The Art of Effective Practice

"Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours. "   Leopold Auer

Some of you may have noticed that I have made more than a few facebook posts recently regarding "deliberate practice". Deliberate practice addresses the quality of practice. It is a highly structured activity with the specific goal to improve performance of a particular skill.  High quality practice goes far beyond simple repetition.  In fact, the tendency for students to tune out during simple repetition, can make repetition quite ineffective as a means to achieving a skill.  This has caused me to review my approach in creating weekly lesson assignments in that I have reduced the number of repetitions I ask for and when there are multiple repetitions, I now ask for different things to be the focus of each set of repetitions or I space out the repetitions.

Deliberate practice is not easy.  Studies have shown that those who undertake deliberate practice do not rate it highly in terms of enjoyment.  It can be painful.  For example, one painful way that I practised deliberately involved recording myself, listening to the recording with a critical ear, and then devising a practice plan to work on a few of the things I discovered.  This often was a very humbling experience for me because I realized that something I thought I was playing well just wasn't that good. I managed these types of painful revelations by reminding myself that I was going to get to where I wanted to be much more quickly if I persisted and did the hard work that was necessary to get there.  Additionally, I did allow myself some amount of time to play just for pure enjoyment but I never included this as my time spent practising.  Rather, it was simply a reward for all of the hard work I had done to practise.

Even for very young students, I attempt to encourage deliberate practice by including instructions on the score of a piece of music, usually using sticky notes, such as the following:

1.  Count and clap the rhythm one time.
2.  Play this phrase, or line, hands separately two times while counting.
3.  Play this selection saying the note names as you play.
4   Play this phrase or line, hands together two times while counting.
5.  Play the entire section (or piece) a couple times with dynamics.  Then repeat steps 1 through 4.

I leave an instruction for the student to play through the piece or section in question a few times as a reward for all of the hard work that has been done and also to avoid too many successive repetitions of the same thing.  The idea here is to help the student to avoid mindlessly playing or tuning out.

I mentioned that deliberate practice can be painful and students, especially young students, will attempt to avoid it.  Some of the things that my students do to avoid practising deliberately include practising without correcting rhythmical issues by counting or using a metronome, practising without paying attention to fingering, avoiding difficult areas of a piece, playing only those areas that come easily, "forgetting" that a new piece has been assigned, and practising repertoire previously mastered. 

How can you help your child to practise more effectively?  Review your child's weekly lesson assignment written in their binder and gently encourage them to follow this.  Review the instructions for practise that may be written directly on the score or on post it notes attached to the score and ask that your child follow these instructions. Attend your child's piano lesson if you can.  Parents are always welcome in my studio. Recognize that while tonic tutor is game based it provides educational value and should be part of your child's practice routine.  In fact, one of the reasons I like tonic tutor so much is that my students often don't realize how hard they are working while playing these games.  Additionally, I review the progress of my students in playing these games on a regular basis and adjust the settings and levels of the games to ensure my students are practising more deliberately when playing these games. Finally, let your child have his/her moment to play previously mastered repertoire, other music, or improvise but make sure that your child also practises his lesson assignment.  An effective balance between playing for enjoyment and practising to acquire new skills is the ideal situation.