation can be as simple as playing the left or right hand alone, playing arpeggios (as in the Hasselmans La Source) as chords, running sixteenth notes(as in any Baroque piece)in uneven rhythms or accenting every other note or every third note, etc. I think that most students have difficulty grasping the value of 'variations.'

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    • Rosalind
      Rosalind Beck

      Yes, I suggest that the (more advanced) students create their own variations, e. g. playing dotted rhythms instead of straight eighth notes, i. e., dotted eighth-sixteenth and then the reverse, sixteenth-dotted eighth; make triplets out of duples and vice versa; also, shift accents from finger to finger.  First, accent all thumbs, then all second fingers, etc.  I also encourage them to play around with switching registers--right hand (practiced by itself) down an octave, left hand up or down and octave; or, both hands together up or down and octave.

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