Category Archives: music practice

Upgrade vs the perils of cognitive strain

How would you fancy a new ‘processor’? An instant upgrade, which gives you the ability to read music at x3, x5 or even x10 your previous capacity. Sounds good eh?

I had a wonderful break-through with a piano pupil towards the end of last term. He is a fine musician and clearly loves playing the piano, but he is also a classic example of a student who enjoys playing, but not so much the work involved in getting there!

He is very bright and is not afraid to read, and perhaps surprisingly, therein lies one of his weaknesses; he reads everything, all of the time, until such point as the music is ‘in the system’ and muscle memory has taken over. In itself the reading part is fine, but it’s hard work on the brain, reading all that data all of the time, and this is the part which he doesn’t enjoy. My teaching focus with him has always been to find ways to engage his intellect, so that the practice process itself becomes interesting and challenging to him, rather than just a chore to be accomplished. To quote Daniel Pink (Drive, 2009) “The joy is in the pursuit more than the realisation. In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.” 

So how about that upgrade then?

We have been working on the final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E major, op.14/1. Having asked him to prepare a section of the movement, I was disappointed to find that he had come back, as ever, able to play the notes, but not really having learned them; and not just that, but complaining that he just couldn’t get excited about having to learn all those notes. I’m not surprised – once the cognitive strain sets in (and it doesn’t take long) it’s not much fun.

beethovenop14no1

So how about using another resource in addition to reading; memory perhaps? Bar 58 is in b minor, and it really is just arpeggios. Let’s look at the detail: the first falling arpeggio shape starts on F#, and then it’s just three more falling arpeggio groups, all starting on B but an octave lower each time. The final one rises again. There are 25 notes in these two bars, 25 bits of data. But we can reduce that to 5, at most.

Bars (60-61). The bass falls by a step (and indeed that pattern continues through to bar 66). What kind of chord is this? A dominant seventh on D – but note that the fifth (A) is missing. Apart from that, it’s the very same shape as bars 58-59, and even starts on the same note, F#. Nice pattern 🙂

And then bars 62-63. G major [perhaps not surprising following the D7 chord.] The same shape as before, so all we need to remember is that the RH starts on a G. Bearing in mind that everything else is the same as bars 58-59, I’d go so far as to suggest that these 25 notes can be reduced to ONE detail only; the RH starts on a G. Bars 64-65 is another dominant seventh, as before with the fifth (F#) missing.

These eight bars have now become an intriguing memory game. There may be a little bit of thinking still to do, but nothing like the cognitive strain required to read all of those notes at speed; in fact, we’ve opened up an entirely new set of skills. No reading needed at all, which incidentally frees up the eyes to see some of those patterns which we’ve found. The joy is, it has taken him all of about 5 minutes to take all of this in, it’s engaged him fully, and the work is done! And now he’s keen to continue into the next passage and apply the same method.

footnote
The key here is in actively looking for patterns, and without a working knowledge of theory a student is never going to unlock this upgrade. ABRSM may have dumbed down their grade 5 theory exam of late, but the requirement to pass it in order to progress onto the higher practical grades remains very sensible. Teaching theory needs to be an integral part of every instrumental lesson.

*footnote to footnote
Over the past few weeks the change in this student’s learning is so evident. He has moved from reading to actively seeking patterns, and he is now using his memory as an active strategy rather than it just being a passive by-product. Upgrade most definitely achieved!

The thinking practiser: who is in control here?

In recent weeks I have been challenging my piano and organ pupils to consider this question: who is in control when you play/practise?!  For instance, when Peter puts a fourth finger on a note when we’ve just spent two minutes discussing why the third finger is a better option, my question is, quite reasonably “So why did you use your fourth finger?” The reply comes “I don’t know.” It’s quite a serious problem. After all, if Peter didn’t decide to use his fourth finger, then who did?! I think it was Sub-Peter.

When we walk from A to B, we rarely even consider the mechanics of such a complex task. We’ve long since relinquished responsibility to our subconscious, which is similarly in charge of tasks such as holding us upright and breathing. If we had to think about each and every one of these things our poor brains would never keep up. Sub-Peter does a wonderful job, and without him we’d be sunk.

But there are times when Sub-Peter doesn’t do so well for us. He can cope with normal walking conditions; but if, for instance, we’re walking on rocky terrain, we’re less confident in leaving things to Sub-Peter. It’s at these moments that Peter himself over-rides, takes back control, to ensure that every step is carefully judged. Then, once we’re back on flat ground, we can once again trust that our subconscious can handle the task.

There is a huge amount to think about when you’re playing a Bach fugue (even just a three-part one!) and in our practice we need to be quite sure that the right person is in charge from the very outset. Sub-Peter makes very quick decisions, but not considered ones, and so it is wise not to hand over control too soon. It’s a fine balance; ultimately we do want to hand over, so that we can play with ease and freedom and without having to think about every minute detail. But only once Peter himself has everything planned out.

 

Play with

If you were to give a toy car to a small child, what would they do with it?

img_2342Perhaps the doors open, and the bonnet? But if you open them too far, they snap off and then you can’t put them back on again! Maybe the plastic seats inside rattle a bit if you shake it. If you’re really lucky, the tyres are rubber rather than plastic, and you can take them off and chew them! And if you break the wheels, the metal axles can bend, and they’re sharp too. The paintwork chips if you drop it lots, and you can make all sorts of exciting dents in the dining room table if you bang it hard enough.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot – you can drive it along the floor too!

We can learn an immense amount from watching the way that young children play. Whilst we [wise grown-ups] generally use objects for the purpose for which they were designed, children don’t always do that. In short, they investigate. They aren’t constrained by convention or by good manners. Any sensible adult knows that a banana is for eating, but a toddler won’t think twice about squashing it and plastering their face and hair with it! Creative play is how they learn about the world.

Why should this be any different when it comes to learning to play a piece of music? We [wise teachers] know how the music goes and how the instrument works, but rather than teach our pupils how to play it, I think we need to encourage them to play with it. To take it apart, chew bits of it and then try to put it back together again!

I suspect that it’s all too common for a teacher to ask a pupil what they’ve practised this week, only to discover that what the pupil has actually done is just play. In this context, playing is not a good thing. It suggests a lack of purposeful engagement with the process, and a rather hopeful stance that simply by playing we will get better. On the other hand, the word practice is rarely a word which fills our students’ hearts with joy either! [Whilst writing this, I have just stumbled on this excellent article by Roberta Wolff, which encourages us to have a rethink about the word practice. It is well worth a read.]

In response, I’d like to offer the alternative, to play with. Whereas to play and to practice, in a musical context, both tend to imply that things need to be correct, to play with suggests almost the opposite. Just as there are no rules for a child at play, to play with a piece of music suggests that the pupil is free to make their own investigations without being so concerned about things such as right and wrong. Of course, if we are careful in our teaching we will always have things set up in a way where they will find what we want them to find!

Telling is not teaching, and the best learning comes from exploring the very limits of our experience and understanding. To finish, a short account of Evelyn Glennie’s first percussion lessons: “He sent me home with a snare drum, but no stand and no sticks. I started tapping it and pinching it and scraping it, and the next week he asked how I’d got on. I said I didn’t know. He said: “Now create the sound of a storm. Now create the sound of a whisper.” Suddenly I had this picture I had to put into sound. This opened up my world. It was the best lesson I ever had. After that it was just constant exploration.”

 

Practice: New tools

I have just stumbled across an old blog post on practice. There are many reasons why our pupils don’t practise – busy school lives and mobile phones being the ones which spring quickly to mind – but I still believe that the biggest problem is when practice feels like a waste of time because it doesn’t seem to make any difference.

I often find myself explaining to a pupil that the practice technique which they used when they first started out – the “play it over a few times and it will get better” method – just doesn’t work any more. It was fine when their pieces were maybe a single line consisting of a few crotchets and minims, but now that they are playing music which is more complex, the “have another go” approach is simply no longer effective by itself. They need more tools.

“How are you going to practise this bit?” is a question which I ask in every lesson, often more than once. Not an instruction, “practice this bit.” It’s a question – “how?” Not delivered in a way which demands a correct answer, but rather an invitation to share ideas, together. Perhaps it’s “what could we do here?” – we need them to know that we’re just as interested in solving the problem. What we are not doing is putting our pupil on the spot and insisting that they give us a correct answer; that’s not going to help!

The difference between an instruction and a question at this point is critical, and has the potential to change the entire teaching/learning environment there and then. Because we are about to get a glimpse inside our pupil’s head, and see exactly what tools they have at their disposal.

Often the first response is that they’ll play it over a few times and hope it will get better. Notice the hope – the lack of assurance might be a hint at their underlying fear that it might not make a difference…

Ok, and what else could you try? Scarily, some students are already out of ideas, but most will come out with well, I could play it slowly. Excellent, and how does that help? If your student now draws a blank, don’t panic – this first venture into their practice world has already been extremely worthwhile! But we’ll need to ask ourselves, how on earth are they going to use their own time constructively if this is all that they have at their disposal – to play it a few times, perhaps slowly, and hope it gets better? And just as significantly, why bother? It won’t take them long to work out that practice makes little or no difference, so where is the incentive for them?

Perhaps their current tool kit consists of things which they have been told will work – repetition and slowly – but they’ve never even considered why they work. And now these techniques don’t seem to work, so maybe it’s me, maybe I’m just no good. Again, with such a bleak outlook, why bother?

We need to persuade them to be just a little bit more inquisitive. So here goes, a gentle nudge – come on, why does playing slowly help? …. Because it gives me more time to think about what’s coming next? Hooray!

It may be that, with this pupil, you’ve done enough tough questioning for one lesson! That single answer has opened a door and will allow you to discuss the merits of having enough thinking time to play fluently, and to explain why slow practice can be good, rather than just state that it is good. We have given them one small but achievable new strategy – in this instance just a hint at the idea that thinking ahead can be useful.

 

Above all, we need to talk about practice in our lessons. A lot.
How was your practice this week?
Has it made a difference?
Why don’t you think that worked?
What else could you try?
How are you going to practise this bit this week?
All of these are questions which both the teacher and the pupil need the answers to. The teacher, so that we can guide them towards ever better strategies, and our pupils, so that they are building an increasingly effective set of practice skills which will, in time, equip them with everything they need to succeed. Practice will become a series of challenges which they know they can overcome, and above all, they will be able to see that their efforts make a difference.

I believe that, other factors aside, there is a direct correlation between knowing that practice is effective, and time spent doing it. Worth thinking about!

Directed practice – a guiding hand

alan-conducting

Alan Hazeldine

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.

A growth mindset – semiquaver stamina

How often do you find yourself thinking I could never do that? I’m generally someone who is prepared to do my best to work through things, but there have often been things which have held me back because I simply haven’t believed that I could overcome what have seemed at the time to be insurmountable difficulties. Two years ago I set about changing this. In preparing for the dipABRSM piano diploma, I systematically broke down the whole concept of memorisation in order to learn an entire 35 minute programme of solo piano music from memory. It worked! But not without a huge amount of time invested in the process. And more importantly, discovering the belief that I could find a way to overcome a seemingly impossible barrier.

This process has had the most amazing impact on my learning since then, and when I encounter problems I now look at them in a completely different light – not I can’t do this, but wow, this is a tricky one, but there must be a way somehow, and I’m not going to rest until I find it. Now that I’ve tried and tested this on me, my main focus is to pass on this knowledge to our students; to help them to discover that nothing is impossible. In the words of Paul Harris, to dispel the ‘myth of difficult’. If I can’t do something, it’s only because I haven’t worked out how to solve it yet.

I’ve been working with one of our music scholars recently on a Bach flute sonata [E minor, BWV 1034] and one of the things which has eluded her until now has been the epically long semiquaver passages in the final allegro.

e minorIt looks like a physical stamina issue; by half way through the second system, she is beginning to flag. But actually the real problem is that every time she fails, a little bit more of the fight goes out of her, to the extent that, when she begins the passage she doesn’t ever believe that she’s going to get to the end in one piece. The biggest problem is that it’s not a physical or even just a techinical issue, but a mental one – her self belief. Without that, she’s never going to succeed.

So the solution is to start at the end. We play bar 7 and the first note of bar 8. Just that much. Nothing difficult here. We play in dotted rhythms, all the usual games, and also from memory. Now we play bar 6 (including the first note of bar 7 to make the join) in the same way, and then we join those two bars together. Surprisingly then, there is no problem with bars 6 and 7; the only reason that they are difficult is that they follow three or four of similarly relentless semiquavers. Played on their own they’re absolutely fine, and so practising bars 6 and 7 for a while begins to break the failure cycle.

Put another way, bars 6 and 7 are a little like the sprint finish at the end of the 1500m. Every time we run, the race falls apart as the whole field come streaming past in the final straight. Sensible training would surely include some focused work on the sprint alone.

Back to the passage, we practise bars 5 and 6, and then 4 and 5, and 3 and 4; and then 5, 6 & 7, and then 4, 5 & 6 etc. It all works fine, and the notes are not difficult. Then finally 3-7, the whole race. And first time, she nailed it. Completely nailed it. Moreover, bars 6 and 7 were thrillingly exciting, and I could hear in her sound that as she neared the end she knew, she believed that she was going to get to the end successfully. Musically this added a whole dimension too, with that growing sense of urgency [not rushing, just energy] giving real forward momentum to the phrase.

One of my greatest regrets (being very honest here) is that it has taken me so long to work out that nothing is too difficult. I have spent the best part of twenty five years looking at certain pieces of music and thinking no, I couldn’t play that. That’s a long time wasted! Still, there is plenty of time ahead, and most importantly to me now, plenty of time to instil in a generation of Monktonians and others that they can. This is the joy of teaching – I hope I can make a difference.

How to practise, part 2: Style of lesson = Style of practice

I was looking back on some notes which I took in a recent talk by Paul Harris, and came across this: style of lessons = style of practice. I can’t believe it’s been sitting unnoticed in my notebook for the past few months – such a significant statement.

I love it when a pupil comes to a lesson and, almost before they are through the door, have their score open saying I’ve been having trouble with this bit here, can you help me with it? It shows that they have identified a problem, which in itself is a good thing, and that they know that I will be keen to help them fix it. But the lesson should not be just for fixing problems – it should be to teach the pupil to fix the problems! From my perspective, many problems are easy to fix; but the best way to make practice effective is to teach our students how to problem-solve; in the lesson, with us to guide them. Not just for the sake of solving whatever issue they have, there and then, but rather with a view to giving them the thinking skills to tackle anything which comes their way. The last thing we want is for them not to be able to use their practice time because they don’t have the confidence and strategies to have a go for themselves. In my book there is nothing better than a pupil who is willing to have a go at solving a problem for themselves. Nothing.

The other issue with using the lesson just to solving problems and fix mistakes on the students’ behalf is that the lesson itself surely then becomes a series of corrections. That’s wrong, did you notice? Let’s fix it. It all sounds very positive, very constructive, but reading between the lines surely we’re saying you don’t seem to be able to fix it yourself, I’ll have to do it for you. This is not empowering, far from it. It tells the student that they can’t do anything by themselves, and that much of what they bring to lessons is wrong, and is duly criticised. Ouch.

Some of the most effective tools in any lesson are the most simple questions: where is the problem? exactly what is the problem? how can I fix this? has that done the trick, is it better now? I ask these in every lesson, all the time. Demanding maybe, purposeful definitely, but I can direct the lesson in such a way that the student eventually finds that, having asked the right questions, the outcome is a successful one. I ask these questions so often in lessons that eventually they can’t help but find themselves asking the same ones during their own practice time. And finding solutions too.

My lessons are in many ways just a more energised or energising practice session. My pupils come each week having asked questions of themselves all week – so there is plenty of opportunity for praise in the lesson. And at the same time, plenty of chance to influence their practice for the following week too: what did you try here? has it worked? how about thinking of it like this? The last suggestion is, of course, the perfect opportunity to offer some new ideas, but even then it is as part of a collaborative effort between teacher and pupil. All the time, we are both working towards the same goal, and all we ever need to know is are we getting nearer to that goal? But is shouldn’t be me who does all of the work, far from it.