Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 3 (Don’t Just Practice…Practice Well)

Click here to view Part 1 and Part 2.

Thus far in this “Teaching Music” series, I have established the necessity of long-term teaching to develop stronger, more independent musicians, as well as the importance of consistent personal practice. As I mentioned in Part 2, practice is to musicianship as exercise is to a healthy, lean body. However, just as it is possible to exercise poorly and risk doing harm to yourself, so it is possible to practice in such a way that it actually becomes more of a hindrance than a help.

What? How can I, the lady who just devoted an entire blog post to the necessity of practice for all musicians then turn around in the very next post and call it a hindrance? It sounds almost contradictory, I know. But the fact of the matter is you can have a student who is exceptionally diligent and practices every single day for an hour or more, but if they’re practicing in a way that only reinforces bad habits, or if they’re not paying attention to their own mistakes but simply going through the motions, then in a way, you are almost negating all of the effort you put in at the lesson. Poor practice is more likely to yield 1) stronger bad habits, 2) unengaged, apathetic students and 3) incorrect playing which has been so solidified and enforced that now you must spend most of your time fixing it.

That is why I firmly believe that one of the most important jobs of a private music teacher is teaching one’s students how to practice well.


So, how does one teach one’s students to practice well? I would like to argue that the answer to that question can be summed up in one word: Observation.

In particular, self-observation. If we are to teach our students how to practice well, if we want to develop true musicians, they have to be taught to be constantly listening to and critiquing themselves. They should be able to notice their own mistakes as well as their accomplishments (which means they have to know how to read music and count to begin with, if they’re going to recognize when it’s done right and wrong–just saying). And as they gain more experience, students should also be able to listen for their phrasing and technique, for the quality of their sound. They should even be aware of how they are using their various body parts. These are all factors to consider.

When a student is first starting out, it’s not necessarily important to tell them from the get-go, “you must be observant of your playing at all times.” After all, they don’t really know how to do that yet. But training them to practice with this idea in your mind will not only prepare them to be able to do it, but you can also begin developing the habit in them without them even realizing that’s what you’re doing.

Enter: the Practice Directions.

That’s what I call it, at least. And I by no means can take full credit for it. Rather, I consider myself to be greatly blessed because I was trained to teach by two lovely ladies whom I still work with, and for whom this system was already well established and successful after years of their own experience. From this point then, I’m going to be getting into more specifics of how I teach, so my fellow teachers feel free to take these ideas or not, as you see fit. They are merely my thoughts and personal teaching methods.

So, what are the Practice Directions? Exactly what they sound like: Directions for how to practice, which the student is expected to follow. This is a written list, one which the student can see with their own eyes to be reminded of what they need to do. It makes a world of difference from just telling them to practice the song, because they have a tangible goal to work towards. Furthermore, we ALWAYS go through the exact same steps in lesson together, which has two main benefits:

First, they experience the practice directions being followed and used correctly. Some of you might recall from Part 1 when I mentioned you should assume your students never practice correctly on their own, and therefore you should practice as perfectly as possible in the lesson so that they get used to what it looks like. Since I use Practice Directions, it is thus important that we follow the instructions in lesson exactly how I would want my students to follow them on their own. If you take proper practice seriously and pay it due attention, odds are greater that your students will too.

Second, as they become accustomed to the way I teach, they’ll be more likely to actually follow the directions on their own because they’ll learn that they can’t pass their songs without getting everything on the list right. Thus, they’ll want to practice every step beforehand to ensure they can pass it.

The main purpose of the Practice Directions is reinforcement. It makes the students focus on specific concepts to help them learn and retain what they’re learning. Plus, it helps them to listen carefully to their playing. So, as I checklistsaid, they’re being unconsciously (on their part anyway) trained to be observant at all times. For a student just starting out, their list of instructions is short and simple. As they progress and learn more concepts, the list in turn grows with them. Once they know the names of the piano keys, the rhythms of the notes, and dynamics, their list is solidified and basically stays the same from then on. Of course, there are certain changes that come as they advance, but the bones are still there. Here’s what my full list looks like for all my beginning students:

1. Play and say the note names out loud.

2. Play and say the counts out loud.

3. Play and sing the words out loud, with dynamics.

4. Whisper count.

That’s it. Did you notice a pattern? Yep–I’m one of those teachers. I make all my students say their notes and counts out loud while they’re playing. Obviously, if you teach a wind instrument that requires use of the mouth, you don’t have this option. But I teach piano, so I do. 😉 There are other ways to practice these concepts, though. You might try pointing at the notes and saying their names out loud before you play the song. Similarly, you can clap and count the rhythms (or tap on your lap or a table) before playing the second time. This is also great for children with Dyslexia or learning disabilities, or those who struggle with coordination. The point here is reinforcement, and lots of it, whatever that looks like for each student.

I know some people will probably think that’s a lot to ask of students, especially young children, but really it’s not if they’re used to it. When I introduce any new student to the Practice Directions, I don’t make a huge deal out of the fact they have to say things out loud–and I always say it out loud with them so they’re more comfortable with it. In my experience, it is very rare to have a student who started with me from the very beginning who protests following the directions or who struggles with it a lot. That’s just how it’s done, and they’re used to doing it that way, so it never crosses their minds that it could be done any other way.

Allow me to insert here how important it is, if you use Practice Directions, that it doesn’t become a simple checklist–play each step once, done. That is not its purpose nor its design. Rather, if a student doesn’t do step 1 correctly, do it again. Each step is meant to be done until it’s right. There’s no point in having criteria to follow if you just ignore it anyway.

Ahem…I apologize for the abrupt ending of this post. Due to writer’s problems length my desire to increase your suspense through waiting, I felt it best to end here for today and pick back up with the discussion hopefully tomorrow or later this week. Next time, I will describe what each of the steps of my Practice Directions actually mean and what purpose it serves. In the mean time, what are your thoughts or ideas on teaching children to practice well?


8 thoughts on “Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 3 (Don’t Just Practice…Practice Well)

  1. Pingback: Musical Mondays Continued (or Teaching Tuesday): The Practice Directions | The Gathering Fire

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