Questioning the Practice of Practise. 

At the end of the lesson I say to "John" to practice song 1, 2, and 3. His task is to play the song through and become more confident and competent in playing the songs both hands together. But the next week, he starts playing, and as the song goes on he starts making a few mistakes and starts from the beginning. Again he plays the song and stumbles at "that" bit. I ask him what the problem actually is. He says that "he does not know". Sound familiar?

This is the time where we go into "problem solving" mode. And we get the student to "fix" the mistake. That's all fine. But are we conscious of exactly "what" we are doing at this point? How come getting this "right" can be "hit and miss" and not reliable?

I start questioning myself about "what is practice" and how can i improve my teaching so that students become more competent players.

A few days later I am sitting at my piano practising for an upcoming examination. I stumble upon a section. I say to myself "What is the problem here" (fingering problem) so I start going over the problem area then practising either side of the problem.

This is not new. As teachers and players we all KNOW HOW to practice and how to get students to practice. You repeat something over and over until it is "automatic". My question is "How does something become automatic"?Is it just doing some over and over, or is there something else we have not been considering?

Teaching "John" I discovered that the act of "practising" is actually training the brain. John KNOWS what to do. He can read the music. He can hear it (by singing it). He can play the song by ear.

I asked John to play the song again and consciously tell himself out aloud before he got to the spot where he would stumble to play a particular note with a particular finger.  I explained that he had to "unlearn" what he had been doing and start learning it newly. In the playing of that section 5 times correctly and putting it back into context could he play the whole section of the song without stopping.

John explained to me that this level of practice was like learning to drive a car: learning the mechanics of reading the symbols, interpreting them and looking ahead, listening to how it is and how it "should" be, and the playing of the notes. In effect, practice involves nothing more than establishing brain patterns and making them "automatic".

It now seems obvious that the success to teaching is nothing more than getting students to develop successful PRACTICE TECHNIQUES. Getting a piece right should now never be a mystery. Effective practice is now more than ever about developing effective cognitive brain function rather than just "getting the notes right". 

"Eddie's" Story

Your student plays the song they have been practising, but they are stopping and starting. You know the situation, he/she starts playing the song fast then slows down at a "difficult" section, then stopping and going back to the beginning. You observe them playing the song again and similarly stopping at the same place. You ask them why, and they say "I don't know". It's enough to pull your hair out, right?

Even when I give my students full permission to make mistakes and keep going, makes only some difference. Slowing it down and isolating the problem is only part of the solution. Wouldn't it just be easier if they could just play the music from beginning to the end without stopping?

In my previous blogs I have been inquiring into cognitive function and how that impacts students practising. Learning music involves multi-sensory brain function working simultaneously: particularly reading (interpreting the symbols), (fine) motor skills in physically playing the music, and listening to the result of what has just been played.

Teaching "Eddie" the old Christmas favourite "Jingle Bells" last year, was a classic case in point. He was doing everything he should: reading the music and playing it slowly, aware of the beats in the bar. But there must have been something else that was having him stop. I asked him to just sing the music. Which he duly did, with gusto. Singing along to the music did not really help him. Something else was slowing him down. And having him stop.

The first part of the problem was that Eddie was stopping because he was reading the music, looking down at his hands, looking back up the music, looking down, wondering which finger to use and how long to play it for, looking back up the music, looking back down at his hands to check before he played a note. With so many mental calculations going on, no wonder he was stopping all the time!

When I asked Eddie to "just play" the music with just the book shut, and just sing the song to himself, he played it all without stopping (after a couple of failed attempts). It was the act of "trying to decipher the music" (his words) in order to play the music that was slowing him down.

Then there was a part of the music that had him stumped. He knew that he was stopping in that bar, and not fully sure why.

As there are many parallels between sport and music, I needed to find an analogy of isolating the problem and making the correction that Eddie could relate to. After chatting to Eddie, I discovered he played badminton. I used the analogy of hitting the shuttle the wrong way and missing that "was the problem" that if he (for the sake of the argument) turned his hand over, he would hit the shuttle instead of missing it. That Eddie was so used to doing it wrongly that if he visualised what he wanted and gave a new instruction to his brain, he would hit the shuttle every time correctly.

In applying this to playing music, I asked Eddie to "create a new instruction" that would correct the mistake which he would say out aloud. I also asked him to do so WITHOUT reading the music. If you like stripping the problem back to its bare essentials.

Eddie succeeded (after a number of attempts) and each time he did it well I gave him a "high 5". So now Eddie could play the troublesome bar without a mistake. But should he play fore and aft? And from the beginning without stopping?

We talked about building stuff out of Lego. He loved Lego. Building all sorts of things, playing with it, then disassembling it all and making something else. I used the analogy of practice like building something out of Lego. One block at a time, and checking it was all secure before putting on the next block.

Similarly, we practiced one bar at a time, like a Lego block, and getting that bar right before we added the next bar. Now he could play that no-longer-a-troublesome bar with the bar before it. And after 5 times playing it through adding the bar after it. We continue putting the bars together like he would build something out of Lego.

At the end of the lesson Eddie could play "Jingle Bells" without stopping, from memory and hardly a mistake being made. Because he stopped trying to decipher the music before playing. And thinking ahead of what he was playing and correcting before playing.

Practice is more than isolating the problem. And is more than just a mere "correction". It is the visualisation of the correcting of the problem. It is putting bars together like creating a piece of Lego. It is not over-analysing the music and where the hands might need to go. But these together help create playing music as fluid.

Eddie initially experienced overwhelm and hard work with practice. But after overcoming these challenges has allowed Eddie to consider taking on the next challenge: a piano exam.