Encouraging evaluation, reflection and self-critique in practising

Play always as if in the presence of a master

Robert Schumann

The ability to self-critique, evaluate and reflect on one’s playing during practising and in lessons is a crucial skill for musicians, and is a component of the skillset of “deliberate practise” and self-regulation, which enables us to practise productively and deeply.

Around 95% of my teaching involves showing students, young people and adults, how to practise. Many students are “surface practisers”: that is, they play the assigned repertoire from start to finish, but do not take time to reflect on or evaluate their playing – the sounds they are making and hope to make, why a certain passage is causing difficulties etc. Students who practise like this often feel that having got to the end of the piece they have “done” their practising. As a consequence, lessons and subsequent practising sessions may feel frustrating because progress/improvement is slow.

I admit that I probably practised like this for quite a lot of the time when I was having lessons as a child and teenager, and it was only when I returned to the piano seriously as an adult, after a break of nearly 20 years, and started taking lessons with a master teacher that I learnt and understood the benefits of deep, reflective practising. It quickly became apparent that this kind of practising was far more productive: the most noticeable benefit was that I was able to learn repertoire much more quickly and, more importantly, retain it once learnt. It also made me far less reliant on guidance from my teacher, enabling me to work independently for long stretches of time between lessons, which in turn motivated me to keep going.

During lessons, my students are now very used to being asked simple questions to encourage self-reflection and self-critique: “What did you like about your playing?” “Which areas do you feel need more attention?” “How do you think you should practise that section?” When I first instituted this practice of self-critique in lessons, most students focused on the negative aspects of their playing, highlighting mistakes or telling me that they “played it better at home”, and were reluctant to indicate areas which they felt were good or successful. Now they are used to finding positives first, giving themselves a virtual “pat on the back” for playing well. This approach is empowering for the student, because it builds confidence, which then makes analysing those aspects within the music which need more detailed attention a far more positive experience, rather than an exercise in flagging up errors, which can be dismotivating. When this activity becomes routine in lessons, so it should also be habitual when practising between lessons, from simple statements like “I really liked that passage” or “I’m pleased with the expression I brought to that section” to more detailed analysis of how to make significant improvements in the music. By working in this way, students become less reliant on a teacher’s guidance and develop independence in learning processes and confidence in their own abilities.

Schumann’s quote at the beginning of this article is particularly pertinent: there is no point in “surface” or repetitive practising without concentration, but there is every point in practising attentively and mindfully, as if your teacher (“master”) were listening. When practising alone, be your own “master” and question everything you do. Why repeat that passage? What was wrong with it and what are you trying to improve? Going through a piece and working on the most problematic or tricky areas slowly and deliberately is an effective strategy, one which is used by professional and highly advanced musicians. Accomplished performers at every level also tend to have a clear auditory “vision” of the piece in their mind as they work on it and continually assess their progress against this vision. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working like this is that one does not need to spend hours and hours at the piano: because it’s about quality rather than quantity of practise.

As one grows more adept at self-evaluation, reflection and self-critique, one is able to set clear, achievable and appropriate goals for each practise session (some people like to keep a record of these in a notebook, referring back to them and updating them as daily practising progresses) and build incrementally upon each small improvement (“marginal gain learning”).

Recording and filming practice and performance is another key tool in evaluating progress. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. And don’t just listen once: use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range. Video is helpful too, for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.

Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance. Thus we are able to separately ourselves, emotionally, from our music making and take errors less personally, which allows us to maintain a positive mindset and keep the habit of practising enjoyable and stimulating.

…the real pleasure of practice lies in engaging in a creative dialogue with the music, and thus getting closer to it.

– Steven Isserlis, cellist


My own teacher, Graham Fitch, advocates the use of a “feedback loop” which encourages self-evaluation and reflection. More on the Feedback Loop

feedbackloop

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.

Be kind to your students

I’m sure I am not alone in having several students who are currently immersed in revision and study sessions ahead of their GCSE and A-level exams which commence next month. Some young people cope well with the pressure of revision and exams, but sometimes even the most confident or well-organised students find that something has to give – and that something might be piano practise or even regular piano lessons. In such instances, it is especially important to be kind and sympathetic to students, and I believe they must not feel pressurised to complete their piano practise if they are busy with revision or tired from exams. This may seem counter-intuitive: shouldn’t I be encouraging them to keep up regular practise? Of course, but I also appreciate the need to cut them some slack during this crucial period in their educational lives.

Instead, I’ve suggested that piano practise should be regarded as a pleasant break from revision and exams, that it should be enjoyable and stress-free, and that I don’t mind in the least if students arrive at lessons and tell me they haven’t practised. My students know that I am not the kind of teacher who gets cross if they haven’t practised and they are comfortable about telling me how much they have or haven’t done. And we can always find other things to do in lessons, such as playing duets, listening to and talking about music, exploring what goes on inside my grand piano, or simply doodling on the keyboard.

For students who have grade exams in the summer, I have made sure that the bulk of their learning is already done. Pieces now simply need to be kept going, gently finessed; ditto technical work. And sight-reading and aural can be practised in a relaxed way in lessons, or by using apps or listening to the radio or looking music up on YouTube at home.

Students often find it helpful for their teacher to give them a practise schedule to enable them to focus on what needs to be done and how to do it if they have limited time available. Even 10 minutes of focused practising is useful, and during lessons I encourage students to identify what needs attention and how to prioritise their practising. Above all, I encourage my students to enjoy the piano and their music, and I hope that by being kind to my students, they appreciate that I care about them and I understand what their priorities are at the moment.

 

Less is More

One of my students, Harrison, arrived for his lesson last week and confessed he had not had much time to practise. He told me he had “loads of homework!” and extra-curricular activities every day after school, apart from Thursday, the day of his piano lesson (“this is my only day off!” he sighed). In addition to homework and sports activities, he also has to fit in choir rehearsals and trumpet practise.

This is not an uncommon scenario for many of the young people whom I teach: all my students have now moved up to senior school, and many are finding the volume of work and activities associated with school quite burdensome. Fitting in piano practise amongst homework, after-school clubs and sport can be hard, especially if students feel obligated to practise for a set amount of time every day.

I am an advocate of regular and consistent practising, and making time to practise every day is an important habit, one which I instil in my students from the first lesson, and one which I observe myself (usually practising daily from 8am and notching up 2-3 hours over the course of the day). Practising at the same time each day can be helpful in developing good practise habits and routine, but sometimes this simply isn’t possible. Some students also find the prospect of having to practise for a set period of time daunting, especially in the early weeks of learning.

I suggested to my student Harrison that he could develop ways of practising a little at a time, aiming for thoughtful, quality practise, rather than simply note-bashing, or “going through the motions”. The phrase “less is more” seemed appropriate to this conversation and I told Harrison that it was often associated with the German modernist architect and designer Mies van der Rohe, used to describe his designs which combine functionality with simplicity and beauty. We both agreed this was a rather useful phrase to describe focused practising and Harrison declared that “less is more” would be his “motto” for his practising over the forthcoming weeks.

Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Barcelona’ chair and footstool

The idea of the pianist pounding away at the piano for hours on end to ensure he/she never plays a wrong note has less currency these days as musicians and teachers realise that quality rather than quantity leads to music which is learnt properly and carefully. After about three hours, the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in, one’s concentration will start to flag and one will be feeling physically and mentally tired. At this point, one stops doing meaningful work and it’s probably time to stop for a break.

At the other end of the scale, it’s amazing what can be achieved in as little as 10 minutes – if one knows what one should be practising.

When Harrison came for his lesson this week, I asked him how he had got on with the “less is more” approach and he told me that he had “more enthusiasm” for his practising – and when he played, it was clear the new approach was paying off.

Of course it is important when taking this approach to know exactly what one should be practising. Playing the piece from start to finish, in an unfocused and unthinking way, means mistakes will remain as mistakes and the opening of the piece will always tend to sound better than the rest of it. I will use the piece Harrison is working on as an example of how we are taking the “less is more” approach to practising:

Nurse’s Tale (Aleksandr Grechaninov, Trinity Grade 3 piano)

Nurse's Tale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bars 1-2 (and 5-6)

  • RH – Practise melody (minus the thumb on D), taking note of the slurs
  • LH – Practise the chord change, taking note of the slurs

Bars 3-4

  • RH – Practise the semiquavers, taking careful note of the slurs and fingering
  • LH – Note change to treble clef, and practise the octave jump

Since these bars take only moments to play, a great deal can be achieved in just 10 minutes work. And, as Harrison himself noted, bars 16 – end are an exact repeat of bars 5-8.

I will be repeating this exercise with other students. At each lesson, the student and I will decide which sections of a piece/s need this kind of attention and we will note down what needs to be done in practising at home. Gradually, I hope students will become better at identifying themselves what they should be focusing on in their practising. I also hope that students will find their practising more rewarding and enjoyable as they see noticeable improvements in their learning and playing. (At the other end of the spectrum, I am applying a similar approach to my learning of Ravel’s Sonatine, a tricky piece, not least for the “hand choreography” required.)

Here are some quick tips for effective “less is more” practising:

  • Know which areas need the most attention – keep a note in a practise notebook
  • Always start with the most difficult areas when your mind and fingers are fresh
  • Practise for a set amount of time (set a stopwatch if that helps)
  • Don’t deviate from the set task
  • At the end of the set time, move onto the next area which needs attention
  • Write notes on what you have achieved and think about what you need to do in your next practise session
  • Always practise carefully and thoughtfully

An interesting article from the Bulletproof Musician blog on best practising strategies