This blog is the second posting for the pedagogy class, “The Teaching-Learning Process and the Piano Teacher.” Today, I am sharing what I learned about practice. Frances Clark and Louise Goss recognized that many teachers do not help students establish good practice habits. Often, instructors just say “practice,” and do not teach the students how. Inadequate practice is a stumbling block to be avoided for the reason that success at home determines progress.
Louise Goss maintained that daily practice does not assure success since a poor practice routine is as detrimental as the lack of practice. According to research studies, seventeen correct repetitions are needed in order to amend one wrong first impression. Because valuable time is wasted in fixing mistakes, trial and error practice must be replaced with a daily practice routine that is accurate and efficient. Practice skills are learned at the lesson. Although parents play a role in encouraging students to practice their assignment, it is the teacher’s responsibility to show the student how to practice. This can be accomplished if teachers practice with their students.
In a review of a practice plan used for working on new pieces in detail, Miss Goss explained why each step is essential. A discussion of sound expectation and analysis of form simplifies presentation. For a summary of the piece, the teacher directs the student’s attention to compositional features that make the piece seem easy to play. For example, the teacher can ask the student to identify unifying motives, repeated rhythm patterns, similarities in melodic contour and/or harmonic structure, etc. The next step of having students practice the rhythm is always beneficial. If the rhythm is performed correctly in the lesson, chances are it will be played correctly at home. It is important that keyboard moves are also prepared before students play to ensure that the first time students move their hands into a new position they do so without any confusion or hesitation. Moves can be practiced in many ways. Silent practice is recommended because students can concentrate on experiencing the movement. As students “float from one position to another,” they discover what it feels like to move with ease and agility. By “playing” on the keyboard cover, they are able to focus on a relaxed hand position and big arm gestures. The same practice plan can be used in teaching both elementary and intermediate repertoire. For class demonstration, Miss Goss selected compositions from the elementary and intermediate series of The Clark Library and outlined a list of practice steps for each piece (read my blog titled “Tried and True” to look at the format of the above practice plan).
A practice routine that eliminates mindless, redundant practice teaches students that time well spent is efficient, effective, and rewarding. Instead of playing the piece repeatedly from beginning to end, students learn that if they spend their time working on difficult sections that need the most practice, they save time and effort. Feeling confident in their ability to learn a new piece, they are usually motivated to practice it. Teachers should practice with their students at every lesson. A copy of a practice plan can be kept in the student’s notebook. Specific steps are written on the assignment sheet: e.g. rather than asking a student to point and count, the teacher can have a student tap and count a syncopated rhythm to maintain the vertical texture. In order to become self-reliant, students have to understand why they are doing each step. They can then assist the teacher in selecting needed practice steps, and as a result, they learn how to use the plan by themselves to solve problems. Practice steps cannot be too elaborate or else the plan is ignored. At some point, the sooner the better, students should have the plan memorized.
Other practice techniques can be conducted as games. For instance, you can challenge students by asking them to find the first hand position as fast as possible while you keep time. Persistent difficulties with a particular section can be remedied with an exercise called “Oscar” (a name selected by one of Frances Clark’s students). To isolate the problem and improve concentration, students have to play the passage accurately three times in succession. Three checkers or pennies are placed on the left side of the piano, and after the passage is played correctly, one checker is moved to the right side. If a mistake is made, all checkers are returned to the left, and the student tries again. When the section is played successfully the third time, it is incorporated back into the piece. Students then practice playing through the passage without stopping.
I can attest that following a practice plan does work. Once I observed the faculty and graduate students obtain results by referring to these steps, I realized I should be doing more of the same in teaching my pupils. I decided to practice with all of my students, and together, we added or deleted steps if necessary. Within a few weeks, I noticed that they could see “the big picture” and knew exactly what to do at home. Faculty members at The New School still use a practice plan. We have our students use steps for new and review music.
Besides showing students how to practice, there are other considerations when teaching any piece for the first time. Most importantly, the teacher should perform the composition for their students. You cannot expect students to play a piece well if they have not heard an exciting performance. Time and time again, Frances Clark and Louise Goss emphasized teachers should do less talking. This is vital. Not only should teachers perform the piece to inspire practice, but they must also demonstrate whenever making suggestions for how the piece should sound in order to convey the intended mood and character. In other words, students listen to the sound before playing back what they hear.
I will continue to focus on the fundamentals of good teaching as defined by Frances Clark and Louise Goss in my next blog. For example, a common misstep in teaching includes trying to fix everything in one lesson. A few suggestions are remembered easily while more than two or three tend to be forgotten. And of course, teaching musicianship is a priority. To paraphrase a quote by Frances Clark: The notes and rhythm are played accurately, but is it musical? This is a question that every teacher needs to ask.