Category Archives: music practice

Reading notation: If you can’t say it, you can’t play it

When learning a piece of music – and when teaching a new piece of music – I always consider how I can make things as easy as possible, and this invariably means breaking the music down into tiny pieces so that every element is as simple as possible. For a pianist, that might well mean separate hands, but even beyond that it might be to break down each bar so that we can identify different hand shapes, finger patterns, harmonic outlines, interval relationships and so on. Paul Harris would call this making connections. This turns reading into learning.

When it comes to rhythm, this might also mean putting down the instrument and just dealing with the rhythm bit. After all, if you can’t even clap or sing the rhythm, or even just say it, then what are the chances of being able to play it on your instrument? Zero, I’d say.

Some of my pupils are quite surprised when I first ask them to take their hands off the keys and work at the rhythm by itself – after all, this is a piano lesson, and singing or clapping can be a little embarrassing! But they soon realise that actually it’s really helpful to know how the rhythm goes by itself, and that it’s a lot easier because they have less to think about.

Last week I found myself helping a pupil with a difficult rhythm in a Field Nocturne – 4 against 3. Having practised hands separately – the right thing to do – she had been trying her best to put the two together, but was frustrated that it wasn’t working. The reality was that she just didn’t know how the two parts fitted together.


First things first; dealing with a complex rhythm and that mobile left hand accompaniment is just too much to cope with, so let’s remove the pitch element. In fact, let’s just take the piano out of the equation altogether and just deal with the rhythm by itself. I suspect that this idea doesn’t always occur to the instrumentalist, but it should.

Stage one is to work out how they fit together. They say that maths and music go together, and I guess this is what they mean! 4 against 3 looks like this:

4 against 3

Practise tapping left and right hands on knees until fluent.

Stage two, let’s sing the melody line so that we actually know how it goes, rather than just being able to play it – two very different things.

Stage three. A fusion of the rhythm and melody – but still no piano. We sing the right hand melody, and either tap the left hand rhythm, or better still, sing that too! So we end up singing the top line (down an octave, obviously) and doing our best to sing it in tune, and also saying/singing badly the left hand in the correct rhythm. Clearly it’s impossible to sing a two part piano piece, but in essence we’ll do our best. The most important thing is this: although the singing itself might not be brilliant, it represents what is going on in our inner hearing, and if it works in there, it will work on the outside too.

Stage four. If you can say it, you can play it! Now that the whole thing is mastered, we simply add the element of playing the notes.

In real time, this took about 10 minutes of the lesson, maybe 15. And in this time, we didn’t touch the piano. Does that matter? Not in the slightest, this is a music lesson. The best bit is that, having done the hands separately work already, it went together instantly, and I do mean instantly. With a huge smile!

Effective practice – a must read!

I have recently discovered this amazing blog post, entitled How many hours a day should you practise? by ‘The Bulletproof Musician’ which encapsulates everything that I think it important to appreciate about how to practise effectively. Particularly good sections entitled Mindless and Deliberate practice. More eloquently put than I could ever manage, and a must read for any student, parent or teacher.

How much can you achieve in half an hour?

My first piano teacher, Ethel May, was a little old lady who lived on the other side of town. She had a fine reputation as a teacher, and I suspect that a large part of the success of her pupils was due quite simply to her expectations when it came to practising; when she took me on, aged six, it was on the clear understanding that she would only teach me if I practised for half an hour every day.

I am reliably informed (by my former practice coach – thanks Mum!) that I used to do my practice in two 15 minute sessions every day. Thinking back to my first piano book, and those first few simple pieces (with thumbs always over middle C) I am struck by how much I must have been able to achieve on 3 hours a week! With that amount of time, I must have arrived at each lesson having played those little pieces hundreds of times, with time to spare to lovingly choreograph each finger movement, and doubtless to memorise the notes too. I really don’t remember, but I suspect that by mid-week I must have been ready to turn a few more pages and forge ahead by myself, having had more than enough time to master the work set.

Many years on, I have never found it too difficult to guess how much practice my pupils have (or haven’t) done each week. There are lots of clues, ranging from seeing the music falling open to the right page – in contrast to the pupil not even knowing which page their piece is on – to noting whether they can start playing straight away or whether they have to work out what the notes in the first chord are before they can even start!

What I am completely confident about, however, is that half an hour a week is not enough. For anyone learning any instrument at any level. After the lesson which I taught this morning, I am confident that my pupil (working towards Grade 7) has all that she needs in the understanding and technique departments to completely master the passage which we were working on; the only other component which now needs to be thrown into the mix is Time. If she spends half an hour every day on it, she will know every little moment – the note which she always forgets (D flat!), the differing chord weighting required in the right hand accompaniment, the left hand chord sequence and associated finger patterns – she can’t fail to. But on half an hour a week (that’s just five minutes a day) she might have had a chance to play through the passage a few times, but the familiarity will simply not come in that time. Time and practice is what is needed.

In a busy boarding school environment, I think it’s probably quite easy to slip into the “she’s got so much else on, so I ought to be pleased if she can manage to practice for an hour a week” mentality. On reflection, I just can’t see how this works, and we are deceiving our pupils if we fall into the trap of allowing them to believe that ‘not much practice’ is okay. On the other hand, half an hour a day + good teaching will ensure excellent progress; personally, I’d read that as a bare minimum.

[As an after-thought, I did some sums. We currently teach 208 music lessons each week. If each pupil practised for half an hour a day, that would generate 104 hours of practice every day; with 12 practice rooms available in our wonderful new Music Centre, that would guarantee full use of each one from 8.45 until 5.30 every day. That would be amazing!]

Are you answering the right question?

According to Daniel Kahneman, when posed with a difficult question, we can have a tendency to substitute an easier question and answer that one instead. Without noticing!

questionmarkIf that sounds unlikely, consider the way in which some children tackle their music practice. “I still can’t play this section, so what am I going to do to solve the problem? I know, I’ll practise it slowly (like my teacher has told me to!)” This student might be praised for having a considered approach to his practice, and also for following his teacher’s advice. The trouble is, if as a pianist he has chosen poor fingering which really doesn’t work, no amount of slow practice is going to solve the problem. Sadly, what he has actually done is find a much easier answer to the wrong question.

I have written before on the subject of developing an enquiring mind, which I believe to be vital if our pupils are ultimately to stand on their own two feet as musicians. To practise effectively, students need to learn not only to ask questions, but to ask the right questions, time and time again.

I find it helpful to consider all of the potential decisions into an imaginary flow chart, which might include questions such as:

  • Does this passage need work?
  • Where exactly is it going wrong?
  • What, exactly, is the problem – wrong note, technical issue etc
  • Can I try something different?
  • Does this new method make it better, worse, no difference?
  • Have I fixed the problem now, or do I need to find some more questions?

The point is that just one question – “is it getting better?” – is not enough. The right question is “how do I improve it?” – this question has the potential to generate many more questions and even more answers. And it takes ‘effortful mental activity’  (‘system 2’ thinking) to ask these, and even more of the same to ensure that the correct solutions are pursued. Our pupils need to realise that the decision-making required here is constant, and we need to be modelling this for them constantly too. In short, practice is demanding, but with this degree of purposefulness it can also be extremely rewarding.

We need to teach our pupils to think like this. I often tell my pupils that I consider that my role is to teach them to think, not to play the piano! That’s not strictly true, but actually the ability to think for themselves will be far more helpful to them than just knowing how to play a piece of music. How much do they gain if I, the teacher, am the one who has worked out for them how to solve all of the potential difficulties along the way? Very little I think. Once a student knows how to make constructive decisions which can guide their practice so that it is productive, they will fly –  and not just in their musical studies but in everything, since these skills are of course transferable. And we are being told that Music is not an ‘academic’ subject – how ridiculous.

Note-learning – why we don’t like it!

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents the idea that we have two systems for thinking – System 1 is effortless and intuitive (fast), whilst System 2 relies on deductive reasoning (slow). Although I have not yet finished this extraordinary book (which appears also to have some leanings towards economics, which is most definitely not my field), this concept has been a revelation to me in terms of the light which it might shed on studying music, and in particular on how we practise.

In recent weeks I have asked many colleagues, friends and pupils to answer the sum 17 x 24, out loud. Several have declined even without trying: “I couldn’t do that.” Eavesdropping on others whilst they have multiplied, stored and carried their way to the answer (not always the right answer!) has been very enlightening; there is no doubt that mental arithmetic requires our undivided cogitation, even for the few who took on the challenge with no fuss. Kahneman’s suggestion that our System 2 is essentially ‘lazy’ seems to me to carry a lot of weight – most people would rather do something which comes more easily!

Is it any surprise then, that given the prospect of learning new notes, many pupils conveniently find something else to do instead?! Note-reading requires  a great deal of mental effort not only in reading pitch and rhythm, but in co-ordinating the body and at the same time trying to assess, via ears, fingers and intellect, whether we have it right or not. Having opened the score, some pupils will find it hard even to begin, whilst others might make a reluctant start but give up once they realise the scale of the task ahead. Maybe perfecting the first page would be more fun after all…!

For a long while now I have encouraged my pupils to think about three stages of practice. Stage One Practice is note-learning.  However reluctant, just a few new notes learned every day will make in-roads into the piece which the student is learning, as well as practising reading skills of course. Stage Two Practice is consolidating our recent note-learning. Once we are familiar with something, even if we only encountered it yesterday, we tend to regard it with less suspicion! Music which was new yesterday is altogether more approachable today. Stage Three Practice is refining music with which we are now quite familiar, and might even be considered playtime!

Stage One Practice is, of course, System 2 stuff – that is, hard work on the brain. By the time we get to Stage Three Practice, however, we are moving very much more towards relying on our intuition. Expert intuition can be learned, in as much as we can become so familiar with something that we just know it. Once at this level, the tough cognitive work is behind us, and things come easily. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Stage Three Practice is easy – far from it – but in pure cognitive terms it is less demanding than the early note-learning stages.

Just being aware of this concept is surprisingly helpful. I actually like learning new notes, but sometimes, especially if I’m tired, I prefer to work on more familiar repertoire. And with some students, knowing that there are aspects of practice are potentially very demanding might alter the way in which we approach helping them; sometimes it’s not just a question of time spent, but actually breaking through the initial mental barrier to take it on at all.

In the wider context, pupils who develop the habit of learning new notes every day, and are therefore readily prepared to think hard and problem solve, are surely more likely to use these transferable skills in other areas of their learning too. It strikes me as an excellent habit to be cultivating.

Practice part 6: A little and often…

I don’t think that it will be news to many that ‘a little and often …‘ is seriously good practice when it comes to practice! However, a colleague of mine recently used that phrase followed with ‘… not a lot in one slot.’ I love this; it’s not only catchy and memorable, but it also happens to be spot on.

This was demonstrated to me perfectly by one  of my piano pupils returning from half term this week. During term time it can be more difficult to be disciplined about practice (especially in a busy boarding school environment like Monkton) but whilst at home he had made it a habit to sit down at the piano at regular intervals and practise for a few minutes at a time. In this way he had done maybe twenty minutes each day for a whole fortnight. The significant thing is, it really showed, and he knew it too. I’m hoping that he might be inspired to keep this up now – I’ll keep you posted!

Believe me, when a pupil has practised – and equally when they haven’t – it is so obvious to the teacher (as long as the teacher is engaged of course.) I remember a time not so long ago when this same pupil would open the piece of music and spend the best part of a minute working out what the notes of the first chord were! And this was a piece which he was supposed to have been practising over the previous week or two. His note reading wasn’t great, admittedly, but if he had spent time with it every day I suspect that he would have at least known where to start.

In recent weeks I have been asking my pupils to point to the box which most accurately describes their practice for the previous week. Aside from no practice at all, ‘a little in one slot’ is the worst case scenario. Once they hit the bottom part of the red line, however, I am beginning to see clear evidence that they are familiar with the music which they are working on and that familiarity comes from regular contact with the music.

Personally I wouldn’t object to my pupils practising ‘a lot and often’ from time to time (which has certainly been my practice regime this half term!) but in the meantime I try to encourage my pupils to appreciate that ‘a little and often’ is the best way forward. I have talked before about modelling good practice technique in each lesson; even better than this is when the pupil practises well on their own and realises how effective their practice has been. That is empowerment.

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Practice part 5: motivation

In my last few blogs I have looked at a number of aspects of music practice with the hope of getting the the very core of the issue – namely, that if it is productive and fulfilling, a child is much more likely to enjoy it. Once that stage is reached, we’re in business. In reality, however, parents know that it’s not necessarily as easy as that! At this point I must put my hand up and acknowledge that I have four sons, three of whom are excellent musicians – so I do have experience on both sides of the equation.

In terms of encouraging our children to practise, there is one thing which I believe can have a significant impact which is, quite simply, to take an interest. My parents spent many hours just sitting in the same room when I practised as a child – sometimes reading the paper, sometimes just listening, and sometimes helping when asked – and I was always hugely encouraged by the fact that they took such an interest in what I was doing. I have known many ‘non-musicial’ parents of pupils who have done the same, and who have in fact learned a great deal as a result of entering into the learning process with their child. The “I’m not a musician so I can’t help them, I just leave them to get on with it” approach will rarely encourage a child to succeed, and will actually tend to make practice feel even more isolating.

All children are different of course, and they also change, sometimes very rapidly! There may be times when the last thing our child needs is their parent interfering, or wanting to hear them play – or even worse, sing! We need to be sensitive to this, but at the same time we also need to keep that avenue open for when they are ready to share with us again.

If a child doesn’t want to practise, they will come up with the excuses, we know that! Some may be genuine, of course, but many stem from the fact that they just don’t enjoy it; which brings us back to the initial point – can they see that their practising makes a difference? Do they feel empowered? And the answer to this question, in mind my at least, lies principally with just one person: their teacher.

I’ve just looked up the difference between an instructor and a teacher, and found the following:

An instructor shows you how to do something. A teacher leads you down a path of understanding, opening doors along the way and pointing you down new paths which you never knew existed.

My instinct is that it is my responsibility, as the teacher, both to show them how to practise effectively, and also to inspire them to want to do this. I suspect that I fail quite a lot of the time – it’s not an easy thing to do, and it requires huge patience and commitment. But this is my always my principal aim. Along the way we will learn all of the other things – technique, musicianship, hopefully a few pieces too – but all of these come alongside a deep desire simply to be a musician and to enjoy all that this entails, and including the process of getting there … which we call practice!

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Some thoughts on the subject of music practice

One of the major struggles in learning a musical instrument is the whole business of practice. Personally, I love practising, but there is no avoiding the fact that a lot of children really don’t. So whilst I don’t claim to have all the answers, looking at some of the issues surrounding practice might give a few insights into how it might be turned into a fulfilling and enjoyable enterprise.

Task = Time?
It’s not personal!
Practice makes permanent
Slow is easy
A little and often…

Practice part 4: Slow is easy

The more I think about it, the more I realise that good practising is largely about good thinking – and if there is a common theme in my previous posts on practice, it is in my concern that students do not consider carefully enough what it is that they are actually trying to achieve, or how they are trying to achieve it. I often tell them that if I can teach them to think, then they should be able to take on the other stuff themselves, like playing the piano for instance! I can offer them some hints on that too, of course, but nothing beats a little curiosity when it comes to quality learning.

Slow practice is so helpful, vital really, because it helps us to order our thinking. How often do we hear our pupils wading through a passage [I’m thinking particularly of pianists but I’m sure it must apply elsewhere] with little else in mind other than getting to the other side? Not unlike someone hacking through the jungle with a machete, and with about as much finesse! The problem is, there is just far too much information to process, and with music, this issue is compounded by the fact that this processing has to be done in real time.

One of the ways in which I convey this to my pupils is to ask them to answer some easy sums: 2 x 4, 11 – 8, 13+9 etc. Initially I give them time to answer, but after a few, I suddenly up the pace and literally bombard them with sums as quickly as I can think of them – and I haven’t found anyone yet who can keep up! I then point back to the music and remind them how much more complex this stuff is in comparison to simple arithmetic; decyphering a strange language of dots and lines, co-ordinating our fingers with accuracy, constantly assessing the resulting sounds with our ears, and all of this in real time otherwise there is no pulse – and arguably therefore no music. It can also help at this stage to point out that playing music is one of, if not the most intellectually demanding things which they are likely to be engaged in. It isn’t easy, and so not being able to play a piece of music perfectly after just a few readings is not due to any inadequacy on their part. I also point out that I still practise in this way myself.

The other image which I like to use is from the film The Matrix, where the characters exist in a world outside the realms of time. They have so much time that they are able, with ease, to dodge a bullet or a punch fired from close range. This is where we want to be when we play, where we have as much time as we need to react to every minute detail of information coming our way! The Matrix is make-believe (at the moment!) but nevertheless we can replicate it – by practising very slowly!! By slowing down real time, what we are doing is extending the amount of time that we have to think, such that our thinking can be ordered and we can be in complete control. When we find this point – and it may be really very slow – we might observe that slow is indeed rather boring, but also perhaps strangely satisfying because we have complete control and nothing escapes us. Slow is easy. We can then begin the process of very gradually speeding up again, gradually compressing our newly ordered thinking time into a smaller and smaller space, until we can play right up to tempo.

Once we are back up to speed we may well find that, paradoxically, we don’t have to think at all! Those countless repetitions have hard-wired our ordered thoughts into our brain so effectively that ‘it just happens!’

A word of caution, lifted directly from a friend’s blog, and quoting the eminent pianist and teacher Philip Fowke directly:

Practising slowly, though essential at all stages, does need an antidote. There can be a danger of practising to play slowly.

As with everything, it is essential that the student learns to assess at all times what they are doing and why. Practising slowly because ‘we have been told to’ is dangerous ground; rather, an understanding of when slow practice is useful, and when it is simply a waste of time, is something which we need to guide our pupils in if they are to make the most valuable use of their practice time.

Practice part 5: motivation
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Practice part 3: Practice makes permanent

Some of the first things which I learned about practice is that there are two techniques in particular which really help – practising slowly, and repeating things over and over again. Both of these are good news (if a little boring) and we should do a lot of them. In fact, used in the correct way, these techniques are invaluable; but used in the wrong way, repetition can actually send us even further in the wrong direction.

It is imperative that children are taught why they are instructed to follow the numerous guidelines which we give them, so that they have an understanding of what they are doing. Why should pianists played with curved fingers? Why, when ‘the notes are difficult enough thanks’, do I have to use the fingerings which my teacher says I should use? Telling is not teaching. In my experience, it is no more difficult or time-consuming to ask a child a question as a means of provoking them to work out an answer for themselves, than it is simply to give them the answer. The difference is that, with the understanding gained, they are empowered – they can use what they have learned and apply it to new problems. Developing an enquiring mind is vital if our students are to take control of their own learning. At the very least, we need to ensure that they understand why; careless generalisations don’t help, specifics do.

So, why is repeating something over and over again a useful tool in our practice kit? The answer, of course, is that it can help to secure that passage in our memory; our fingers remember the patterns, our ears remember the sounds, and the music becomes more and more familiar to us.

However, we have missed out a vital stage in our explanation; what we haven’t helped our pupil to understand is that before we start this process, we need to have the notes right! Repeating something over and over again doesn’t get it right in itself, it helps to cement in place what we already have right. I do think that some children just hear the first part – repeat – and don’t stop to think about what it is that they are actually doing.

This might also go some way to explaining why repetition is such a fickle friend! When we first encounter a new piece, repetition does indeed help us to become more familiar with it, and initially we can sense that each time we play through we are gaining a little in fluency; this feels good. However, if this is the only practice technique at our disposal, we will soon hit problems; the same mistakes keep cropping up (or even worse, different ones each time!) and no matter how often we repeat the passage, it seems to have stopped getting better. At some point in an apparently seamless process, repetition has ceased to be helpful and is now busy hard-wiring a whole load of problems instead.

Repetition does not fix these problems, so repeating, over and over, a passage which has mistakes in it will actually make it worse. This is an awful realisation, especially when the child genuinely believes that she is doing something which will make it better! And the fact that it does not get better will only reinforce that vicious circle which says ‘It must be me, I’m rubbish, I hate practising.’

The art of practising is complex, and we need to be teaching our children (pupils or offspring!) how to master it. Simply sending them away ‘to practise’ will not do; rather, we need to ensure that they know how to use their time productively so that they can see that it is effective. Taking five minutes to explain why repetition works, and just as importantly, when it doesn’t, might make all the difference in a child’s musical development.

Practice part 4: Slow is easy
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