Building Better Practicers

 

One of our greatest responsibilities as teachers is to provide our students with the skills and strategies to practice and improve independently. In working to attain this goal, we carefully plan our students’ course of study, meticulously analyze their pieces, and walk our students through detailed workouts of their new repertoire in their lessons. We provide them with a specific plan for home practice and trust that they will execute these steps and return the next week showing improvement.  However, the results do not always meet our expectations. If students follow all of our practice steps, why are they not improving?  The answer may lie in the way they are practicing.

 

Recently, I became curious about how one of my high school students, Tom, was practicing at home. Because he has busy schedule and limited practice time, my original intention was to work with him to streamline his practice and make more efficient use of his time. I had him make a recording of one practice session and email it to me. Listening to the recording was eye-opening – it became clear why his approach to practice was not yielding much progress.

 

While listening to his practice session, I took notes on exactly what I heard (which piece, which practice steps, how many repetitions). Tom diligently followed his assignment sheet and practiced the pieces and specific practice steps in order. However, he consistently moved on to the next step without mastering the previous one. I realized that I had not impressed upon him the necessity of mastering each step in the process, moving from simple to more complex. He was blindly following the steps rather than carefully listening for consistent accuracy and details.

 

In my lessons since then, I have been more conscious of have my students direct their in-lesson “practicing.” When working on a tricky passage, I asked if they felt sure that they were ready to go on to the next step. I added pressure, asking questions like “could you wake up in the middle of the night and play that passage accurately?” or, “if you had to play this for group class tomorrow, would you be able to keep it steady?” Often, I received responses like “I think so,” which was not enough! They had to be able to say “yes, I know I could!”

 

Almost every time I was tempted to move the lesson along, the students wanted to perform MORE repetitions. Perhaps I have not been allowing my students to complete enough repetitions in lessons. Or, perhaps by dictating when we move on to the next step, I have not given students the chance to assess whether they have really achieved mastery, which is essential for effective home practice.  Analyzing my students’ practice proved to be a great way to analyze my teaching!

 

Before giving Tom my comments on his practice session recording, I gave him the task of listening to and analyzing it himself. Here is the basic worksheet I gave him to use as a guideline. Look for a follow-up post with the results of his analysis and our discussion.

 

How do you encourage and ensure effective practice? If you have done similar practice analyses, what has been your experience?

 

2 thoughts on “Building Better Practicers

  1. Angela, this is a wonderful article. It is a reflection of how as we evolve in our teaching our students evolve in their learning. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I think you’ve hit one one of the handful of skills that is at the core of good practicing. It brings me back to an experience I had while studying with the esteemed pianist, Constance Keene. Her technical capacity was limitless; mine had obvious limits. Once, after helping me practice a very difficult passage for what seemed like a stressful eternity, she turned to me and said, “You can’t play it because you can’t hear it.”

    From that day to now, I can’t tell you what a difference that has made to me as a practicer, and especially as a teacher.

    When practicing with students, I usually start with a discussion of sound, then I model a physical approach to acheiving that sound. In the beginning, I will give the student feedback as they attempt to do the same, but I will very quickly move on to insist that they assess their own success. After all, they will spend a week at home, being (more than likely) the only one who will assess anything.

    The takeaway is this: no one – not me, nor my students – can practice effectively if we don’t understand our goals or have a clear way to measure our progress toward them. This kind of thinking is innate in only rare individuals; it must be modeled and taught.

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