Your Lesson Teacher Forgot to Teach You How to Practice

Guilty. When I was a new lesson teacher years ago, I noticed something odd. My students told me they were practicing, and I knew they were being truthful, but they weren’t making the progress I was expecting. Then it hit me. I asked them to describe what they did each time they practiced. It was very illuminating. They were spending 20-60 minutes a day, but that time wasn’t being used efficiently. Much of the time they were at the piano, they really weren’t practicing the lesson, and when they were, they were spinning their wheels. Like any student, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. The fault was mine. I quickly corrected my mistake, and ever since, I have incorporated discussion of efficient practicing in all my lessons.

The first key to efficient practicing is being organized. I encourage students to have their materials organized in a binder or on a tablet, so time isn’t wasted shuffling around for sheets of paper. It’s okay to have separate music books for different repertoire, but I like to make copies and put them in one place, so I can make everything I play portable. I’m a little overboard with the organization thing, but I also play a lot of different gigs and need to keep my material in one place. I don’t expect everyone to go this far if they don’t need to.

More important than how you organize your materials is how you organize your practice time. Just like with sports practice, there are usually a few components to the session. Football practice might start with a short run, then some weight training, then discussion of plays that will be gone over, then actual football playing. For the music student there is a similar scheme. A good regimen would be to start with finger or vocal exercises, then scales and chords, then practicing one or two sight reading or sight singing exercises (this is reading through a piece once just for building that skill), then playing through the repertoire. At some point in a practice session, a student can experiment and improvise too. Busy high schoolers or adults may not have time to play every scale every day and after a certain point may not need to. I recommend doing at least one different scale a day. The same applies to sight reading. Doing one page a day is building a skill. Skipping it to save time weakens the skill making it harder the next time. 

Often the first thing many parents and adult students ask me is “how long should I/my child be practicing?” They are surprised to hear me say that I don’t think practicing should be timed. 

Students who set aside a time to practice for 45 minutes to two hours may not be using those minutes well. Often times students will try to cram practicing into once or twice a week for a few hours. This is counter-productive for long-term memory and learning. Many research studies have shown that for most adults, doing one learning activity for longer than an hour is counter-productive, but that same amount of time spaced out over days is much more effective. The MIT Center for Academic Excellence recommends studying one subject for no longer than 50 minutes at a time followed by at least a ten minute break. I often encourage students to do short sessions twice a day or at least shorter sessions every single day, none of them necessarily timed.

Instead of timing a practice session, I encourage a goal-oriented approach. At the beginning of the session before a note is sounded, identify what exercises and scales you will practice, and choose these purposefully. If your song has a lot of melismas, you will want to choose a vocal exercise that emphasizes that skill. Likewise, a piano student may choose to review the scales and chords of the pieces they are working on for reinforcement. Then look over your repertoire and set goals for that session. “I will work on the rhythms in measure 34 until I get them right this time,” is an example. Goal-oriented practicing often ends up with the student not noticing how long they are practicing, as reaching the goal is now the priority. It takes the “ chore” feeling out of the session because now the student feels more in control of the time rather than tethered by it. If you feel like you are “spinning your wheels,” it is time to walk away for awhile. The brain needs time to absorb new ideas, and your mind is telling you it is time to take a break rather than persist on despite a sense of diminishing returns. This is not being a quitter. It is an informed decision in which you are acknowledging you have reached your limit for the moment. You will be surprised how much better the piece will go the next time you sit down with a fresh mind.

People think of practicing as playing the material over and over, and there is certainly some of that involved. But this concept should be nested in a more organized framework. It is very common for students when they are practicing to stop when they make a mistake and start over again, as though somehow pressing the re-set button will magically make that error go away! Then, when they get to that same spot, the error is waiting for them like a biting fly. I can tell when a student practices this way because the beginning sounds better and better each week, and that challenging rhythm in measure 34 never gets fixed. Or, I will see a student play the same note error and fish until they find the right note and go on. People have the idea that practicing a song is a linear continuous action from beginning to end, but that’s not quite right. This describes performing the song. Practicing the song is more like building a piece of furniture or making a quilt. Each component has to be carefully crafted and then put together to make the whole. 

In the book The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, researchers were trying to get to the bottom of why some high school violin students were doing better than others. The researchers ruled out enthusiasm for the instrument, because the young lady that seemed to be learning the fastest was more ambivalent about the violin than her peers who were more eager, but she wanted to participate and did practice. All of the students in the study were about the same in terms of general intelligence. So, why was the ambivalent girl doing better? They videotaped the students individually practicing to analyze what each was doing. Sure enough. Many of the students didn’t have a practice plan and just opened their books and played their pieces from beginning to the end over and over and over. The student who was learning faster had a different approach. When she came to a trouble area in the music she stopped. She looked at what she was doing and analyzed why she was making the mistake, something like, “Oh, I’m playing a G and it is supposed to be G#.” Taking the time to analyze the mistake and identify the problem out loud, paired with repeating just that trouble section, solved the problem. 

Research by Gary Lupyan, a cognitive scientist and psychology professor at UW–Madison, has discovered that smart people make errors in certain cut-and-dry math concepts because human beings tend to make analytical decisions based on context rather than on rules. 

“Rather than treating errors as reflecting lack of knowledge or as inattention, trying to understand their source may lead to new ways of teaching rule-based systems while making use of the flexibility and creative problem solving at which humans excel.”

As a teacher, I can often spot the mistaken thinking that leads a student to a persistent error, and I talk them through it. For example, a student will clearly know what the difference between a G and a G# is. They know the rules, but often they have a pre-determined idea about where the tune is going. This causes them to make a microsecond decision to play the note that seems more contextually logical. Then the wrong note becomes embedded in the memory even though it clearly sounds wrong! By talking through the mistake, the student is learning a new context for this note and can reorient their thinking to forget the mistake and correct the problem area. Without this analysis, students will make the same mistake again and again, facing the biting fly waiting on measure 34. My students learn to do the meta analysis to get to the cause of their mistake and will apply this technique in their practice sessions as well.

All this regimented practice sounds very pedantic. However, by no means do I think students should be regimented every time they sit down to do music! As mentioned above, time should be set aside to “mess around” on the instrument. Discovery and creativity are really important! There should be no limit to this experimentation. It is fun and leads to a lot of great questions for the teacher. I am suggesting however, that one should be mindful of this creative process as a separate component of practicing and should be balanced with the other business that the student needs to get done in order to reach her or his goals.

Goal-oriented practice is more satisfying and time efficient than playing the song over and over. If your teacher didn’t tell you this, how would you know? Now you do!