Category Archives: music practice

How to practise, part 1

Over the past couple of months I have been immersing myself in the whole issue of music practice. I don’t have all of the answers, but I have had a few lightbulb moments, the first of which is this: just do something!

Inevitably there are always some pupils who will practise regularly, either because they are self-motivated or simply obedient. At the other end of the scale, there are some who just do nothing. It might seem obvious, but this group just aren’t going to make progress at all – how could they? So without even thinking about how effective their practice time might be, I have started at the bottom with the simplest of targets – do something… anything! This approach has a process driven outcome. In other words, success can be measured just by doing it. One of the most difficult issues with practice is that we have to address our shortcomings on a moment by moment basis, which I am certain must be the single reason why most people don’t enjoy it that much. But if the target is just to show up, get the instrument out of the case and blow down it for ten minutes, it’s actually going to be quite difficult to fail.

With this in mind, we now have a sign in book in the Music Centre, and pupils are asked to sign in and out each time they come in to practise. The same rules apply as above; some are keen and sign in like clockwork, and others won’t, or forget, or don’t see why they should. A few, after six weeks of term, don’t even know that the book is there….!

Now I did say that I’ve been immersing myself in this…? Each week I go through the sign in book and add up how much practice each pupil has done! It’s not an exact science by any means, but over the course of six weeks it has given me an extremely good idea of the practice habits of every pupil in the school, and they know this – and so do their teachers.

It has been a very enlightening experiment, and there are two things in particular which have become very apparent. The first is this: it puts practice out there, in the public domain. It is no longer a mystery, with teachers and pupils playing weekly games trying to ascertain or cover up how much practice has or hasn’t been done. Remember, we’re not yet addressing the content – just time spent. But with this sort of transparency, practice in on agenda and there is a clear message that everyone should be doing something.

The second is that it is clear to all that a sizeable number of students are really putting in the hours each week – and it is equally clear to me that the ones who put in the hours are the ones who are making progress. And it is good for our younger or less experienced musicians to consider whether our music scholars are just talented, or whether their success might also be due to the fact that they spend lots of time practising.

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Reading notation: Know it, don’t read it

I have recently taken on a new piano pupil, and I was surprised to see that in several passages of a piece which he had been learning he had written the names above all of the right hand notes. Most of these notes were on leger lines above the treble stave, and he had evidently found these difficult to read – well they are more difficult to read aren’t they? 

Ledgerlines

However, what he had failed to notice was that the left hand was just an octave lower than the right throughout. Which means that he didn’t actually have to read the right hand notes at all. He could play it okay, but I just don’t think it had dawned on him that a little bit of knowledge (in this case simply ‘hands an octave apart’) was much more helpful than knowing the names of all those notes.

This is a classic case of being so concerned with reading the score that we forget to observe the glaringly obvious. When I pointed this out, he was equally bemused as to why he had written on his score!

I set him a new piece to learn: To a Wild Rose by MacDowell. He did a brilliant job of learning it in just a week, but to my surprise he had written in all the note names in the right hand, just for a couple of bars.

wild roseHe was relying entirely on his reading skills to help him to recall these notes, and as already highlighted, leger lines aren’t his favourite! But there are other things which can help here:

  • we noticed that the bottom line traces a chord of E7, and the top line is also a succession of rising thirds
  • the first two bars have sixths between top and bottom notes in the right hand, and these extend to sevenths in the second two bars
  • the physical shape of the right hand chords, and in particular the different combinations of black and white notes, enable us to remember what they look and feel like.
  • a second finger on the B in the third bar gives a secure link between the alternating chords, again helping to forge a physical connection between the two chords

Taking a passage like this apart, and noting all of the musical, theoretical, physical and aural connections, will ensure that we really know it. And in many instances, our aural or memory skills might be better than our reading skills, in which case why rely solely on the reading skills? In short, we shouldn’t; we need to be prepared to use all of our musicianship skills, all of the time.

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.

IMSLP272546-PMLP24011-field_8_nocturnes_349854157

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.