I suspect that one of the main reasons that children do not like practising is, put bluntly, because it makes them feel inadequate. If practice is about improving something, mastering it even, then it goes without saying that before the end result has been achieved, some failures must have occurred along the way. [If we’re realistic, probably quite a lot of failures actually …] Practice is not something which we can do perfectly, even with practice! But we can strive to do it more effectively.
The key is to try to view mistakes in an objective manner, as a problem to be solved. In much the same way as a scientist observes the outcome of an experiment, we need to observe, in as much detail as possible, what happens when we play, and try to identify whatever it is which is causing the mistake. And if at all possible we need to resist the temptation to take it personally if we don’t get it right straight away, but instead to persevere.
If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward. (Thomas Edison)
I believe that this objectivity is often missing to some extent in our pupils’ practice time. In my last blog, task = time?, I raised the issue of children spending time ‘practising’ without actually having specific goals. Without objectives, practice is rarely successful. However, I have lost count of the number of times that a pupil has recounted guiltily (after a few leading questions from me!) that actually what they have done is simply play through their piece a few times. What, I ask myself, is going on in their heads if they think this is actually going to work?! More often than not, of course, they are left at best feeling that their practice was a waste of time, and often it’s worse than that – they are convinced that they are rubbish because they haven’t improved. But of course they haven’t got any better, because they haven’t actually done anything to bring about any improvement!
There is, potentially, a vicious circle here which is all too familiar; after weeks of ineffective practice, the pupil feels totally dejected, they ‘hate the wretched piece which has brought this about’ (even though they loved it when they first heard it) and they ‘hate practising even more than they did before because it’s a waste of time and it doesn’t make any difference because they’re rubbish anyway.’ Needless to say, practice does not move up their list of favourite pastimes.
The solution? – we need to teach our students how to practise effectively, and to encourage them in developing their practice skills. It must not be taken for granted that they know how to do this, and we need to model it for them every lesson if necessary, ensuring at all times that we demonstrate that it is an objective exercise. This is also an empowering exercise; once the pupil realises that they have the skills to self-assess and improve their performance under their own initiative, they will discover that practice can be fulfilling and even exciting – job done!