When observing students after their week at home alone, often we are surprised by the result of practice. Although the student vehemently asserts that he or she put in 45-75 minutes religiously every day of the week, the progress does not support the time commitment. Asking further questions, such as, “did you read my notes?” or “did you practice these parts like I asked?” the answer often is no.
In this first article about practicing advice, I give you both an easy and time-efficient way to improve the effectiveness of practice; one that will undoubtedly cause students to be better in even less time than before—planning.
What is planning? This simply means taking the smallest fraction of time before sitting down to the piano or picking up the violin…ten or fifteen seconds is usually enough…to ask oneself, what do I really need to get done in this piece today?
As creatures of habit, humans, when we don’t consciously approach a problem, like to sit down and go through the same routine, thereby often neglecting the issues that need the most attention, while wasting time on things that feel familiar or comfortable that really need less practice. We observe this in students when they return for their lesson, having not done the tasks we, as teachers, assigned, such as “left hand alone between measures 8 and 12 slowly at mm=80 to the eighth-note and accenting every two notes. Repeat 3 perfect times, then increase mm to 88 and repeat process.” To be realistic, we would really prefer not to write all that info in the students’ notebooks if the student will not refer to it.
When we, as practicers, don’t ask what we need to improve upon, our unconscious tendency is to avoid what needs attention, because that (again, unconsciously) turns into something we translate into work which translates into difficult, and thereafter associated with unpleasant, and therefore something we wish to avoid. When one takes a few moments before practice begins to re-read notes from the teacher, or simply remember what took place in the lesson, one is then taking a conscious approach to practice. By doing this, one will far more likely increase time efficiency by 70% or more.
Day one of practice this way is usually great. It also directly follows the piano lesson, so the materials will tend to be more present in the students’ minds. However, day two of practice can quickly revert to the old ways. So, each day after, the 15-second planning session must add, in addition to goal setting, what did I do the day before? Was it successful? Do I need more time to review it the same way, or, if unsuccessful, should I try approaching the problem differently?
The other aspect of practice planning is that of goal scope. In fifteen minutes, is it reasonable to practice a whole movement of a sonata? Not at all. Just a section? Sure, if it’s small enough to be effective with repetition, and a variety of practice methods as prescribed by the teacher (such as slowly, hands separate, with metronome, rhythms, tiny chunks). One must remember that less is more, and how true that is with practice!The smaller the goals are, the higher the chance that the student will improve and waste less time. Throughout the week then, when the student approaches practice planning consciously, the focus will shift from goal to goal as needed, covering the assigned material easily and without difficulty. Problems are conquered easily, because they are broken down into the smallest, most easily conquerable goals. This is not hard at all, and the student will be more thrilled that he or she is covering material quickly.
A last warning: avoid the panic of, gosh, I have to do all these things! This will turn into trying to overcome goals that are too large in scope and therefore unrealistic. Panic = wasted time. Small bites handled over the course of the week will result in manyfold greater efficiency.