Many parents dream about their child one day playing a musical instrument to an advanced level. Many set their child off onto this journey with a vague idea of what to expect ahead. They know the child will need to “practise”. The child knows this himself, as the music teacher tells him each week that he must “practise”. Strangely enough, it is rare to find a teacher who goes into much detail what is meant by “practice”.
At the beginning of learning an instrument, students start off playing simple and short pieces. They sit down to practise and play through all the required pieces from beginning to end. They do that many times over, and occasionally stop to correct something if they hear a problem. Rather than concentrating on the music, the focus seems to be more on the hands of the clock while willing the time to pass faster.
This strategy works for the early years of music practicing, but as the pieces get more advanced and lengthier, this strategy needs to change. I do not find it common for music teachers to address the changes needed at this point.
My purpose in this article is to teach intermediate and advanced music students (and their parents) the “art” of music practicing.
Work by Goals and not by Time
As music pieces get more complicated and lengthier, it is no longer useful to play a piece from the very beginning to the end. It’s a great temptation to do so when the session starts. The problem is that the student spends a lot of valuable practice-time playing from the beginning to the end, without having improved the piece at all. Worse yet, mistakes are often repeated and thus reinforced along the way. I know it is a very gratifying to play through a piece, but this is not practicing.
When parents find out that I am a music teacher, their most common question for me is, “How much time should my child be practicing?” Without a clear understanding of what their goals are, they could actually spend that entire time quite wastefully. So, I suggest that it is better to work by goals and objectives and not by time.
A child should have a little notebook for the music teacher to write down weekly “practise-points” for each piece. Theses are the little goals and objectives that the child should focus on. On the piece of music, mark down these “practise-points” with a pencil. In my music, they are written down like this, “PP1, PP2, PP3, etc.” Your pencil is your BEST friend. I cannot emphasize this enough. I actually tell my own children to not bother practicing if they don’t have a pencil with them. The music student should circle and make notations by every spot where she stumbles. If she doesn’t know the letter name of the note, then write down the letter name. Erase these markings when they are no longer needed. After several weeks of practicing, a piece of music should look like a messy road map!
If a child has a habit of ignoring some pencil marks, flag the different practise-points with small coloured sticky notes.
At the start of each practice session, have in mind what the goals are going to be for that evening. Depending on how lengthy and difficult each “practise-point” is, the student might only have one practise-point to correct for that evening. He might have 10 or more! You want to strike a balance between practice feeling too quick and easy, and feeling too long and arduous. A music teacher should help in finding that balance. It might be an idea for the teacher to silently observe a student at one of her practices.
The student is finished the practice session for the evening when she has reached her goal of correcting however many practise-point(s) she wanted to for that session, and is able to play through them accurately at least 3-5x in a row. In this way, you are working according to goals and not time. If a student is mindful while she is practicing, she will be able to make more progress in much less time.
As your music student grows older, he’ll become more efficient and this is particularly important because students’ academic workloads also increase, as they grow older. They’ll be faced with the dilemma of longer and more complex pieces of music to learn, while juggling increased schoolwork and extra curricular studies. Here is a strategy that will help them maintain progress in music learning, despite growing pressures on their time.
Perfect Practicing means to “Practise Perfectly”
I didn’t invent this phrase, but feel that it holds great wisdom for music learning. What this phrase means is that students shouldn’t play their mistakes over and over. They are actually reinforcing their mistakes each time they play something incorrectly. They are building neural pathways in their brain that will return to haunt times during times of stress, like in recital or situations. They say that it takes playing through something 7x to put it into memory but 35x to undo it if it is a mistake. So, it is truly worthwhile to practise as accurately as possible.
So the strategy to avoid reinforcing mistakes while practicing is this:
- Slice up the piece into manageable sections. There might be only one phrase (musical sentence) in one section. There might be several.
- Slow down the tempo (speed) to the point that each section can be played through with perfect notes, fingering, rhythm, and articulation. This tempo will feel as slow as molasses, but this is exactly what is needed. Different sections will have different tempos but this is to be expected. Mark down the tempos for each section.
- After the student can perfectly play through a section 3-5x in a row, then go to work on the neighboring section.
- After the student can play through that neighboring section 3-5x perfectly, then it is time to connect the two sections together. Now, practise the two sections together so they can be played through perfectly 3-5x in a row.
- Then continue on so that, section by section, the song is constructed. Increase the tempo gradually while maintaining accuracy.
As a reward at the end of the practice session, play the piece from beginning to end and note the improvements of each practise-point!
I also find it extremely motivating to create a chart before beginning a piece to outline how I will tackle a piece. Work on the most difficult sections first. I leave room on the chart to indicate tempo markings and to write down increases in tempo with each passing day. Your metronome is your second BEST friend.
If one organizes her practice-time thoughtfully, pieces can be learned a lot more quickly.
21st Century Tools for Music Learning
I would be remiss as a graduate student of educational technology, if I didn’t point out some technology resources for music learning. It has been greatly underestimated how important listening to recordings of pieces is. It was never suggested to me when I was studying music as teenager that I try to find recordings of my pieces to listen to. The implied message was that this might be a bit like “cheating”. The truth is quite the contrary! Many years later, I learned about the Suzuki method of music learning. The Suzuki method makes daily listening of pieces of paramount importance. I do not necessarily elevate listening as high as Suzuki would, but it is still invaluable at the start of learning a piece to spend time listening to good recordings of the piece. We are extremely fortunate to have YouTube as a resource and most likely the piece your child is learning can be found there. Be careful to listen to only good recordings though. Your teacher should be able to point you to good examples. Listening to good recordings of pieces can accelerate the learning of the pieces. The students’ ears know right off from the start what is “correct” so that makes it easier to spot anything that is “incorrect”. Listening to recordings helps with pitch, intonation, rhythm, articulation, and expression. It is particularly important for learning the stringed instruments where correct intonation is such a great challenge.
It cannot be overlooked how motivating it is for young people to record their playing and to share it via YouTube or Sound Cloud. This not how we grew up, but social media is an important part of young people’s lives. Your advanced musician might consider creating an online blog to showcase his abilities. Even if your child does not intend to study music in post-secondary, any curated online profile of theirs becomes a priceless résumé of who they are, when applying for university entrance. My daughter, who is in her last year of her IB Diploma studies, wasn’t thinking of university admissions when she started her blog, but we capitalized on it when applying for university admissions and it made a difference!
There are also many more opportunities than in the past, for young people to transfer their “traditional” music learning over to playing contemporary digital instruments. It is affordable now for young people to build their own bedroom sound mixing and recording studios. Look for MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) keyboards and music controllers. They can become any instrument they want through software. Young musicians can compose their own music, layer different instruments together, and produce their own original recordings. Some may want to go on to DJ-ing parties and school dances for extra pocket money. It is worth noting that for IB MYP and DP Music, students will use music software during their studies and IB Diploma students are allowed to choose music technology as a performance instrument.
Beyond music and video sharing sites and music technology, there are an amazing number of online resources that I could only have dreamed of prior to the Internet: Apps to practise note-reading abilities, games to practise rhythms, software for aural training, websites for studying music history etc. Do not over look the wonderful resources available to us through technology.
The Art of Music
There are numerous studies that have been undertaken that prove that music learning has positive transference to other parts of our lives. It aids in developing emotional well-being, self-esteem, and perseverance. It enhances brain functions necessary for math, engineering, and science. If there was a “magic pill” to boost our children’s chances of academic success, it would be learning a music instrument.
I am not too sure parents have these in mind when enrolling their child for music lessons, but they are definitely reasons to persevere through the inevitable ups and downs of music studies. Learning the “art” of music practicing is an invaluable skill to sustain you along the way—making it a more rewarding, thus happier time.
By Vivian Chow Kwan
About the author:
Vivian is a Canadian living in Switzerland working on a Masters degree in Educational Technology Integration. She is a PYP Classroom and Music Educator, and an International Parent to 4 musicians of her own. Twitter @ChezVivian