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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Top 10 Practice Tips (Part 1)

[EDITORS NOTE: This is the second entry in a three episode series concerning practice. You can read part one, “Philosophy of Practice” by clicking here. –David]

In the last post, we explored three philosophies of practice. Now, we’ll look at the top ten practice tips. This post will look at the first five. Keep in mind, there are many, many practice suggestions (which I would love to read about, so please post your practice tip in the comments). But these are the ones I heard most often from my teachers to me and from me to my students. Also, these suggestions will be most helpful for the beginner to intermediate player. But it’s a good refresher from those of us who have become lazy in our practice.

10. Scales, scales, scales.
A scale is the easiest thing you will ever play. It’s one note after the other; up for three octaves, down for three octaves. Piece of cake. Which is why it’s the hardest thing you will ever play. The simplicity of a scale quickly displays your mastery or lack-of-mastery of the basics. If you can master your scales, you can play anything. All music is just fancy scales. Master the scales, master everything else.

9. Watch your progress not the clock.
You can always spot a beginner’s piano. The piano bench is pulled slightly away from the keys. A stack of method books rest while one stands dutifully opened to where the student left off. There’s a pencil (if the student is wise), then a metronome (which I love) and a timer (which I hate).

I know this is probably the most controversial of the ten, but I am convinced that students quit because they’re bored, frustrated and/or discouraged. The primary source of that reaction is how much time our art takes. Therefore, I propose we de-emphasize practice time.


Clock hostages are the most unmotivated of all music students. If you practice for an hour and don’t accomplish anything, then you haven’t practiced for an hour, you’ve wasted an hour. Clock hostages know this. So they then conclude that practice or music is a waste of time. Because of this, I tell all of my students’ parents (not the students, just the parents) to not mention practice time. When my students think about their music studies, I want them to think about musicianship and technique, not how much time it takes them. Practicing is hard enough by itself, putting a timer on the project will simply divide your attention between what you’re supposed to be doing and how much time you have left to do it.

Some may object that without a time limit, the student will only practice for fifteen minutes. While I agree not much progress will be made in fifteen minutes, I would like the objector to answer the following question: If a student feels like he has accomplished everything he can accomplish in fifteen minutes, what will forcing him in there for another fifteen do?

While the objector cannot guarantee further progress, I can guarantee it will teach the student to daydream, practice thoughtlessly and waste his practice time. I would prefer to give that student better practice technique, bigger assignments and more challenging material. Forcing a student to “practice” for longer than they think is required completely ignores the root of the issue and goal of the practice.

8. Your brain is for thinking, paper is for remembering.
You won’t remember that bowing. You won’t remember that sharp or flat. Don’t even try. But, thank God, that’s why we have sheet music and pencils. If you come to rehearsal or practice without a pencil, you don’t understand what practice is about. Nor do you understand the limitations of your own abilities. So keep this in mind: Your brain is for thinking, paper is for remembering.

7. Train yourself to read everything on the page.
If you think #8 isn’t for you, you might be one of those “over markers” who circle every dynamic, write in every bowing and have four or five conversations with your stand partner on the back of your Adagio for Strings part. Too many marks on your music wreak havoc on your music reading. If your brain has to cut through mangled knot of superfluous markings, then you’re training your brain to ignore what’s on the music. That is never acceptable. Careful, purposeful markings that you will read every time is what’s needed for successful reading. Along those same lines, use your eraser as well. If a marking isn’t helping, get rid of it.

6. Stop and Think
Most students' practice lives would be much simply if they would follow this two step rule: stop and think.

Typically, when we get somewhat familiar notes, bowings and dynamics, we tend to blow past sudden stops resulting in a mostly-OK performance that isn’t great because of the random glitches scattered throughout the piece.

"Mistakes" trigger an instant, subconscious stop. The problem with the insta-stop tendency is the thoughtless restart that follows. Most students seem to think the only thing worse than making a mistake is not being able to get back on track. This is true for performances and sightreading. It's a death sentence in the practice room.

If we make a mistake, we need to really stop and seriously analyize what is causing the mistake. If we fail to do this, we will be locked in to a stop-go-stop-go cycle of failing redundancy that makes a Windows Vista process seem stable (And all God’s Mac Users said…). The difficult task is training.ourselves out of insta-stopping and into an actual, thoughtful stop.


I cannot tell you how many times a student has struggled with a piece for a week, only to come into a lesson wherein we identify the hic-up, we clean it up and the piece sounds great. But this isn't something special that only happens in a lesson. This is a do-it-yourself process availible to every student at every practice (I could argue that this process is practice, but I digress).

So, when your practicing and get tripped up, don't tolerate the insta-stops. Take the time to really stop, identify the snag, figure out the solution, teach your muscles and then play the section again. If you’ll do this, your progress will soar.

These are the first five. Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your feedback! Also, if you have a practice tip of your own, please post it. We’re always looking for new ideas!

9 comments:

Bisceglia Family said...

I only look at the clock because I have to limit how much I practice so I can get dinner going on time :) Seriously though, I agree that as teachers we should emphasise quality of practice time rather than quantity. What you are really trying to get students to do is learn how to self-study music. Similar techniques apply to all areas of life - such as studying for a quiz. You don't steady for 15 minutes, but until you know the answers!
I would be interested to hear more on metronomes though. I don't believe in using them with beginners, I want to get the "internal" metronome going before I impose an external one. But then, I have some unconventional theories on early music training...

David (viola) said...

I'm guessing this is Janna, but no matter,

I agree that timers/clocks must be used if you have a tendency to practice for four hours without noticing how much time has passed. Can anyone say repetitive stress disorder?

I completely agree with your hesitation to use the metronome (and I'll mention that unconventional theories are A-Okay if they produce results when we employ them). I have my students doing rhythmic training that involved kenstatic, visual, and aorial methods simultaneously (stomping/patting, counting and watching). So my hope is that students will develop a inner since of pulse that way. But the truth is, some of them don't.

Getting a student to feel the pulse is a very difficult task. I don't think we should underestimate the influence of an external beat in the body of our students.

My question for you is, how will you develop an inner-pulse if the student never experiences a consistent pulse?

I agree with you in principle (a student with no since of rhythm will probably ignore the metronome, which creates a much bigger problem). But I had one student who was really struggling with rhythm, so one week I sent him home with an 80-to-the-quarter tag on every single one of his assignments. That really helped.

I think what worked in this scenario was the total, consistent immersion. I don't think having the met. marking on one piece or (worse) having five different met. markings on five different assignments would have produced the same results. But the same tick-tick-tick every day for a week reaped some fruit.

So, I agree that inner-pulse is important, I'm not sure I agree that keeping them from a pulse is the best way to get there (especially if the student doesn't take to a click naturally).

Bisceglia Family said...

Sorry I forgot to sign my name - this is Janna writing.
Well, to understand where I'm coming from with the metronome you would really have to take Jan Keyser's Harmony Road Teacher's Training course - but here's my thoughts in a nutshell. I took group music lessons as a child at Harmony Road and I've seen that program turn out (almost without fail) students that have an internal pulse, and they don't use a metronome until after about four years of music lessons. They do a lot of music and movement activities, group ensemble playing, rhythmn games ect. They also focus on singing and ear training which I think is a big part of it, because if a student is "singing the melody in his/her head", they're probably playing in time. If I had my ideal situation I would have every student who wants to learn harp from me go there for four years first, but the world isn't ideal.
So I'm trying to figure out how to work this in a private teaching setting. I agree that the clapping, stomping stuff is good. I think the teacher can be the constant pulse in early lessons, playing along with the student, singing along, clapping hands - whatever it takes. I want students to feel the rhythmn in their body first, then hear it by a metronome. Like I said I've seen it work in group music, but I haven't tried it for private lessons. I completly agree that a metronome does become nessecary at some point in time of a student's musical studies.

Another thought: I agree with you that it is essential to take the time during your practice session to stop, identify, and fix the problem, but I also see students that never learn to play through a mistake. For this reason, I recommend playing the song once stopping and working on little parts, and then playing it once "performance style".

Okay, I've got to get off the computer here.
~ Janna

lady greenleaf said...

*is lost in the discussion of musical technique*

You've got some good points, Dave. They make me wish I knew something about playing any instrument other than a pen. ;) But on that note, may I humbly suggest you practice your spelling?

As sweet and innocent and angelic as ever,
Lady G

The First Rose said...

I'm enjoying this discussion between David and my sister! Good comments, Janna! I'm going to talk about these tips to my Piano One class. They are very good!

David (viola) said...

@The First Rose: Hello my friend, it's good to have you stop by. I do hope these tips are useful for your students. I'd love to hear your comments as well.

@LadyG: Ah, the butter 'em up and fry 'em routine. Not the first time that's happened...today.

Was man made for spelling or spelling for man? I'm of the persuasion that a misspelled phrase of true genius is worth more than a tome of immaculately crafted twaddle. "It's a fine painting," said the curator, "But, I believe I see a freckle on her cheek, Mr. DiVinci."

dabit deus his quoque finem ;-)

David (viola) said...

@Janna: Firstly, I agree that “performance style” is important. I did mention that the stop/fix it approaches was no applicable to sight reading or performance, though perhaps the point wasn’t clear enough. When I’m speaking to my students in this regard, my encouragement to them is to simply enjoy it. Far too often the “Mr. Fixit” mentality can take over the practice room. It’s interesting to observe which personality type expresses greater fidelity to notes over rhythm, or vise-versa. A “let’s get it done” student cruse through a piece missing every note. An “Is this right?” student will stammer through a piece fixing every note. To that, I say we need to encourage strengths and strengthen weaknesses.

Regarding the use or non-use of metronomes, I think we agree on almost everything except how early a metronome is introduced to a student. If not done so already, I require metronome markings for scales. My students don’t start the 3 octave scale series until after I’ve introduced shifting. Usually, I have the students begin using a metronome when they start the scale series (somewhere between late Suzuki book 3 and early book 4). That’s a general goal. The nice thing about private lessons is that we can make it different for every student.

That being said, if a student doesn’t exhibit an immediate, innate since of inner-pulse, and the student has a full helping of rhythmic studies (which all my students have), then I would recommend trying a metronome in order to influence the student’s environment. However, I would definitely monitor the student closely to make sure the student isn’t learning to ignore that wonderfully annoying little click that I have grown to love so much.

By the way, this is an off-the-cuff observation, but you may need to reevaluate how your experience plays into your private teaching. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re learning experience was total immersion in rhythmic environment. To compare that experience to what we’re able to do in 30-60mns per week is comparing Spanish tutoring to a 4 year trip to Mexico. Unfortunately, as teachers maintaining private studios, we don’t have that kind of advantage. Just a thought.

Thanks again for your insightful comments. They are always welcome.

lady greenleaf said...

I'm pretty good at frying, but I think I need to work on my buttering skills. Or I could just toss the whole thing and make fettucine alfredo for everybody.

I rather agree with you that a good, poorly spelled sentence is better than "immaculately crafted twaddle" (great phrase, by the way :D). On the other hand, (I sound like Tevye) if one's spelling and grammar is poor, then it will likely distract from the content. One wants one's readers to be focusing on one's point, not on one's atrocious spelling/grammar/style. Savvy?

Cave canem.

Anonymous said...

David,
I so totally agree with everything you just said! I read your first post about 'philosophy of practice' agreed with all that and was anticipating your next posts, and what you had to say in the musical technique world!

Right on with the scales! My violin teacher is VERY particular about having me play scales.... If only you would've posted this a few years ago! Then I would have had a better perspective of scales!

I totally agree on no.9,

it is a huge distraction, and waste of time to have a clock or timer around.

My violin teacher wouldn't ever say for me to play a scale for lets say, 15 minutes strait, she'd always say "play it 40 times without stopping unless your perfecting it and you stop to play it on the piano." and she's serious about it every time, which I’m fine with!

No.8 is so true,paper & pencils are very important! Just for the record, that first (of two) quartet lesson we had with Josh back in January, that was very amazing, and quite a coincidence none of us four had a pencil…Seriously, it was amazing.

No.7
Wow, there are some people in my orchestra that just scribble all over their papers, and some even use pens, which is so wrong, and the conversation thing, your absolutely right, it is wrong! Right on with the eraser!

David, you seriously need to talk to my bro Matthew (he's our quartets Violist,) he way to often has that problem of not stopping and fixing all those “hick-ups”, which can be annoying! No offence Matthew! Anyway, I’m going to make Matthew read all of your posts, I think he’ll enjoy it! Cheers on taking the time to type that whole post out, it was worth it! ~A fellow quartet musician, Elsie Devine =D