Teaching How to Practice

Students are not born knowing how to practice. As with everything else, you must teach them how to do this.

Demonstration is the best method. It's not enough just to say, "Do it this way at home." Take lesson time to demonstrate why "this way" is effective. There is no better way to convince a student to use a technique than for him to find out--before he's asked to do it on his own--that the method is effective.

If you want the parent to assist his child, involve both of them in the learning process. Show the parent what you want him to do and make sure he understands his part in what you'd like to happen at home.

What Practice Is

Your students need to know what practice is--and what it is not. It is not mindless repetition, even though repetition is involved. Practice is repeating a small portion of a piece (or a technical exercise) with a specific goal in mind. This goal should be small enough to reach by the end of the session so that the student can judge whether or not he met the goal. "Fix the middle of the Scarlatti" is not a good goal because it's too broad and too unfocused. "Decide on and write in the fingering in measures 20-40" is a fine goal. For the second day, the goal might be "Learn to play measures 20-30 with the new fingering" (or even fewer measures, if the music is exceptionally difficult). Practice also may include playing larger portions of a piece--up to the entire piece--provided it is done at practice tempo, not at performance tempo.


Attitude is vital. Your student should think, "Now I'm going to play the piano, which is something I enjoy. This is something I'm doing for myself, no one else. I'm going to concentrate on __ so I can play it better and get even more satisfaction from playing the piano." With children, this kind of mature attitude probably won't fly. I mechanize it by helping the child set goals which are small enough that he *can* reach them and therefore have a feeling of satisfaction.

I also have good success if I call it "playing the piano at home" rather than "practicing." The former sounds like an engaging activity; the latter sounds like a grim requirement.

In addition to attitude, desire must be present. An adult or teen is doubtless taking lessons because *he* wants to do it, but with a child, it might be a different set of circumstances. For each student, discover why he is taking lessons. Is it something he wants to do? Is he being forced because "everybody in *this* family plays a musical instrument" or because there is a piano in the home already? When you answer a telephone query, always investigate why the parent is calling. If the child has asked for lessons, how long has he been asking (how ardently)? If the child isn't interested, it will be an up-hill struggle for him, you, and the parents. It's better not to start a child who doesn't want to play the piano. (He might prefer another instrument or art/theater/dance to music study.) At the interview, make clear to the student what you expect from him in terms of daily playing at home and be assured that he truly understands the commitment he is making before you accept him into your studio.

Mistakes are a part of practice. Everyone makes oodles of them. Counsel the student to "be gentle with" himself and not to be upset when mistakes happen. After all, they disappear instantly!

Avoiding Clock-Watching

One bad practice attitude is what most teachers call "clock-watching." We all know what clock-watching is: the student (usually a child) goes to the piano with plodding footsteps and, with a deep sigh, opens whatever book is on the top of the pile. He plays through the music at whatever rate he happens to start with, slowing down or stumbling a lot on the parts he knows less well. He may remark that certain sections need work, but he probably won't do anything about them. Then he checks the clock. Only 3 minutes? Time for a drink of water. The cartoon show his sibling is watching on TV beckons, and on the way back from the kitchen he pauses to watch for as long as he thinks he can get away with before his mother yells at him to "get busy." Back to the piano. Nearly 10 minutes gone; maybe mom won't notice that 7 minutes of it has not been spent playing the piano. Ok, let's try exercises; once through those haphazardly. Used up 2 more minutes. Still 18 minutes left! Will this practice never end?!

Clock-watching can be avoided by doing several things:

The Most Effective Practice Techniques

This is far from a secret! In fact, you may be teaching this technique already. It's called rhythms. The idea is to make the task more complex than it is, so that when the addenda are factored out, the remainder is then easy. With each of my students, I introduce rhythms by working on the "worst place" a student can identify in a piece that is troubling him. It does consume time (perhaps most of a lesson), but the result is worth it: the problem is solved and the student is sold on the effectiveness of this practice technique.

The four rhythms are short-long, long-short, long-short-short-short, and evenly, as illustrated above. Each short is represented by a one-count note and each long by a three-count note. For beginners, I use quarters and dotted-halves; with more advanced students, I use sixteenths and dotted-eighths

Most people think that SL is the most difficult rhythm, so this is the one to start with. The "offending" section--say those tricky scalar runs in the first movement of Mozart's "C Major Sonata" (K. 545)--should be played *with perfect fingering* ten times alternating short and long rhythm. Fingering must be perfect each time; this means the student must play slowly enough to control fingering exactly. Note that on alternate notes, the student has time to "rest and regroup" and read ahead to the next note; only every other note must he get to the next one quickly.

Then ten times using the long-short rhythm. Now the "rest and regroup" note is the opposite one of the pair, and the student has experience getting quickly *to* each note after doing SL and LS.

Next comes ten times with long-short-short-short, which means he can "rest and regroup" only once every four notes.

With an example similar to the Mozart, you might wish to insert an intermediate step of one long and seven shorts so that a "rest and regroup" note occurs twice in a measure.

The last step is to play the notes evenly (as written). Here is the big secret: this should be done at *half* the speed the student thinks he is able to do it. Ten times. (This requires the most discipline of all!) Then he may speed up his playing, using the metronome to guide this slow accelerando.

Now the repaired area is placed back in context--again at half the speed the student thinks he can play it-- and speeded up slowly to the tempo of the material which precedes.

I have never known rhythms to fail: either in my own playing or in that of my students. I recommend it to you if you are not now using it.

Other of My Favorite Practice Techniques

Using consistent fingering is one of them. Much forward progress won't be made if the hand doesn't "learn the feel" of the passage in question. This isn't possible if the hand assumes a different shape each time the passage is played. Therefore consistent fingering is crucial. And this means the student must play slowly enough so that he is in command of each finger stroke.

Small, reachable goals are another of my favorites as effective practice tools. If it can't be reached in one practice session, the goal was too broad. When goals aren't reached, the student becomes frustrated.

Control versus chance is another idea I drum into my students all the time. Suppose the student plays 100% correctly. Now the tough question: was that just good luck or could he do it again any time he wanted? Only the student knows for sure, and he can't lie to himself. (This is a crucial question when we're talking about recital preparation and helps avoid an inflated sense of readiness.)

Control has another virtue. I always tell my students to go for control rather than speed. If they aim for control, speed will take care of itself.

I'm a big fan of the metronome, too. Using it is a systematic way to increase speed, even for a beginner. One of my favorite techniques is to map out the week's tasks with the piece using the metronome. For example, Monday 5x @60 - Tuesday 2x @60 and 3x @63 - Wednesday 2x @63 and 3x @66, and so on.

The metronome also can be used to indicted a maximum speed the piece should go for the week. This helps the student stay within the "practice tempo" zone.

Any time you spend with a student showing him how to practice effectively will benefit both of you!

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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