The most important thing in the quest for improvement and progress in learning an instrument is effective practice. As such, the most important role of the teacher is communicating with students how to practise effectively. Ideally, the student practises at home, comes to the lesson where the teacher sets new goals for the next lesson. The student has knowledge of lots of practice strategies and the teacher guides the student as to which strategies to use to progress towards the next goal. It doesn't happen like this.
The student claims to have practised every day. They have even kept a diary of the length of time spent practising each piece, exercise or scale. If the student is a small child, the parent is delighted to tell me how much their child has practised. The trouble is, the piece hasn't improved.
I would never contradict a student who is proudly telling me they have practised the piano every day for a week. But what I'm thinking is, "You haven't practised - you've played through the music a few times."
Practice strategies that don't result in improvement:
- playing a piece repeatedly
- playing a piece, getting to a mistake, playing that bit again and continuing
- playing the part that's wrong again and again
- starting at the beginning and playing to the end
Many lessons are spent practising practice. Students are astonished at the progress they can make in just twenty minutes when they do the 'right' thing. I'm astonished too! It's a wonderful moment. The lesson ends on a note of optimism. Next week will be amazing. But (usually) it's not.
I'm not a great practitioner of Mindfulness but I think it's great! Practice on a musical instrument needs to be mindful. Ask yourself: What is wrong? What am I trying to achieve? How am I going to progress towards my goal? What do I need to do? Am I doing it?
Practice strategies that do result in improvement:
- get to a difficult part. Stop. Work out what is wrong.
- ask, "Why am I going wrong here?"
- focus on what needs to be different and do it correctly.
- jot down useful things like finger numbers.
- play the parts before and after the troublesome bit.
- imagine what it will sound like and just 'go for it'!
We can get so used to making a mistake in a particular bar that we expect the mistake to happen and that makes us hesitate and stutter over the notes. Sometimes we just have to keep going. The biggest difficulty I have in my playing at the moment is continuity - keeping going. Keeping calm and carrying on...
I have designed and had printed some piano lesson notebooks with all this in mind. The layout and content of the pages is designed specifically to help students set goals and have strategies to achieve them. They might cost a little more than a basic notebook from the corner shop but they will last for a year and help practice to be meaningful, mindful and constructive.
If you are the parent of a student, ask, 'How did you practise?' don't just focus on the time spent.
Let's start the new academic year with a focus on meaningful, mindful and constructive practice.
And sometimes, it's fun just to PLAY!
PLAY the piano - no practice - just music making for enjoyment. That's really what it's all about.