Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?

Carnegie hall 2…asked the old lady of a street construction worker in New York.

“Ya gotta practice, lady” came the reply.

Yes, it’s an old joke, but it alludes to the most timeworn truism of music teaching: “Practice makes perfect” which, as we shall see, is not necessarily true!

Of course students of a musical instrument will only be able to realise their goals, at any stage of their learning, through consistent practice, but since the nature of instrumental playing is such that the young beginner is apt to become disillusioned very early on, making a student actively want to practise, diligently and consistently, is of supreme importance and, possibly, the ultimate challenge facing any instrumental teacher. It is an area in which the teacher’s motivational skills will be fully put to the test.

Successfully meeting this challenge is largely a matter of anticipating, guarding against, and where practicable removing, potential obstacles to the students’ gaining satisfaction from the process.  Ultimately it is dissatisfaction that is demotivating.

One of the biggest obstacles facing a young instrumentalist is often a lack of clear understanding of precisely what is required when they tackle their studies, pieces, exercises etc. away from lessons.  Another is the mismatch of the task to the students’ ability. It is quite true that students need to be challenged or ‘stretched’ but if they are stretched too far, the task appears pointless and motivation suffers. Other obstacles include lack of parental (or in the case of older students, family) support; distractions from friends, other family members or other activities; a feeling of insufficient time; frustration and boredom.  Statistics reveal conditions of this type to be the main reasons that students give up playing.

The most pressing need is for clear knowledge and understanding of the required task.  So many young players flounder simply because their practice is undirected or aimless. This may be because they have forgotten what they have been asked to do because they did not understand properly, or because the learning was not sufficiently advanced during the lesson for them to be able to ‘pick up the thread’.  This state of affairs is as widespread as the number of teachers who ask their students merely to “practise this for next week”, or more insidiously, pointing to a piece not yet learned, command; “have a look at this for next week”: at more advanced stages of learning, the preparation of an unseen work has value as an exercise in reading and interpretation, but it is wholly inappropriate to those in their early stages of learning, where it would serve only to confuse, to undermine confidence and to demotivate.

“Practice makes perfect” or so the saying goes.  But really, it is untrue. The truth is that “Practice makes permanent”: uninformed or erroneous practice is likely to do more harm than good if reinforces mistaken interpretations of rhythm or pitch, which then become extremely difficult to ‘unlearn’, or by allowing the student to consolidate his or her weaknesses in fingering, breathing, tone production or posture. This would eventually, if left unchecked, be injurious to the development of instrumental or vocal technique: the faults would have been practised and made permanent, and the performance will be far from perfect.

Neither will practice undertaken as a consequence of persuasion or coercion by a parent or teacher “make perfect”.  It will succeed only in generating an attitude of resentment towards the people doing the coercing and, eventually, towards the activity itself.  Perfection aside, only efficient and effective practice makes for satisfactory progress.  In order for the practice to fulfil both these criteria, a student, at whatever stage of his or her learning, needs fully to understand the What, Why, How and When of the work to be undertaken;

  • What – precisely – is to be done? What bars or passages, of which pieces, studies, exercises or scales are to be practised? What techniques are being utilised? What should the student be concentrating on and listening (and/or watching) for?
  • Why do these things need to be done? What will be the desired result? How will the student’s playing and, ultimately, his or her satisfaction in playing benefit from this work? These considerations will give rise to the aims for the practice..How is it best approached? Through repetition and/or slower tempo at first, left and right hands separately then together, etc?  How many times each day should the task be repeated?  How will the student know when the goal for the practice has been achieved – wholly or partially.
  • When should the task be completed and when will the student know that progress is being made?

Practice away from lessons (and let’s face it; this is where the real learning takes place) will only be truly efficacious when the above have been sufficiently addressed, discussed and made clear to the students. Of course, this addressing, discussing and clarifying will take place during the lesson so sufficient time will need to be allocated.

The judicious and consistent use of a practice diary is a discipline that will be rewarded many times over if used consistently and intelligently, especially with younger students. Not only will they have at their disposal a permanent reminder of the work and the recommended approach, but also their experience of practising will be greatly enriched as a consequence. Over and above this, the teacher’s stipulations and suggestions would be readily accessible to parents so that they can lend their support from a more informed standpoint.

Some instrumental teachers have been known to object to the use of practice diaries on the grounds that writing in them takes up valuable lesson time, especially in group lessons where there might be four or more students.  “The teaching is the important thing,” they say as though the students’ progress depends entirely upon what is said to them during lessons. This is, in essence, equivalent to the classroom learning situation colloquially referred to as ‘chalk and talk’!  It would be far more beneficial if it were to be realised that student musicians learn primarily through doing and that the verbal instructional component has the secondary role of supporting and clarifying what is being learned and how. The teachers referred to here would still expect their students to practise regularly, and would be likely to take a disapproving stance if they did not.

The key to success in practice lies in the creation of the right conditions – the fertile medium – in which the student’s learning can take root and flourish during the times between lessons. This stands a far greater chance of being accomplished if the students in question have repeated access to the necessary guidance, and writing in a practice diary is one way of ensuring that they do. As such it constitutes a sound investment, as opposed to expenditure, of lesson time.

An alternative, or possibly addition, to the practice diary that some teachers advocate, is the idea of recording lessons (tell your students to bring their iPhones or Androids!), which the students can take away and refer to at home. The advantages of this are obvious.

Practise the Practice

Practice 1Instead of simply telling the students, or even writing down, what they are to do over the following week, it is far more valuable to actually rehearse the practice to be undertaken during the lesson. The task will stand a far better chance of being completed effectively if the manner in which the teacher leads the learning during the lesson forms a basis for what the student does subsequently away from the lesson.

If it is made absolutely clear that the process they have just undergone in their lesson is the same as that which they are being asked to undergo at home, the probabilities of successful practice and increased commitment are augmented considerably.  In elucidating these objectives for students, it would be wise to reassure them that, although they may have achieved significant improvement during the lesson, it would be perfectly natural for the passage to have lost some of its refinement (from their point of view to have deteriorated noticeably) when they next play it.

It is also vital that they have realistic expectations as to the time it is likely to take to achieve the desired end, and that they are reminded not to worry if they don’t notice an improvement straight away. They will depend heavily on reassurances that this sort of time scale is common to all musical endeavour and satisfactory results will surely come if they keep on doing what is required in the way they are advised to do it.

It is often quite comforting when the teacher says something like “you sound a lot better than I did at this stage” or, referring to a musician the students admires, “he/she probably sounded just the same when they had been playing as long as you”.  It will likewise give substantial assistance if the necessity for persistence – the willingness to keep on performing the required actions even when an improvement is not readily discernible – is underlined in the most supportive manner possible.

Watch Your Language

Finally, a few observations about language choices regarding practice and the effect they can have on students – especially younger ones.

The word ‘practice’ has vivid connotations of ‘preparation’ or ‘rehearsal’. That is to say not the thing itself. Most people take up an instrument because they want to play it, and not because they want to learn it, but the implication of the word ‘practice’ is that the fulfilment of the desire to play is continually being postponed. They will only be able to play if they are prepared to go through the apparent tedium of practising most days of their lives for many years to come.  A seemingly endless preparation for something that never seems to happen – like having to peel the potatoes and chop the onions for a meal you never get to eat!  To a younger student – especially one who has suffered the kind of coercion mentioned above – ‘practice’ will mean:

 Chore, drudgery, inconvenience, imposition, having to do something you don’t want to do, frustration, boredom, unpleasantness, conflict with parents and/or teacher.

So it is preferable to avoid the use of the verb ‘practise’ and the noun ‘practice’ whenever presence of mind permits!

On reflection, it seems mystifying that we use these terms in relation to musical study, and that they have become such common currency. When a baby starts to walk we do not say that he is practising walking, we say (if we are parents, with enormous pride)  that he is walking or at least taking his first steps.  He frequently wobbles or falls over, but what he is doing is walking not practising! So the fact of the matter is that students play their instruments from the day they produce their first sounds. The results of their efforts will, like the infant taking his first teetering steps, be insecure but they will still be playing and not practising in the sense of preparing or rehearsing.

So when giving pupils instruction with regard to practice, instead of saying “Remember to breathe here when you are practising this passage“, why not say; “When you are playing this passage at home this week, remember to breathe here, and notice how much easier the next phrase becomes“. Likewise, “Do this each day” is a more effective alternative to “Practise this each day“. Instead of asking; “How much practice have you done this week?” how about asking; “How often have you taken the opportunity to play your instrument this week?”

The students in question may only ever get to Carnegie Hall as members of the audience, but their musical experiences along the way will have been so much more satisfying – and they will probably still be playing!

4 thoughts on “Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?

  1. Good info. here. I have found myself addressing my students more about playing their instruments at home, rather than practicing, lately.

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  2. I like and utilize the idea of a practice diary, but I found it was more beneficial for me to write it as the lesson progresses. I used to have students take notes, but I discovered that not only was that time consuming, but students frequently left out important points. I now write practice outlines complete with drawn diagrams and highlighter pen when necessary during the lesson. My students use the outline as a guide to playing during the week.

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  3. Very informative. In addition to this, according to me, Music is nothing but our life. While teaching hindustani classical music (Vocal), I always try to relate the phrases with the incidents of life which is helping my students to understand in a very simple way. We need to understand the psychology of the students also. While teaching we need to think like the student is thinking and make them comfortable with you with optimistic words.

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