The Unthinking Practiser!

As a student (second study pianist at the RCM) I remember learning Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music. There was a fiddly passage towards the end which, although I had practised it for hours and hours, I just couldn’t manage at speed. I had all but given up, and assumed that it was simply beyond me. I took it to my teacher (Yu Chun Yee, who to this day remains one of my heroes) who gave me two brief instructions, one about fingers, and one about moving my arm. “Now try again” he said. I did, and played it perfectly; and I do mean perfectly. I looked at him, and then looked back at my hands in disbelief, as if he had just waved some magic dust in the air – what had happened didn’t actually seem possible.

It never ceases to amaze me how inefficient students can be when it comes to practising, and many seem to have an extraordinarily vague approach towards what they are setting out to achieve with their practice time – if indeed they think at all about their aims. Even more frustrating is that many believe that they are doing the right thing when they play it over and over again; after all this is, in all likelihood, what they have been instructed to do by their teacher.

But if that is the full extent of their thinking, there is a big problem. Many students waste a great deal of time ‘practising’, when in actual fact they are achieving very little; in fact they are probably making it worse through all that repetition, hard-wiring into their brains the very mistakes which they are trying to eradicate.

For example, an initial play through a passage gives us an idea of how it goes, and a few more attempts will probably result in some initial improvement. However, the student is still stumbling over a few twists and turns or some more tricky fingerings, which result in an overall lack of accuracy and fluency.

It is at this point that the ‘unthinking practiser’ comes unstuck. Due to his initial success, he believes that if he keeps up the repetition method, things will continue to improve. Wrong! As he stumbles over the same notes, time and time again, his brain becomes hard-wired into thinking that all that stumbling is what is required – he ‘practises in’ all those stumbles, wrong notes and hesitations. So the more the student diligently plays a passage over and over again, the further he actually compounds his problems. What is even worse is that the unthinking practiser is left believing either that it takes a very long time to learn things, or else that he simply isn’t very good and that practise is unfulfilling, because he never seems to get much better.

His mistake, of course, is that he is not addressing the problem itself. The problem needs to be identified and rectified; then, and only then, should the ‘play it over and over again’ process begin, which will then ‘practise in’ the correct sequence.

I spend a lot of time helping pupils in this process of actually thinking about what they are doing when they practise, and I find it deeply satisfying. One of the reasons for this is that, more often than not, results are instant. I don’t flatter myself that I am half the teacher that Yu Chun Yee was, but if I can make miracles happen like he did with me, I want to pass some of that on. Although he taught me to play the piano, in fact more than anything else he taught me to think. Paul Harris said to me recently that telling is not teaching. Our pupils need to learn how to learn, not just to play as they are told to.

I view practice as problem solving. Getting something wrong, more often than not, means that I just don’t have the right answer yet, so I need to look at the problem from yet another angle, and have another go. Many students associate mistakes with failure, which is perhaps why so many people don’t like practising – because much of it is exactly that, making mistakes! Bright children can find learning the piano quite frustrating at first, as it is often the only thing that they have ever tried where they constantly get things wrong.

Children need to be taught to problem solve, and not just to keep trying, in vain, until they get it right. We have all heard a teacher say “that bit still needs lots of practice before next lesson” but how often is the pupil left in the dark as to how they are actually going to get it any better? My approach is always this: Make it easy. If a tricky passage is broken down into small enough pieces, every tiny piece will usually be much more manageable, and more often than not, actually very easy. And at the same time, this process generally identifies the little bit which is causing the problem! Reassembly of lots of easy things can make the student feel extremely good about themselves when they realise that something which was difficult is now much less so.

Once a student realises that they have the power to take charge of their own learning, to problem solve and to make progress by themselves, our job is done. With a little less time spent on instructing them to practise, and a lot more on how to practise, our pupils should be able to make much more productive use of that all-important practice time.

Follow this link for more thoughts on the subject of effective music practice

2 responses to “The Unthinking Practiser!

  1. Philippa Chalkley

    This is helpful George – as parents we also need some help to encourage our children in ‘how’ they practice otherwise it becomes nagging, fruitless and unenjoyable.

  2. Hi Philippa, thanks for your encouragement. I’m assuming you’ve read the 4E’s which I’ve posted so far; the fifth one, Empower, is on the way. In a nutshell, if we can encourage our children to develop Enquiring minds, and can Equip them with the necessary skills, they will be Empowered – at which point, practice becomes fulfilling and enjoyable! Makes it sound easy doesn’t it?!

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