Target practice

Päivi Arjas, PhD., Lecturer of Performance Coaching
Sibelius Academy University of the Arts, Helsinki 

There is obviously far more to practice than simply reading phrases over and over again. Recent research has begun to open up a huge variety of new approaches. Major developments in our understanding of learning processes can give us new insight into the art of practicing – how to ensure that students make the best of use of their time and make the maximum improvement to their performance. 

Defining goals

Recent advances in sports psychology are an area of particular interest, since the methods used by coaches to train athletes can be invaluable in approaching practice around them. In sport, the coach may define long-term goals for an athlete to give a clear direction to their training. Some of these might be more akin to fantasy than realistic achievements – such as competing at the Olympics – but others will be more concrete plans for ground to be covered over term, a week or a day.

Music students, too, are generally working towards goals, but we could implement this way of thinking in a much more rigorous and systematic way. Goal-oriented people know exactly what they want and are able to find their way. A colleague of mine put it like this: “I have had two types of students. There are some, who say, they are dreaming about getting a job at the Berlin Philharmonic – they immediately develop a positive attitude towards studying, which is clear in how they approach challenging tasks. It gives them motivation to put work into whatever will bring them closer to the dream. Another type of a student just wants to see what the music college has to offer and has never really thought about what they are aiming at. This student seems to be less willing to solve problems and gives up more easily when confronted with difficulties.”

This idea of goal-orientation is a very useful device in practicing as well. When there is a clear objective for a practice session – to learn the opening bars from memory, for example, or to find a good fingering for a particular passage – the practice itself will become more effective and this will lead to better learning.

We can also benefit from current sports studies into how muscles and the nervous system operate, and how they can be trained to learn most effectively. Varying the impulses that the muscles get will help to accelerate the learning process. On the sports track, coaches will make small adjustments to a training programme to prevent athletes’ muscles getting accustomed to similar stimuli. In the same way, musicians should vary the order in which they practice, rather than simply playing scales, bowing exercises, studies and pieces in the same order day after day. Using a creative approach and changing practice methods regularly keeps the student’s mind fresh and ready for new challenges, and helps to facilitate learning. 

Mental training

Mental rehearsal techniques are proving increasingly popular as tools. Practicing with music but away from an instrument was a technique advocated early on by Kreisler, who reputedly learnt entire concertos on the train without picking up his violin. Mental techniques can be employed to improve one’s music-reading, memorising, technical development, phrasing and performing. Once the musician is able to visualize the music well and has got a clear auditory image of it, as well as a kinaesthetic muscular feeling of exactly how to play it, improvement will take place. The image one gets is a highly individual one, but for string players it often means a vivid combination of the score, fingerboard and the movements of the bow. Mental rehearsal gives the brain clear information about the movements and the muscular work. It’s been proved that the more complicated a task is, the more benefit one gets from practicing it mentally. 

Mental rehearsal can also be a useful technique when working out a schedule that maximises the effect of practice but also helps to avoid strain injuries. It makes sense to find the right balance between the three distinctive types of practice: working on a fragment of a piece in detail; playing through large sections at a time; and mental rehearsal. Stamina-building has to be worked at: Ivan Galamian noted that some students are so concerned with practicing each little detail that it can be very hard for them to play the whole piece through without stopping after every little mistake. The muscles need to have training in staying power: without it, it can be extremely difficult to play a sonata or a concerto right the way through. 

Detailed practice is also vital, but it seems that students can get the best results by including a combination of three kinds of practice, so that they do days of detailed practice, days, when the emphasis is on stamina, and days, when the body is allowed to rest and there is more focus on mental rehearsal. Rotation techniques in this way also ensures that the body gets time to recover from strenuous practice.

Intelligent practice

Quality of practice is another area for current examination. It is typical for students to talk about the number of hours they have practiced each day without really taking notice of what they have achieved in that time. One common mistake is to stop practicing a section as soon as one has managed to play it correctly once through. For example, when practicing a shift in the left hand, the first two attempts may be two high, the next too low, and when the finger finally hits the right pitch one immediately jumps to the next passage. In this case, all that happens is that one will hold all the failed attempts to play the phrase in their muscle memory rather than the right one, simply because the right one has not been repeated enough.

Another mistake is to keep on practicing the same passages over and over again. Musicians tend to get stuck on certain technical difficulties, and may build these up in their minds to be hurdles that are impossible to get over, so that in fact it’s their mental attitude towards the difficulty that is stopping them form progressing further. 

Intelligent practice is what’s needed – the musician should be completely focused on what went right, and what is needed to improve the performance, building up a clear mental image of how the phrase should go and the reinforcing the connection between this mental image and what the muscles are doing. This requires enough correct repetitions of a phrase for one to be able to reproduce it almost without thinking, so that they can focus primarily on the musical side of the piece rather than the technical difficulties when they are performing it. 

Keeping track of practice

One way to reflect the quality of practice is to note down the details of the work they have done each day. Recently, some sport coaches have asked athletes to write online journals about their training, and this is an approach that teachers could find extremely useful with students. Encouraging a player to keep a careful note of the quantity and quality of the practice – for example, how good their concentration has been, how much they have practiced the pieces all the way through, how much detailed practice has happened, and whether they feel confident with a piece or not – gives a good opportunity for them to reflect on the work they have done. They could also note down which parts of the practicing have been the most enjoyable, and how they could be more creative in their approach to practice. 

Teachers can follow their students’ practice blogs and work together with young players on planning the best approach to future practice. This approach also gives players the opportunity to see exactly how much they have improved over time, since musicians often seem far more aware of what they don’t yet know than what they have learnt so far.

Making these notes is not easy for everyone. Some students complain that they can never achieve the daily goals they have set for themselves, or that it is depressing to read, how little they have actually practiced. This is really a case of a bad workman blaming his tools – it reveals a lack of self-knowledge on the part of the students, or an unwillingness to be honest with themselves. It is always worth continuing to encourage such students to persevere with their blogs, as it may be that it is simply a question of getting them to see their practice in the right way.

Group learning in themes such as practice methods and questions about performing can help to alleviate the feeling that studying an instrument is a solitary business, and can be a very constructive addition to a player’s timetable. Above all, one should never loose enjoyment of playing an instrument – a player who sees it as purely hard work will find it very hard to be motivated. It’s good to play easy chamber music with friends, have some fun improvising, run through the pieces one loves the most. Learning is much more effective when one enjoys it, and trusts one’s ability to learn. Employing forward-thinking methods to maximise the effect of practice time is a great way of getting more confidence and stay motivated to achieve one’s goals.