How teenagers practice

I suspect all piano teachers broadly agree on the importance and value of consistent and deliberate practicing for all students, and that practicing is essential for successful learning and progression. How our students practice is in no small part down to us as teachers: during lessons we will suggests areas which need special attention and offer strategies for productive practicing. But once the student gets home, it is largely down to them and their personal motivation to ensure the practicing is done and done properly.

There is much to be gained from observing and understanding how professional musicians practice, and even the most junior-level students can learn from the habits of professionals. Productive, successful practicing, such as professionals employ, requires a high level of self-regulation which enables the musician to achieve specified goals.

Self-regulation involves:

  • planning, goal-setting and motivation
  • self-instructions and observation
  • self-evaluation and reflection

In addition to these key areas, the process of practicing includes knowing the right practice strategy to fit a specific task (for example, memorisation or rapid leaps) and being flexible about that strategy if it proves unsuitable t for the specific task.

An article in Psychology of Music highlights some common “types” of teenage pianist which I am sure most of us have encountered in the course of our teaching:

The “somewhat effective” practicer: this student takes his/her own notes for practicing in lessons and has developed reasonable practice goals. When he/she practices, he/she completes the assigned tasks (sight-reading for example), and is engaged when practicing his/her pieces, to the extent that he/she is able to identify errors and inconsistencies and puts these issues right by isolating or “quarantining” the specific areas which need attention. He/She is able to reflect on what he/she has achieved and what still needs to be done, and is satisfied that he/she is making good progress. He/She may even feed this back to his/her teacher at the next lesson, discussing the strategies he/she employed during independent practicing at home, and collaborating with his/her teacher on goals for future practicing. This type of student tends to make consistent and noticeable progress

The “surface” practicer: we all know this student……! She/he’s the one who plays the assigned repertoire from start to finish, stumbling over certain notes, chords or passages, but does not stop to reflect on or fix the errors, and feels that having got to the end of the piece she/he has “done the practicing”. Her/His teacher has highlighted some areas that need specific attention – she/he skims through these, repeating errors yet hardly pausing to reflect on how they might be fixed. She/He does not plan in advance or set goals for practicing, despite clear instructions in her/his practice notebook from her/his teacher. At her/his next lesson she/he might “wing it” to get through her/his pieces when played for his teacher.

So why do teenagers find it difficult to practice effectively? In my experience, a number of factors influence the way in which teenagers practice. These include:

  1. Unclear or confusing instructions from the teacher
  2. Student is unable to identify specific issues or problems in their repertoire
  3. Student is unable to judge or imagine how the music they are practicing should sound when played correctly
  4. An inability to transfer skills and techniques learnt in practicing one piece to new repertoire
  5. Over-reliance on teacher to tell students what to do
  6. Feeling overwhelmed by the task in hand or the thought of having to do 30-40 minutes practicing in one go

1 & 2. It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure the student understands the assigned practicing and is clear about what needs to be done between lessons. I find it helpful during the lesson to ask the student to identify problem areas, state what they should be practicing and to then prioritise specific sections of the music. I or the student then write these things in the practice notebook, often numbering them in order of priority. By asking the student to specify the practice goals, we make him/her complicit in the activity of practicing and give him/her a greater sense of autonomy, which in turn builds confidence.

3. Play the music to the student during the lesson, or listen to recordings, YouTube clips or Spotify tracks. Make these resources available between lessons, perhaps via the teacher’s website. Ask the student to listen in an active and engaged way and to highlight certain features of the music, such as articulation, dynamics or changes in tempo. I encourage all of my students to listen to and around the repertoire they are learning – not to imitate or copy good recordings or performances but to simply hear how the music is presented and to give them ideas about how they might work towards a desired sound in the music.

4. Clearly demonstrate to students, using explicit examples within their repertoire, how we never learn technique or skills in isolation: voicing a Bach invention for example provides us with the tools to highlight different voices in Beethoven or Schubert.

5. See 1 & 2 above. To encourage students to act and think independently and to self-critique, I ask all my students, teenage or adult, to comment on their playing at lessons before I offer my own observations. Many will inevitably focus on errors initially, so I ask them to find three things which they were pleased with and to comment positively. This kind of positive critical self-feedback is a crucial factor in working independently of the teacher and encourages confidence, self-regulation and self-determination in practicing,

6. Many young people are ridiculously over-scheduled these days, not only burdened by unreasonable amounts of homework from school, but also an abundance of extra-curricular activities from sport to private language or maths lessons. Making time for piano practice in such a cramped schedule can feel like a Sisyphean task for some teenagers. In addition. teenagers are often very tired from school and from the physical changes they are undergoing as they grow up. Thus, as teachers we need to be sympathetic and to offer practical ways to enable them to practice without feeling overwhelmed. Point out that practicing need not be done in one single chunk – two sets of 20 minutes at different times of the day may well be more productive, provided the student knows how and what to practice. Encourage “little and often” rather a long practice session the day before the next lesson. Set smaller, more achievable goals – ask a student to prepare a single line of music for the next lesson, rather than a whole page. I have found this “marginal gain” approach particularly useful for those students who are time-poor. Above all, encourage the student to enjoy their music and to gain satisfaction and a sense of personal achievement from their practicing.


Further reading

Self-regulation of teenaged pianists during at-home practice

 

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Creative approaches to practising

Routine or “autopilot” practising can kill one’s enjoyment and productivity at the piano. Practice can become strained or monotonous because it’s too often primarily directed by a preconceived idea and too exclusively goal- or result-oriented. This can lead to frustration and a feeling that you are not progressing as rapidly as you would like to.

Here are some suggestions on how to bring creativity and variety to your practising, to keep your interest and help you progress:

Variety is the spice of life

Vary your approach – if you always begin with scales, try something different, such a deliberately slow practise or beginning your practise session with some studies.

Change the warm up pattern

If you always warm up with scales and exercises at the piano, think about trying some simple yoga-inspired exercises away from the piano, such as arm swinging, neck roles and shoulder and wrist stretches. These simple exercises get the blood flowing to arms and fingers and allow you to focus on the task ahead away from the piano

We’re jamming

If your practise routine begins very formally (see above), try some simple improvisation or doodling on the keyboard. You don’t need any special skills to be able to do this – take the inspiration from a handful of notes from one of the pieces you are working on. Experiment with rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tone

Mix it up

If you find concentrating on one specifica area of practising difficult, mix it up and alternate between exercises or scales/arpeggios and sections from your pieces. Throw some listening into the mix, away from the piano, to hear how other pianists approach the repertoire you are working on.

Write it down

If you use a practise notebook to record what needs to be practise, try instead recording what you did in your practise, what you liked and disliked about it, what you felt you achieved. This allows you to focus on what needs to be done next and can be a useful path into your next lesson, if you see a teacher regularly.

Sing along

Singing phrases can be invaluable in helping us shape the music, find breathing space within it and observe nuances such as dynamic shading, articulation, intonation, and tone colour

Hear it live

Going to a concert to hear music you are working on can be really inspiring, and hearing music created “in the moment” of a live performance can offer ideas about how to create drama and nuance within the music.

The Perfectionism Trap

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“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeply into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.

The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation, spontaneity and the assimilation of knowledge – all pretty crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

Stop-Start

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During a conversation in a recent lesson with one of my students, she told me that her previous teacher would stop her every time she made a mistake and ask her to correct the error before continuing. She admitted to me that she found this habit irritating and I asked her what effect it might have on her playing. “It stops you playing with flow“, she replied.

She’s right, of course. Like the person who continually interrupts when you are trying to explain something, or read a presentation, the teacher who continually stops a student to correct mistakes is interfering with the “flow” of the music. Students will also stop themselves to correct mistakes, a pattern I am trying to correct by encouraging students to “play through” their pieces when they come to play for me at their lessons. Unfortunately, such habits are hard to shift, especially when kids today exist in a school culture which insists on “right answers”, and the ticking of the correct boxes.

Music is different. It is the “flow” of music – the sense of a narrative unfolding – which makes it appealing and engaging to listen to and audiences, examiners (and teachers!) would far rather hear a complete performance with a few errors or slips than stop-start playing which seems hesitant and disjointed. My students don’t believe me when I tell them that most audiences don’t even notice minor errors and that even the finest pianists in the world make mistakes. We are all human after all! I prefer students to play right through a piece before we go back over it together to work on details. An alert student can usually highlight where errors occurred and will know how to correct them, and I encourage my students to be active listeners who can make a mental note of any slips while they are playing, knowing they can check them afterwards.

There is another good reason why stop-start playing is not recommended. Musicians, like sportspeople, use procedural memory (more commonly called “muscle memory”), part of the long-term memory which is responsible for knowing how to do things, i.e. memory of motor skills (for example, to play arpeggios or whole pieces or music). Repetitive practise trains the procedural memory and when done correctly it enables us to store a set of movements in our memory. It is this memory function that enables us to land on the right notes at the right time, to complete that scalic run accurately, or to play a series of chords, and so forth.

If we always stop at the same point/s in the music, the procedural memory remembers this and the stopping points become embedded in the memory. So when you go to play the piece, you will always stop in the same places, thus creating hesitations in the music which interrupt the flow. The avoid this I encourage students to play through, skimming over mistakes. Some find this exercise quite difficult, which is an indication of how engrained the need to correct errors can become. I also encourage students to practise in a variety of ways: to do careful, detailed practise to make problematic sections secure; and to play their pieces through without stopping (this is particularly helpful when preparing for an exam or other performance). During performances in lessons I do not stop students while they are playing: I always prefer to hear a whole piece, even if there are some errors, than a stop-start “performance”.

Effective practising for a performance diploma

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of juggling and time-mamagement, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regularly to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stagecraft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here

Rewiring turns “I can’t” into “I can”

cf3a43f548ef0b0425f8af95032b8849Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain. “Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections which take place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states. The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative: it is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.

As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk. The ability to self-evaluate one’s playing and performance and give oneself critical feedback is of course very important: it enables us to practise effectively and mindfully, it encourages humility in our work and tempers the ego. Equally, we should be able to accept criticism and feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues and peers, provided it is given in the right way. But if our own self-criticism, and/or the comments of others, is repeated too often we can fall into a spiral of negativity.

From the teacher who continually undermines the student with negative feedback to the inner critic which constantly comments adversely on one’s playing, chipping away at one’s self-confidence, these repetitive detrimental experiences encourage negative neural traits which in turn build a negative mental state – and with repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you continually dwell on self-criticism, anxieties about your abilities, your lack of confidence or a teacher’s negative comments, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly help you to think those same negative thoughts again and again.

Break the negative cycle and turn “I can’t” into “I can”

  • Banishing the inner critic is a key act in encouraging a more positive mindset. Acknowledge that your inner critic exists and then literally “show it the door” by imagining you are ushering the horrid creature out of your mind.
  • Attach a positive thought to a negative one: “I played that passage incorrectly, but I understand why I made a mistake so I know how I can put it right“.
  • Exchange perfectionism for excellence. Perfection is unrealistic and unattainable, excellence is achievable. Strive for excellence in your own work by setting yourself realistic goals and standards (these can be set in consultation with a teacher or mentor).
  • Draw confidence from the positive endorsements and feedback from trusted teachers, colleagues, peers, friends and family. If it helps, write these comments down in a notebook and refer to them when you feel anxious or nervous.
  • If your teacher is continually critical despite your best efforts to play well, it is perhaps time to seek a new teacher. Few students will progress well if they feel constantly put down by a teacher or coach.
  • Approach practising, lessons and performances with an “I can!” attitude rather than “this is going to go wrong”. Try not to set up a negative feedback loop before you play, but instead draw confidence from previous good experiences (a lesson where you know you played well and your teacher offered praise and positive feedback, or a performance where you received compliments from the audience or another musician whose opinion you respect).
  • Draw confidence in an exam or performance situation from knowing you have done the right kind of work in your practising and that you are well-prepared
  • Try the Buddhist practice of “wise effort”. This is a habit of letting go of that which is not helpful, or is negative, and cultivating that which is positive and helpful. (It is related to mindfulness and NLP).
  • Spend time with friends and colleagues whose company is positive and inspiring.
  • Above all, allow the mind to focus on and remember the good stuff. Just as thoughtful repetitive practising leads to noticeable improvement at the piano, so repetitive positive thinking brings a more positive, cheerful mindset, which will in turn have a positive effect on your playing and your general attitude to your music making.

Further reading/resources

How Complaining Rewires your Brain for Negativity

The Perfect Wrong Note

Music from the Inside Out

How Positive Thinking Rewires Your Brain

The Mindful Pianist – Mark Tanner

Mindful

adjective

1. attentive, aware, or careful (usually followed by of): mindful of one’s responsibilities.

2. noting or relating to the psychological technique of mindfulness: mindful observation of one’s experiences.

41czgktnuml-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Mindful Pianist by pianist, teacher composer and examiner, Mark Tanner is the latest volume in the Piano Professional series published by Faber Music in association with EPTA, UK (the European Piano Teachers’ Association). “Mindful” is the word du jour, and the practice of mindfulness – the therapeutic technique of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations – has become increasingly popular in today’s stressful and busy world. This book, however, is not some groovy, new age, Zen guide to piano playing, but rather takes its inspiration and approach from the definitions of the word “Mindful”at the top of this article. With contributions from a number of leading pianists and piano pedagogues, including Philip Fowke, Murray McLachlan, Margaret Fingerhut, Penelope Roskell, Leslie Howard and Madeline Bruser, the book draws on the author’s and contributors’ own experiences of playing and teaching the piano, and explores ways in which pianists, amateur or professional, can be more attentive, careful, self-compassionate and mindful in their day-to-day engagement with the piano and its literature.

Written in an engaging and accessible style, yet clearly supported by many years of practical experience as a teacher and performer, and academic research, the book encourages the pianist to take a fresh perspective on playing and performing by applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano. Through 4 distinct parts, Mark Tanner explores the crucial connection between mind and body, and how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing that is more compelling, more refined and ultimately more rewarding. He begins with simple breathing exercises which enable one to focus while at the piano before a note has even been struck and includes practical advice on overcoming feelings of inadequacy when a practise session goes less well, or the self-esteem issues which accompany performing. He tackles the issues encountered by pianists when practising, performing, improvising and preparing for an exam with wisdom and gentleness – throughout the text, one has the sense of Mark encouraging us to be kind to ourselves and to show self-compassion. The section of exams (‘The View from the Examiner’s Chair’) is written from a wealth of personal experience and is particular helpful in offering perspective to those teachers, and students, who may feel exams place undue pressure on aspiring young pianists. There is also a section on “mindful listening” (‘The Virtuoso Listener’) which encourages us to sharpen our listening abilities, both at the piano and when we hear music on the radio, in concert, on disc etc.

‘The Mindful Pianist’ is a long, detailed and highly satisfying read, and I will be extracting Mark’s wisdom to share with my own students as well as putting into practise some of his methods in my own playing and performing.

Recommended

Interview with Mark Tanner

Further details and ordering