Following on my recent blog on Student Motivation, one of the key elements of good instuction is the need for students to be taught how to practice effectively and efficiently. Younger students may lack the necessary attention spans or motivations while older students may get frustrated as they struggle with challenging technical requirements. These issues can be remedied simply by addressing and managing the practice process. Effective practice management must be taught at the beginner level so when students advance to higher levels, they have the skills and discipline for effective and efficient practice.
In my last blog, I wrote that some parents set timers to regulate the child’s practice. The child consequently just repeats their pieces however many times it takes in order to fulfill the obligation, making little meaningful progress. This type of practicing undermines inspiration, creativity and motivation and can lead to refusal to continue with lessons.
I usually suggest that young students complete a 10 to 15 minute practice session followed by a five-minute break. They then return to the piano and repeat the piece that they are practicing to check if they are still able to play accurately. As a consequence, progress will slowly manifest itself over time.
Teachers need to impart critical thinking skills in every student. During supervised practice, I ask my student to play a difficult area 3 times continuously while asking a few questions in between that serve to develop the ability to discern and evaluate progress. This way, I can ensure that progress is being made, that errors are corrected between each repetition and that repetition is done with a purpose. The goal is to be able to play the difficult pieces flawlessly and confidently each and every time.
Examples on questions that pupil should be encouraged to ask themselves are:
- Did the melody sound rhythmically correct? Was the rhythm properly observed?
- Did I like what I played? If not, why?
- Was I reading the correct note? If not, what needs to be changed?
- Was the tone even and smooth? How can I make it sound better?
- What might my teacher say to me if he/she were to be sitting beside me?
If pupils are instilled with these critical thinking skills, practicing will become much more meaningful and will yield the rewards of continuous progress. As students become more experienced learners, they develop heightened sensitivity through critical listening skills and are able to provide accurate self-feedback. They essentially cultivate independent learning. As students advance to higher levels of learning, this strategy continues to be part of their practice process.
As repertoires become increasingly challenging and require a lot more skill, students may experience difficulty in playing seamlessly from one bar to the next. If despite continuous practice these difficulties are not resolved, there may be other issues at play.
For instance, a student may be taught to play the entire bar and stop at the very 1st beat of the next bar. There is a connective motion in our motor movement that may fail to connect between the bars. Stopping on the first beat of the next bar allows the motor movement to capture the motion which helps to register the muscular memory. In continuing the remaining of the bar, pick up from the 1st beat of that bar where student just stopped, play through the bar and stop at the next 1st beat of the next bar. Until such time pupil feels confident with capturing the motion, the same process takes places but for stopping at the 1st beat of every 2 bars, subsequently every 3 bars and 4 bars. Before student knows it, they have learnt to play the whole section with much less barriers.
This practice management technique helps to build confidence, reduce anxieties and increases performance accuracy. A lot of students stumble during their exams or recitals because they have not been properly trained in the process of practice management. The exam candidate may know the area of weakness but is unable to overcome it, creating performance anxiety during the exam or performance. When there is anxiety, muscle relaxation does not take place thereby affecting the quality of tone production. When tension sets in, the player is unable to play virtuoso passages with speed and accuracy which affects the tempo, which is essential to the spirit of the music.
These are some of the examples of effective practice management techniques which if taught early can produce effective results. As a professional pianist, I still practice everyday to refine my practice process in order to improve my own techniques.