Sarah Gall – Head of Teaching and Head of Piano Department, Browning Street Studios
Practice Quality over Quantity – March 26, 2021
Us teachers chat to each other a lot – and not just in the hallways or at professional development sessions (yes, lifelong learning is a thing). Recently an article by Harald Jørgensen and Susan Hallam titled simply “Practicing” was the topic of discussion (for interest, it’s in the “Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology”, 2nd edition – and thanks to Sam Nixon our HOD Guitar for bringing it up in the first place). Of course, by Week 9 of term, the shine has come off some of the enthusiasm for practice we saw in Week 1, when New Year Resolutions were still in working memory. I think the frustrations shared went something like this: “my students don’t practice what I tell them to, they just play the same thing every time” or “some of my students are pressured to sit for exams or achieve other outcomes they don’t seem to enjoy, and as a result, they don’t work toward those goals.” If you find yourself dragging your feet through your lessons, feeling a little insecure about your progress from week to week, it might be time to have a practice refresher – or even a practice revolution. And by that I don’t mean practicing more or giving up that extra hobby so you can chain yourself to your instrument. We’re here to help. Let me explain a little more.
Research has shown that enjoyment of practice tends to decrease as ability increases, and in my own field, pianists tend to quit learning and playing when they are teenaged and playing at about a Grade 5 / Advancing Intermediate level. This is when things get really hard, is how it’s usually explained. But what if it’s just the time when you can’t achieve repertoire goals without strategies, whereas before it was easier to “wing it”, sight read at the lesson, hope for the best and so on. For pianists, it’s at this level that a solid understanding of how sounds are made and how we need to use our body is needed before moving forward. Connecting musically with repertoire is absolutely paramount. But if you didn’t learn to practice effectively at a more elementary level, this is the time where it becomes almost impossible to intuitively connect your inner musical self to the strange dots and squiggles on the sheet music in front of you.
Our professional development focus this year is on Teaching Effective Practice Strategies. So my hope is that your teacher will be able to better support you in improving the quality of your practice, so you feel capable to make the progress you want to, and become increasingly independent at solving your own musical problems (terrible business model… one day your teacher may not be a needed part of your musical journey). Further to Jørgensen (2004), there are four important strategies involved in practicing a music instrument:
- Planning Strategies;
- Execution Strategies (sometimes simply called “practice strategies”);
- Strategies to Evaluate Practice; and
It’s our job as teachers to help you with all of these strategies – even if you’re currently thinking “Meta What??”. But in my experience, it’s the work done in strategy development across these areas that makes all the difference to your progress, your sense of achievement, your connection with your instrument, and your confidence as a player. If you think there’s more that could be done, contact me and I’ll be more than happy to organise a practice re-boot session with you and your teacher.
Until next time… “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”– Charlie Parker
- Jørgensen, H. (2004) ‘Mapping Music Education Research in Scandinavia’, in Psychology of Music, Vol. 32, Issue. 3.
- Jørgensen, H. & Hallam, S. (2015) ‘Practicing’ in Hallam, S., Cross, I. & Thaut, M., (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (2nd ed), , Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.