As a student I had the good fortune to cross paths with Alan Hazeldine, an inspirational conductor and a generous teacher. In the year or so that I was accompanist to the North London Chorus [my first concert with them was Bach’s B minor mass] I learned a huge amount from him, but this single idea stands out above all else.
Alan held out his left hand, palm facing upwards:
In one ear, I have what I can hear at the moment, in rehearsal; and in the other ear [waving his right hand] I have what I want it to sound like. And all I am doing in rehearsal is matching up what I can hear with what I want to hear.
As he said this last sentence, he carefully put the palms of his hands together. So simple.
This is how I rehearse, be it choir or orchestra, but it is also how I practise. In fact, this is how I have always practised. I’m not sure whether I was ever taught to practise or whether it has just come instinctively, but many pupils do need guidance. Some need lots.
I suspect that one of the biggest problems with practice is that pupils lack the aural picture of “what they want it to sound like.” In Alan’s picture, they have their left palm held out, but have nothing to match it up to – in other words, their practice is aimless. If they can’t hear the goal – whether that be an evenness of tone, or even just the correct notes, how can they know what needs to be adjusted to improve their efforts?
This is a complex area. Many students hack their way through sight-reading without the faintest idea of what is going on around them. Why? Because they can’t hear what they are aiming at, so nothing that they play has any context; they can’t really tell whether it’s right or wrong. The solution: teach them to sight-sing, and then they will be able to hear what they see. Then they will be able to match up what they play [left hand] with what they hear in their head [right hand].
I have inherited a pupil who struggles to read the dots on the page. He can read them, but he has developed other strategies to avoid doing so if he can help it! So when it comes to reading new music, the first stage needs to be for him to pick his way carefully through the score, and build for himself an aural picture of what the music sounds like; put another way, he first needs to create that right hand, so that in his subsequent practice he knows what he is aiming for.
These things take time, and we can undoubtedly find shortcuts. The easiest is to provide that right hand ourselves, to be in possession of what we know to be the goal, and to guide our student towards that. There is, however, a fundamental flaw with this strategy: what does the student do when we are not there? This method works fine in lessons, when indeed we can be fooled as we see their progress in front of our own eyes, but what about when they are practising alone? And what about when they move on?
My preference is not to find shortcuts, but to give them a hand in working out how to learn for themselves. It takes time and patience to teach our pupils how to direct their own learning rather than simply to follow our lead, but the rewards are so much more enduring.