The way we think about practice influences how and what we do when engaging with different aspects of musical learning, so it is important to examine assumptions, mindset and set patterns in relation to practicing. At the core of this process is reflection, a focusing lens that can transform the ways in which we view practicing.
Rather than viewing practicing as a ‘necessary evil’, it is possible to encourage students to approach practice time as a time to experiment and discover, getting better in the process. Assimilating information and finding unique solutions go hand in hand. The concept of ‘working hard’ can gradually be substituted by the concept of ‘working smart’.
Some important issues are time-management and teaching students to be more self-reliant: helping the students to help themselves by using their time effectively, making best use of their contact time with their teachers and encouraging them to approach their practice in a creative and constructive manner.
It is important to understand that mindset also plays a vital role. Students must devise strategies to deal with self criticism and negative internal dialogue and use self assessment and feedback in a constructive way. This includes being aware of psychological and physical aspects of practicing and performing and avoiding injuries. As teachers, we need to train students to devise small scale practice goals, in other words specific tasks that can be achieved in a given time frame. This time frame has to start with the daily and weekly practice which then has to be coordinated with the larger long term plan of preparing for specific performances.
Practising strategies will vary depending on whether the student is focussing on learning a piece, striving to achieve depth, speed and continuity, consolidating elements already learned, or preparing for performance. Different priorities will apply to these practice situations, and when students have a ‘toolbox’ of learning strategies, they can reflect and apply these in an independent and succesful way.
Below are a few examples of useful questions that can form part of this ‘toolbox’. Every student is familiar with at least some of these concepts, but the discussion and reflection around the learning techniques themselves is often overshadowed by the discussion on how to play a particular piece in the repertoire. Focusing of ‘learning to learn’ is important because the student can then take a greater responsibility for their own development.
What are your expectations when you practice?
When facing challenges, stop and analyse what is at the root of the problem first. Articulate what needs to be done and search for practical solutions, starting from the building blocks that are easy to understand and execute. Students should be reminded to organise their learning in shorter and more intense practice sessions as opposed to a prolonged practice session without clear goals. The use of repetition should be monitored by the students themselves, and used in conjunction with reflection, to become planned and exploratory variation. It is important to articulate clearly what needs to change before repeating. Mental practice should be incorporated from the learning stages to define musical intention and inform consolidation of desired small scale outcomes. This approach is more intense, but leads to more effective results, making practice less tedious and more constructive.
Who is in charge?
It is never superfluos to discuss the role of the mental direction in effective practice, as many students fall in the trap of practising with their fingers instead of their brain. We learn what we practise and the brain does not make a distinction between correct or incorrect material. Whatever gets the most repetitions will get absorbed. For example, if a student stumbles repeatedly in the same place, then retakes and goes on to play the correct version of a passage on the second ‘try’, in effect a new piece has been created, with an extra phrase incorporated. Greater observation on the part of the student should be promoted, choosing specific elements to concentrate on during each practice or each repetition. Observation can then lead to reflection and planning for effective solving of individual practice tasks. Linear practice is also often overused, and not conducive to quick learning in the early stages.
Practice games which facilitate purposeful repetition and active listening are a fun way to promote reflection. Identifying traps in pieces and planning varying elements ahead of starting to play is a very effective way to shift attention away from the syndrom of correcting mistakes. Mental preparation is then used to stay alert to the challenges that the piece presents and devise solutions to deal with these challenges. This encourages a more creative approach to practice and prompts self-reliance and independent thought.
Prioritise Practice Time: Practice spiral cycle
Visualising a spiral helps students focus on the following interlinking key areas during practice. The students need to learn to help themselves during their private practice time between lessons. The ‘practice spiral’ is an image describing an ongoing process which starts with clear intention, leading to execution, reflection, calibration and reinforcement.
Some sample questions associated with each key area are:
Intention: What would you like to achieve? Define specific task and ways to tackle it. The clearer the intention is defined, the better the practice process will be.
Execution: Practice must involve active listening. Be prepared to evaluate what you just did. What traps did you fall into and how could you be ready sooner in order to avoid them?
Reflection: Following evaluation, articulate what elements you want to consolidate and what you want to change. Allow more space between repetitions. Are you clear about you new objectives and do they represent small enough goals?
Varied Repetition: play again with new objectives
Consolidation: Once a desired execution has been reached, focused repetition forms a vital component in retention.
The practice spiral provides a basic structure for an effective practice regime.
Detective work – what is your mindset?
Self awareness is also a tool, and this should be used to observe negative running commentary that is often present in the mental background during practice. This always tends to be general and the best antidote is devising specific, objective goals that can be achieved in a given timeframe.
Feedback is available from a variety of sources. The most obvious one is always the feedback coming from the teacher, who can provide specific, constructive and expert advice. However, self-assessment is a vital element of learning, and this is a type of feedback that can often be improved. The student can learn to reflect on their performance in order to plan practice strategies and set tasks. Opportunities for supportive peer feedback should also be found, as these interractions promote increased opportunities to share experiences. Other forms of feedback include masterclasses, concerts, competitions and auditions.
One must give permission for flexibility within practice schedules. Allowing the student to “match the mood with the task” is effective in dealing with procrastination, as the mental and emotional well-being of the student is very influential in settling down to practice.
Hard skills / Soft skills
Some tasks require utmost precision, these are known as hard skills. Other tasks require a flexible approach, these are known as soft skills. Identify what type of task you are working on and use the right tools to achieve it. Hard skills are aimed at improving accuracy and reliability while soft skills are those associated with adaptability and inspiration.
How does it feel?
Physical self-awareness on the part of the student is also important and knowing how the body feels cultivates a sense of well-being and helps to prevent over-practicing and injury. Awareness of physical need for muscles to rest and recover will lead to better planning of heavy and light days in the context of buillding stamina and working up to performance standard.
It is also important to develop personal taste, and allow autonomy and choice in the repertoire to be studied and performed as this is a long term indicator of continued involvement.
As practice is a lifelong activity that underpins staying active as a musician, it merits considerable consideration and reflection in order to consolidate long term effective strategies. Ultimately, the goal is to prepare students to become self reliant and creative professionals.