Keys to Successful Practice

Version 2In another post, I discussed why many students don’t like to practice. There is an irony at work. A player who is struggling needs to practice more than one who is flourishing, yet it is the one who is struggling who is likely to hate practicing and resist practicing because it is unpleasant to play a musical instrument and realize that you sound bad. If that is the whole of a student’s situation, he or she most certainly will not want to practice. But sounding bad is only half the reason. They won’t practice because they sound bad and they don’t know what to do about it. They have a desire or a goal to sound better, but they cannot realize that desire so they give up. Why do students find themselves in this position? Why are there so many students sitting at home who would practice if only they knew how to make themselves better by practicing?

Practice makes perfect is a fallacy. There is no reason to expect that repeating the same mistakes or deficient habits will result in something better. In fact, mere repetition of errors only makes continuance of those errors a certainty. Beyond this fact, correcting wrong notes is doubtless the easiest task among all those that fall under practice. It is much more difficult to correct faulty tone, embouchure, tongue position and movement for wind instruments, and the like. These are more difficult to correct because they are not simply a matter of one dimension being right or wrong, as a pitch is right or wrong. No, correcting a faulty articulation involves a complex blend of muscle uses, and requires a highly developed sense of aural awareness just to perceive when it is done correctly and when not. What is the difference in sound between a correctly tongued note on the clarinet and an incorrectly tongued note? Is the tonguing unsuccessful because the tongue is out of position, moving incorrectly, or because breath management is insufficient to support a proper articulation? When students are trying to master multidimensional skills such as articulating notes, merely sending them home with a staccato exercise and telling them to practice is insufficient. The student must be given a sequence of attainable, understandable goals on which they are capable of self-assessing.

When Kalmen Opperman taught me how to articulate properly, he did so with a series of exercises that began with something I could do on the train silently to myself, continued with a staccato warm-up, and then carried over to practicing sixteenth note passages with a variety of articulations. He used articulation not only to teach me articulation, but also to play sixteenth notes evenly. Eventually, the goal was even playing, but the means was to use varying articulations, which had the added effect of improving my articulation. So much was accomplished with these strictly drawn out instructions on what and how to practice, that I was easily motivated by the obvious relationship between doing what I was given to do, and the improvement that resulted. Most students will practice if two factors are in place. First, there is a goal that the student, for whatever reason, wants to achieve. Second, the student has a firm understanding of how to go about working toward this goal, and perceives growth toward the goal as he or she does so.

For many students, the goal is that of the teacher. This works if the student is generally practicemotivated and trusts the teacher to know what is needed, and what needs to be done to bring about desired results. In the case of a teacher who does not have a reputation that precedes him or her, or of the teacher who is beginning with a new student so that no such trust has been built up, the goal, if the student is going to be motivated to practice, must be set by the student, and the teacher must be the one who works out how the student-generated goal will be obtained. This arrangement will result in a student motivated to practice, and in the student increasingly trusting the teacher to know what is needed, as the teacher’s instruction and advice results in the student-generated goal being accomplished.

It should by now be evident that, contrary to what is frequently believed, a students successful practice depends as much or perhaps even more on the teacher than on the student. It takes a great deal of wisdom and planning on the teacher’s part to convey to the student a desired, attainable goal, an instructional sequence for the student to follow, and directions on how to use the instructional sequence that the student can follow independently when the teacher is not there to assist. When the teacher has provided all of this, then the student is equipped to practice, and can be held responsible for carrying out the planned course for practicing the teacher has laid out. The student’s responsibility is to execute the plan, the teacher’s responsibility is to develop the plan, the instructional sequence, and the directions to be followed.

Students who have not received this kind of thorough training before will immediately be highly motivated when they realize the rapid and marked improvement that is sure to follow. Those who have had this kind of training will rightly expect such growth to continue, and will expect to see, as I did, an obvious relationship between faithful execution of the plan, and self-motivating success. Rare is the student, even at the professional level, who can simply be given a stack of music, told to go home and practice, and figure it all out on his or her own. If you are a performer who practices, or a teacher of performers, you might consider organizing lessons,  and assignments around a lesson plan that includes warm-up, articulation, etude, orchestral repertoire, and solo literature. When a student is not performing much, emphasis is on the first three. When a student is performing frequently, emphasis is on the literature being performed, while attention to etudes, and articulation studies is maintained if reduced. For each segment of the lesson plan, a clear purpose should be made clear. What exactly is to be accomplished by using this warm-up, this articulation study, and this etude? Students must be absolutely clear on what they are to do, and what it should sound like when they have completed the assignment and are ready for their next lesson.


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