Practising a musical instrument is a process that needs to be learned. It’s just like learning how to study any subject in school. In fact, good instrumental teachers should consider themselves teachers of “practice” just as much as teachers of “piano” or “trumpet”.
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PS. For those of you in the USA, I’ve tended to use the UK/Australian English verb “Practise” and noun “Practice” in this article, just in case you were wondering about the spelling! I personally think we should just jump on board the US method and stick to “practice” for both – much simpler!
Back in my college day, a bunch of music majors were hanging outside the practice rooms, when a particularly gifted guitar student came bursting out of his room. He was flustered and excited.
“You know what I just realised?”
We sat staring blankly.
“You don’t practise what you KNOW, you practise what you DON’T KNOW.”
A bunch of us laughed, but when he left, there was a kind of stunned silence.
Somehow, we had all made our way to a high level music program at a prestigious University and yet most of had never learned this basic essential skill.
No one had ever taught us HOW TO PRACTISE.
Practice for Life
It’s the same in life. If you continuously just do what you know, you will never know what you don’t know. It takes an intentional choice to look outside your field of experience to seek new ideas, knowledge, concepts, and beliefs.
As teachers, we can play a huge role in giving our students (and their parents) a mindset of growth. We can instil the beliefs that change is possible and exciting. Learning never stops and we are always getting better, but only if you take action.
The basic core action is practising your instrument. It becomes a metaphor for life. It’s the reason they call it a medical practice or a teaching practice, etc.
The Magic Question
So, after the first few lessons, here’s a magic question that you can ask your students tomorrow:
“How do you practise?”
Then be quiet and listen for the answer.
Music lessons should not just be about learning notes, pieces and scales just the same as school should not just be facts, rules and theorems.
Both need to teach the skills of learning and the most basic of skills is how to ask the right question.
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The Power Of Questions
Recently, I posed this question to my family:
“If you had an hour to solve a life or death situation, how would you spend that hour?”
Now, before I tell you what we came up with, take a moment and think about what you would do. In our family discussion, the consensus was around 20 minutes on the planning and formulating of questions and 40 minutes on execution.
Now here’s what Albert Einstein said:
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
– Albert Einstein
Thinking is essentially the art of questioning and the quality of your questions is what will give the quality of your answers.
So back to the practice question
Did you hear the student’s answer?
Here’s a common answer:
“I practise the piece by playing it from the beginning and when I make a mistake, I go back to the beginning and try to make it better.”
You can hear the results in their performance where the first half of the song is flawless, then comes a particularly slow and difficult part, then the rest of the song is half-baked.
You can then ask them,
“What do you do when there’s a hard part?”
If they say, “Well I play it over and over”,you can tell them:
“I’ve got an idea that can make you 10 times better with by practising less.“
This usually gets their ear! Who wouldn’t want to 10x themselves and by doing less?
“What if you just played the hard parts 3 times until it sounded better? Then you can go back and play the piece just for the fun of it!”
Making It A Game
In a recent lesson, I made copy of the sheet music we were working on and then cut it into strips, where each strip had just a few measures of music.
We folded the strips and placed them in a hat. The student then pulled one at random and played the piece while reading it. If it was not one of the trouble spots, we then turned it over and had her play it again from memory.
If it was difficult, then we worked through it over and over, fixing whatever the issue and then had her play it from memory 3 times in a row. By the end of the lesson, she was beaming with joy and a sense of accomplishment as well as having a new fun game to practice this piece at home.
The Place Where Learning Happens
Another question I like to ask my students.
“Where does the learning happen?”
“Well, do you learn music and piano here at my lesson or at home?”
Ahh. Sometimes you see a look that confirms a light bulb went off in their head.
Then I will tell them how the lesson is where I will give them new ideas, concepts, techniques and music but they actually do most of the learning at home when they are practising it everyday. And then when I see them again, I can answer new questions that have come up because of the practising.
Because I teach a lot of preschool aged children (4 to 6) I do have to first show them a proper practice routine, but it’s still something I begin to check in on every few weeks by asking them, “How do you practise?”
Leave your thoughts
What do you do to teach the skills of practice? I’d love to hear your comments below.