It is always good to read that researchers have found ways in which music benefits brain development, spatial reasoning, language acquisition, and other areas of learning. Such studies have often been sited by music education advocates in defense of maintaining or even expanding music programs in schools. Work has also been done on integrating common core standards into music instruction by fashioning language arts and math objectives into music objectives, making it possible to claim that music teachers are supporting common core. While neither brain research nor utilizing common core in music instruction should be ignored, one area that has not been given much attention but which music educators are perhaps pre-eminent experts is practice.
The very nature of performing arts education demands practice and rehearsal to achieve excellence in performing specific musical works. From the outset, repertoire is selected, and students rehearse in full ensembles, practice in small group lessons, and practice individually outside the classroom setting. Students proceed through each type of rehearsal or practice with clear goals in mind, which may be to improve a specific aspect of performance, such as tone, rhythmic precision, or expressivity, and with specific strategies to achieve those goals, such as to keep the pulse steady throughout, or to infuse the sound with more air to improve tone. Such strategies are measurable and well suited for learning and improvement.
The strength in all of this is that there is ample opportunity, indeed requirement, for practice, and that is directed at things that are clearly stated, easily observable, measureable, and a manageable portion of the overall process of performing music. This last point is key. One of the values of practice is that component skills of a process can be isolated and worked on in a way that they cannot in a performance. When musicians perform, they bring technique, tone, interpretation, and contextual knowledge to bear on the performance, but they do not have the opportunity to improve on these individually. Every student in every discipline needs to practice every skill and process in order to learn every thing that might be taught in school, or for that matter anywhere else. The key is to have students practice the right thing the right way. The two things that matter are what is practiced and how it is practiced.
This is the great lesson teachers in other subjects can learn from music teachers. They can first learn to ask the question, “what skills go into a student being able to do what I’m asking him or her to do? How can I design practice activities so that one or more of these skills is easily observable and measureable? Once a student has succeeded in doing what I’ve asked him or her to do, do I give the student opportunities to continue to practice so that he or she becomes better at the things he or she is already good at?” To this last point, it is important to remember that if we stop practicing once we “get it,” then we never develop past a novice level of proficiency, and discourage attaining excellence. It is better to do a few things excellently than to do many things adequately. Music teachers know how to isolate skills, practice areas of weakness, and practice beyond initial proficiency and on to excellence.
There are not many things in life that can be stated so emphatically as the necessity of practice. The fact is we are constantly practicing things, whether we mean to or not. Every time we do anything, we are practicing it and all of the skills that go into doing it. That is both the power and the danger in practicing. If we are not intentional and focused about what we are practicing, then It is just as likely that we are practicing the wrong thing as the right thing. A person who misuses a word in a sentence fifty times has practiced using that word, but only learned through practice to use it wrongly. Those who practice two or more digit addition but forget to carry to the next column have practiced addition, but only learned through practice to add incorrectly. Without practice carrying to the next column or using the word correctly, a person will continue to improve at making those errors, and will not improve in writing or adding, no matter how long they practice. The way music educators teach students to practice needs to come out of the practice rooms and rehearsal halls and into the academic classrooms. Music teachers for their part need to be sure attention is paid to designing practice that is focused and measureable, and to use feedback obtained from assessments to drive student improvement.