I’ve talked at length in previous posts about the importance of “Deliberate Practice”, a phrase made popular in Geoff Colvin’s brilliant book, “Talent is Overrated”, in making your limited practice time more effective. But can you actually do too much practice?
We’ve all heard that “too much of anything is a bad thing” but I’ve only recently related this to my music practice. I started work on my Diploma program last December and by July I had really burnt-out through too much practice and my Beethoven Sonata was particularly frustrating. I just couldn’t get it how I wanted it to sound – faster, more even, fewer mistakes – despite practising deliberately and incessantly. I felt defeated and frustrated. To make matters worse, I was planning to sit my exam in October, so pulling back on the practice wasn’t an option.
Thankfully, for a number of reasons, my exam date changed to May next year. The best part: I could leave Beethoven alone for a while and instead play the pieces that I have always wanted to work on, for the fun of them. What a revelation! Now six months on, I can look back on that time as being absolutely crucial to my continued enjoyment of piano playing. I’m not exaggerating! The importance of deliberate play and not just practice, should not be forgotten – particularly for students.
Professor Gary McPherson alluded to this at this year’s VMTA Clifford Lecture, stating, “If you only play for improvement, you’ll burn out. You must play for pleasure as well as improvement.” This was exactly what was happening with my Beethoven (and most of my program, in fact); I was so focussed on practice, that I’d not given myself anytime for play!
During my practice hiatus, I played Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, some Polonaises, Nocturnes and bits of his Scherzi – pieces I’d always wanted to explore. I looked at new Bach Preludes and Fugues, some different Carl Vine works, the Busoni-Bach Chaconne and had a few attempts at various Chopin Etudes that I’d always wanted to try. All for the fun of it!
When I finally came back to Beethoven after leaving it for around two months, I was amazed that not only had my playing not deteriorated, it had actually improved! Was this due to the work that I had done on all the other pieces, the fun I’d had mucking around with them or just because I was more generally relaxed? Probably all the above, but I now understand that playing pieces for the fun of them is vital, especially when you’re spending most of your playing time on more “deliberate practice” for forthcoming exams, recitals or competitions.
Teachers note: if your students aren’t supported in their deliberate play as much as their deliberate practice, don’t be surprised if you lose them to burn-out. I always encourage my students to bring in music that they want to play regardless of how hard it might be. Music from films, video games and stuff they’ve seen on YouTube are all great “play” pieces. Many of my students bring in music books they were given or found at home or suddenly want to learn a famous classical piece out of the blue.
I believe students learn just as much from this type of “playing” as their more formal repertoire and, best of all, they’ll stay motivated and be very grateful that you’ve spent time helping them learn something that they want to play. You might find that these pieces are too hard at first, so you can use this as an opportunity to learn about playing with chords instead of reading music. Transcriptions are often rhythmically tricky, so use this as a way to introduce a deeper understanding of rhythms.
Go for it! Don’t miss any opportunities for piano play this week – both for yourself and your students.
Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.