Teaching and Study Guides back to Pedagogy Best Practices
THE MAGIC OF PRODUCTIVE PRACTICING
by Mary Gae George
Music is one of the largest subjects that students study. As teachers, we must guide students into understanding and enjoying this vast subject in just a few minutes each week. How much do you think your child would learn about math if they saw their math teacher for only 30 minutes once a week?
This makes the home practice time the most important part of music study. Students become their own teachers during this time, and their progress and enjoyment is directly related to the quality and consistency of their practicing. This is a significant reason why scientists have determined that music study develops the total person more than any other activity.
THE TEACHER’S RESPONSIBILITY
As a teacher, I consider it my responsibility to show students what it means to practice effectively. These are the guidelines I give each student at all levels of study:
1. Look before you leap! Do not start to play until you have marked how the piece is put together, located the most challenging parts of the piece, and planned how to break the piece into easily managed goals to accomplish. To do this, start with:
a. A letter plan to show the form of the piece. This helps you find the parts that are the same, the parts that are similar, and those that are different.
i. Letter plans also show you where the phrases begin and end, dividing the piece into “musical sentences.” Know what each form these phrases are so you know how to play them. (Is the phrase a uniphrase, a period, a short-short-long, etc.?)
ii. Letter plans also speed up your learning of a piece: Practice only the parts that are different. Get them all equally secure so that you can put your performance together and know you can succeed.
b. Your most important practice session is the one right after your lesson. So yes, you do need to practice after your lesson!
i. Go over your assignment and plan your priorities for your practicing.
ii. Set goals you can accomplish for each day so that you come to your lesson prepared and confident.
2. Practicing then begins at a slow enough metronome speed that you can think ahead to the next
note, plan its rhythm, interval, fingering, sound, and how it helps to shape the phrase.
a. This work is done in small enough sections to control and it begins with hands alone
practice. It is useful to first:
i. Using the metronome, count aloud and tap the rhythm with metric stress,
ii. Sing the interval name (“Space 3, up a second” for example) in the correct rhythm,
iii. Sing the note names (such as “Treble C up to D”), always in the correct rhythm,
iv. Sing the finger numbers (“Right hand 2 up to 3”), bringing out the metric stress,
v. Give special preparation to any changes of hand position, before you start to play.
Work until you can do them accurately with eyes closed!
b. Repeat each small study-part at least three times in a row without error. This is your “accident insurance!”
c. Then you are ready to begin increasing the tempo, using the metronome to avoid mistakes. Work step-by-step up to a performance tempo, or the goal set at the lesson.
d. When this is secure and musical for a section of the piece, begin hands together practice of that section, but be sure to start again at a slow enough metronome speed that you can plan ahead for each beat of the measure, feeling comfortable and confident. (Otherwise, if
you feel rushed, you teach yourself to worry about what comes next instead of that great “I know what comes next” feeling!) Work up to performance tempo, hands together and with expression, for that study section.
e. Always start with the most difficult part (or parts) of a piece. They will take longer to master so they need to be learned before the easy parts of the piece. It is exciting to be able to play the hard parts better than the easy parts! But you will, of course, get the entire piece under your control at the same metronome speed. This is an exciting accomplishment, very much like putting together the pieces of a puzzle.
3. Some pieces will take longer to learn than others. My instruction must help students realize that they need some easier pieces that are quick and easy to learn to play well, so that they feel their accomplishments growing quickly. But each assignment should also have some more difficult challenges. These pieces take longer to learn, but they also teach us the most important skills and accomplishments – the ones we don’t yet have control over. These are the pieces that help us climb the ladder of accomplishment.
THE STUDENT’S RESPONSIBILITY
The student must be encouraged to accomplish real progress in a short amount of time. This is a victory. This is pro-active work. This requires focus, judgment, and determination. This helps the student “learn how to learn,” which is a tool for life.
The student must realize that consistent work gains exciting progress. One cannot “cram” for a lesson or for any other performance. So their day-to-day progress is their responsibility and their reward.
Each student needs to work out a daily practice schedule, the same way they attend school at a pre-determined time—not when they feel like going to school. Most students excel by practicing before school, when they are fresh. Some students do better with several shorter practice sessions rather than trying to cover everything in the same session. Older students with large homework assignments from school can use these short practice breaks as a reward in between their schoolwork. They can then return to their studies refreshed and determined—looking forward to earning their next practice break at the piano.
But music students grow and develop in exact relationship to their own determination to be responsible about their music study.
Students need to work on their assignment daily as described above. They may also work on other music, but not to the extent that their assignment is overlooked.
The Studio’s Weekly Assignment and Daily Practice Log forms we are using are what the student uses to achieve exciting progress each week. Not every youngster is inclined to be this organized, but they all benefit from doing it.
Perhaps the most important thing for students to realize is that they are responsible for bringing their assignment thoroughly prepared. Lesson time must not be wasted on correcting mistakes, or doing the students’ thinking or practicing for them. Nor should lesson time be spent on what the students have already learned. With so little time together, we must be moving forward each minute of each lesson or class! For this to work, students must promise to always ask questions about anything they do not understand.
It is also necessary for students transferring from one studio to another to realize that a period of review and discovery is required before a balanced assignment is possible. This is best accomplished with an intensive Music Camp designed especially for this purpose. Here again, students need to assume responsibility for accomplishing what is assigned in the manner that was shown at the lesson or Camp.
It is the student’s responsibility to arrive at each lesson or class with all necessary materials in a tote bag.
THE PARENT’S RESPONSIBILITY
Parents provide the third essential leg of this triangle of music study support group. Not only do you provide the lessons and materials for your child’s music study, but you get them to their lessons and classes on time, ready to work hard, and you remain eager to hear of their steps forward.
This is similar to having your child participate in a sports event. You bring them to each scheduled practice and you are there at the game to cheer them on to accomplish their best efforts.
Parents of younger students will also need to serve as a practice coach at home. This continues until the child matures sufficiently to be able to make definite progress according to the steps outlined above. I encourage the parents of young students to attend lessons so that we are speaking the same language to the young student, and so that the parent understands the goals and methods the teacher assigned. Though this is not always possible to schedule, we do record each lesson so that both the parent and student have a complete record of what happened at the lesson.
By working out the daily practice schedule with your music student(s), make sure they realize that they can take charge by getting themselves to the piano at the agreed upon time. It may help to post a chart marking the days they accomplish this. If they have not “arrived” at the piano within an agreed upon length of time, the parent is free to gently remind the student what time it is.
Notice that the emphasis has been on consistently getting to the piano and accomplishing specific goals as efficiently and successfully as possible. Asking most children to sit at the piano and repeat their assignment mindlessly for a certain amount of time is counter-productive.
As adults, we must realize that it takes patience and hard work for a young person to succeed with music study. They therefore need generous amounts of encouragement and support. They also need to know exactly what is expected of them and, when appropriate, helpful suggestions about how to reach their goals.
Well-earned praise is worth any amount of effort on our part, because—
SUCCESS IS THE GREATEST MOTIVATION!