Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Teaching the Art of Practicing

In cities all over the world, multitudes of piano students daily hear those familiar words that come from every teacher's mouth: "You really must practice." Most students and their parents have a vague idea of what it means to practice. Some of these misconceptions include long hours sitting mindlessly at the piano and repeating their assigned pieces ad nauseum.

Recently I was having lunch with a group of music teachers. As we reflected on our personal early music studies, the topic of practice arose. The general consensus was that teachers defined effective practicing as total time spent at the instrument and that few of us received any instruction in practice techniques and methods.

I don't know about you, but I would rather engage a student who has spent 20 minutes in quality practice than one who has played non-stop for 60 minutes but was unsure of the reason. I can't fault students for lack of proper practicing unless I give them instruction in HOW to practice.

I have found that at some point, every student (regardless of age or level) will present opportunities for instruction on practice techniques. Think about it: when was the last time one of your students arrived in your studio only to tell you how busy their week has been and they simply did not have time to practice? Immediately my eyes glaze over, I assure them that it is okay, and prepare myself for a monitored practice session (code-named the weekly lesson).

Rather than viewing the lesson as a waste of time, let's show the student HOW to practice, giving them tips that will lead to success - even when you only have limited rehearsal time available. Here are a few skills that can be learned by students of any ability level and will serve them for years to come.

  • Self-Evaluate your playing. One of the first obstacles to effective practice is the inability of students to effectively judge their own playing. Most of us try to incorporate this into every lesson by asking students what they thought of their playing. By allowing students to verbalize their evaluation, we validate the truth that they CAN make judgements about their playing. By using their evaluation as a guide for the lesson, we can also model how to generate a work list for their practice sessions.

  • Become the teacher! Combined with the self-evaluation, I encourage my students to ask themselves "What Would Mr. Kennith Say?" after ever piece they play at home. Then, students are to choose the most important improvement from their list and begin the process of fixing it.

  • While there are many ways to learn troublesome passages, one of my favorites to teach is playing the passage from the end to the beginning. Once a student identifies the troublesome passage, students begin playing the last half of the passage. (If this still gives them difficulty, shorten the passage until the student can play the passage successfully.) The process adds another note on each successive repeat. When a student isn't sure if they have conquered a passage or were just the recipient of good luck, I advise the child to not move on until they can play the passage 3 times successfully. (In the method's purest form, a mistake negates the success.....so you have to start again!) Continue until the entire passage has been conquered.

There are many other methods leading to effective practicing. I have a suggestion wall in my studio where students post their own ideas for practicing. Often, I'm surprised at the great ideas they come up with.

What's your favorite practice process to teach you students? I'd love to hear from you.

Happy practicing!