How Can Students’ Practice Be Improved?

2011Symposium_1_2Regardless of how successful a private music lesson is, a large measure of the student’s eventual success depends on regular and effective practice at home. Often, attention is given to how to get students to practice more, but not enough attention is given to what students should be doing when they are practicing. I have found that often a student who isn’t practicing much is unclear what they are to do once they leave the lesson, and as a result do not notice enough improvement from what practicing they do to motivate them to continue. Today, I would like to describe what has worked for me in addressing the issues of student practice.

In my lessons, I establish a routine that models what I expect the student to do on his or her own when they practice. I begin with the chromatic scale and a major or minor scale. I guide the student through practicing slowly and playing evenly. I may have them use several different articulation patterns, and I will address any hand position and (for wind players) embouchure issues that need correction. Some debate the need for practicing scales, but I believe that scales are the indispensible foundation of every instrumentalist’s technique. When practice sessions are started with scales, the player is afforded the opportunity to hone in on aspects of his or her playing that are in need of improvement, including tone, articulation, hand position, fingerings, evenness, and even  familiarity with keys not often encountered in repertoire. Scales should not be a “one and done” activity, but a purposeful and focused one.

The next part of practice is an etude. This is material I have assigned with a particular purpose in mind. It might be any of the things I listed for scales, and is a part of the student’s technique that I am focusing on at that time. The student has already begun to address the issue in the scales, and now practices using it in the context of a piece. The combination of scales followed by a thoughtfully selected etude is a powerful one, and will lead the student to greater gains in proficiency than spending most of the practicepractice time on repertoire. The tangible improvement that the student will notice motivates further practice, and makes repeated pleas for more practice unnecessary. Students like to succeed and like to see that the work they are putting in is gaining them noticeable benefit. One word of caution is this: teachers should not be too hasty in checking off an etude as finished the first week it is played well. More velocity, better articulation, improved tone are always possible with further work on a familiar etude. It is never enough to practice until skill is gained; it is also necessary to practice those things the student does well, so that they get better at them. We send a damaging message to students when we settle for “good enough” when they could do better.

Teachers should write all of what the student should do on a practice lesson plan. Have sheets pre-printed with the categories of work: scales, etudes, articulation, tone, repertoire. Fill out the plan as you go through the lesson, tailoring the material in each section to the student’s needs. There should be a space on the form at the bottom for comments. There, the teacher can write specific directions on how a scale or etude is to be practiced, including articulations to be used, and tempo, and  reminders of areas of particular focus.

At this point, if you are a vocalist, you probably think I am writing only to instrumental teachers. If so, I want to challenge you to take the same approach to teaching voice. There is no reason why vocalists cannot practice etudes, even those written for another instrument. Students can sing instrumental etudes on neutral syllables or solfege, as long as they are contained within the range of the human voice. The goals of a singer are the same as for an instrumentalist: good tone, evenness of tone, accurate intonation, velocity, and expressiveness. Student singers will learn vocal repertoire with much stronger technique and more confidence if they are prepared with the thoroughness that etude practice makes possible.

After scales and etudes, repertoire can be practiced as needed. Honestly, if the scales and etudes are properly practiced, all but the most challenging repertoire will be easily played by the student. Solo and contest material needs more attention, but even there, much of what has been learned in scales and etudes will enable this repertoire to fall into place with minimal technical practice. This leaves ample time for interpretive practice: the discovering and bringing out of the composer’s and the student’s expressive intents. This is what music making is all about, and this is where it gets fun. If a student only practices for correct notes and fingerings, and then moves on to something else, there has been little or no payoff, and the essence of musicianship and fun of making music has been missed. If the teacher is only or even mostly interested in the student learning notes, is it any wonder that the students of that teacher loose interest in practicing and their lessons.

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