As the New Year begins, my thoughts turn to my practice routine and I’m full of good resolutions about what, when and how I will practise. The new term also provides an opportunity to reflect on my students’ practice habits and how I can encourage them to commit to regular and effective practice.
What shall we practise?
At the Music and Drama Education Expo in February 2018, Samantha Coates (of Blitzbooks, Australia) said “repertoire is king”. As adults, we are lucky enough to be able to choose what we want to learn. As teachers, we need to remember that our students will also have strong preferences – even though they might not always tell us what they are! When a post Grade 5 teen recently came to her lesson insisting that she didn’t like any of the pieces in her books I asked her to come back with a list of five pieces she wanted to learn. She came back with ten, ranging from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to Satie’s Gymnopedies, with some Einaudi and Tierssen thrown in too. She’s flying through repertoire and thoroughly enjoying playing once again.
Variety of repertoire is also important. Inspired by a performance I heard when I visited the Piano Teacher’s Course last year, I’m currently working on Ravel’s Jeu D’Eau. I fully recognise that this is a challenging work for me, right on the edge of my ability. But playing the piano isn’t so much fun when it’s really difficult all the time! In contrast, I’m also learning Liszt’s 6 Consolations which I’m finding much more accessible. How often, as teachers, do we continuously push our students onto the next challenge without giving them a chance to step back and play something that is well within their grasp? I know that I’ve been guilty of this. Last year I introduced my students to Improve Your Sight-Reading, A Piece A Week (Paul Harris) and my students are simply revelling in the accessibility of the music and the weekly sense of achievement.
We also need to be willing to think outside the box. My youngest son recently asked me to teach him “we don’t need education” (more commonly known as Pink Floyd’s Brick in the Wall). We worked it out by ear together and he merrily bashes it out several times a day. He will play it to anyone who will listen. I have been known to call out “that’s not practising!”. But I need to stop doing that… he’s playing and he loves playing. At the age of 8, surely that’s what I should wish for as a teacher and as a parent.
When do we practise?
With a busy life, it can be hard to fit in regular practice and I need to make it a priority, otherwise it drifts to the bottom of the pile as an optional extra. By the time I’ve finished work, cooked the dinner and packed the kids off to bed I’m either too tired or concerned about disturbing my neighbours! When I was preparing for my LTCL daily practice had to be a top priority, so I factored it into the beginning of my day, immediately after dropping the kids off at school. An established routine meant that it was never missed.
Similarly, my own children practise every morning before school. It’s not up for debate and is as much part of the routine as eating breakfast or cleaning their teeth.
In the current age of over-scheduled children (and parents), music practice often has to compete with homework, French lessons, ballet classes, Scouts, swimming galas and Xbox! David Barton recently wrote about the importance of using music practice to take a well-deserved break from the stress of revision. This is wise advice and it may be that we need to adjust our practice expectations for our students who are particularly over-burdened.
As teachers, allocating time for students to practise is very difficult to influence as it relies, in large part, on parents making the commitment to practice, facilitating routine and minimising distractions.
How do we practise?
The responsibility for teaching students how to practise rests squarely on our shoulders. In most cases, there is no one else who will be able to give them the all-important strategies for effective practice and an understanding of the rewards they will reap. These are lifelong lessons.
My team and I recently discussed how to ensure our students can implement appropriate practice strategies effectively. When students can choose the practise strategies they want to use and then rehearse their practice in the lessons (all with our guidance, of course), they are more likely to recreate the experience at home. Karen Marshall said at the recent ABRSM conference ‘never tell a child something they can work out for themselves’ and I firmly believe that collaboratively working out how to practise something is a key part of every lesson.
I often need to remind my students – especially the teens - “playing it all the way through badly is not practising. It’s just playing it all the way through badly”. It’s also useful to admit to my students that I do that too sometimes, even though I know better! Afterall, a pedestal is not a very comfortable place to perch.
Why do we practise?
I recently attended a lecture at the Royal College of Music about motivation and heard under-graduates describing why they practise. I was struck by the quantity of extrinsic motivators that inspire them, from pleasing their parents, to winning competitions. Many of my own (much younger) students also practise because their parents make them, to impress me or to pass an exam.
So why do I practise? I practise because I want to be able to play Jeu D’Eau (back to repertoire is king!). I practise because it’s my personal time when I can ignore the emails and my kids will look after themselves. And I practise because I want to get the full value out of the lessons I have paid for - and I’m a bit beyond flashcards and scales drills if I haven’t done my homework!
It can be difficult to help our students find the intrinsic motivation, that pure love of playing music and that desire for personal achievement. Students genuinely don’t like things that are ‘hard’ and in the current age of immediacy they want to be good at it, right now! But once they have mastered a piece, students often love it and want to play it again and again. We need to remind them that learning is a journey. This goes back, once more to repertoire, including encouraging students to make their own choices and offering a variety of difficulty levels. In the last few weeks of the Autumn term I set my younger students a challenge from Get Set! Christmas: to sight-read an ‘easy’ Christmas duet with me, to learn an ‘accessible’ Christmas song from memory and to master a ‘challenging’ Christmas song. All of them (with one disappointing exception… there’s always one!) rose to the challenge.
Encouraging regular, effective, reflective, meaningful practice routines for young students will always be a challenge for teachers and I don’t have all the answers. But I do think it’s vitally important for us to reassess every once in a while, challenge what may have become an unsatisfactory status quo and find new ways to re-engage our students.