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The paradox of practice
20 August 2013
Practice: a word much dreaded from students and teachers alike. I have a very strong memory of one of my piano teachers as a child - her voice has practically been embedded in my brain: 'Practice!' I also have very fresh memories of colleagues complaining that their students 'never practise' or 'don't practise enough'. As a student then, and as a teacher now, it still strikes me as very strange: what is it with teachers demanding students to practise without actually teaching them how to practise?! Really, it's mind-boggling.
Few people are naturally good at making practice plans (and keeping them). Others find it a bit difficult to identify exactly what it is they need to be doing during that mysterious practice time and possibly struggle with procrastination even if they do. This is why practice strategy needs to be taught early and a concise practice plan formulated in every single lesson. Yes, that's right. Every time a student leaves the classroom, he or she should know when, where, what and how to practise.
Ideally, the student should have the first practice session right after the lesson. It reinforces the points made in the lesson as they are still fresh and in focus, and because of that the session can be short but successful. That makes the next practice sessions easier and before you know it, the next lesson has come and your teacher is truly blown away by your amazing skills...
What happens if you leave a few days between the lesson and the first practice session? Firstly, you forget. Especially if you have a busy schedule, if you have your piano lesson on Thursday and leave practice until Saturday, you're lucky to even remember you play piano in the first place! I'm exaggerating, but you get my point. The longer you leave it, the harder it gets. The Saturday practice session becomes a struggle to rediscover the points made at the Thursday lesson, so naturally, you give up and do something more fun. Before you know it, it's Wednesday evening and you're frantically trying to squeeze a week's practice into half an hour... Sound familiar?
'But, Valentina, I am a very busy person and my free time is very limited.'
I agree, so am I. The practice schedule can accommodate a busy lifestyle. Some of my students have actually found that scheduling their practice session has made their life more organised and uncovered more free time to do other things as well.
Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid practising when you're tired or upset. It will only exacerbate what you feel and your practice will not be very productive.
Your practice space, either at home or at school, should be clear from distractions, aural, visual or otherwise. Try to keep it clutter-free, equipped with all you need to practise so you don't rummage around trying to find your metronome and finding Facebook instead...
The things you should practice should be clear when you leave the lesson. If they are not, then ask your teacher. The practice session is almost never about' just playing through the pieces'. Was there a passage you needed to perfect? Was one of your scales a little less fluid than the others? Focus on specifics and your playing will improve rapidly.
How? (and how long?)
That depends entirely on what you are practising. Conquering an awkward leap is practised differently than memorizing a piece. If your teacher has not given you specific guidelines on how to practise a piece/passage, ask for clarification. Repetition is not always the answer to practice-related questions. Add boredom to the equation and you get mistakes you will spend the next few weeks trying to unlearn. Once again, ask your teacher! They might not realise yet the importance of clear instruction regarding the practice session, and you can teach them that!
As for how long to practise: ultimately, the sum of your practice time depends on the length of your programme. A beginner cannot practise 4 hours per day, there is simply not enough material for the student to work through for so long and, frankly, not much point. So, I always suggest the following:
- Quality over quantity: it's not the time you put in that matters, it's the work you actually do. Fifteen minutes of focused mindful practice is much better than an hour of absentminded just-for-the-sake-of-it "practice".
- Chunk it up: if you have quite a lot of music to learn, learn to divide your work into manageable chunks. A 45-minute practice session will test your concentration and body quite a lot. Learn to take short breaks rather than piling up the hours and tiring yourself out mentally and physically: if you realise you're getting bored or feel any sort of physical discomfort, you've pushed yourself over your limits. Take a break. Also learn to return from your breaks - sometimes I take a 15-minute break from practice only to find myself painting the house or sitting on a boat somewhere...
I hope this has been an interesting and informative read for students and teachers alike. Please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments on the subject.