Directors' Toolbox

The Process of Practicing

October 9, 2015

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

— Abraham Lincoln

“Now, go home and practice!”  How many times have we as music teachers voiced those words to our students?

Whether we’ve just finished a lesson in private or group instruction, more than once we’ve repeated those immortal words undoubtedly uttered to us when we were students.  But have we ever stopped to try to understand what these words mean?  And have we ever considered what was actually happening at home when a student is “practicing”?

This thought occurred to me some years ago when I was an elementary band teacher.  My 4th– and 5th-grade students came in for group lessons once a week.  One day, I was watching a student put his instrument together and warm up.  He started playing through the assigned lesson and then made a mistake.  He stopped, went back to the beginning and started again.  Every time he made a mistake, he went back to the beginning, never really addressing any of the mistakes.  I stopped him and helped him fix the problem measures, then asked why he kept going all the way back to the beginning instead of stopping to fix the problem before starting over.  He knew he’d made a mistake but it didn’t occur to him work on that particular measure first.  I asked all the students in the class, “Is this the way you all practice at home?”  Quickly they proudly responded, “Yes!”  In my own mind I thought, “Light bulb!”  I realized at the time that I’d never fully explained what the students should do when they went home to practice.  Sure, I had said warm up on long tones, play this exercise three times, this one two times, fill in your practice chart, etc.  But never did I take time to talk about and teach the “process of practicing.”  Like many of us, I had made an assumption that my students understood “how” to practice at home, as well as how to practice “correctly.”

There are many traditional methods of approaching practice and rehearsal.  It’s also important to know and teach the difference between the two terms, as all too often, practice and rehearsal are confused.  Practice is where the “woodshedding” occurs.  This is where we engage in the constant repetition of playing and correcting notes, rhythms, articulations, technique, and all the details of correctly executing an exercise or piece of music.  To learn to play accurately and effortlessly, you must learn to repeat accurately.  To repeat accurately you’ll often need to work on small bits so you can refine and relax and ultimately enjoy the results.  Repetition builds muscle memory.  There really is no substitute for establishing effective practice habits to attain mastery of just about any discipline.  Rehearsal typically involves multiple musicians or an ensemble, and is where we take what was practiced individually and collectively put it all together for a performance or concert.  Helping a student make this distinction early in his/her career can help when it comes to accountability and expectations in the future.

So what can we tell our students (in this case, instrumentalists) about establishing a process for practicing at home?  Here’s an example of what I did for my band students.  I printed this onto a sheet of paper and gave it to every student. We went over it in every class and went through every step in lessons.  This simple set of instructions provided a plan for every student to use when they got home, away from the guidance of a trained music teacher.

Important!  If you have trouble with any step, go back one step until you master it, then move to the next step.

  1. Name the notesSay out loud the letter name of each note in the exercise or section.
  1. Name the notes in rhythmSay out loud the letter name of each note in the rhythm it is notated.
  1. Name the notes in rhythm while fingering the notesSay out loud the letter name of each note in the rhythm it is notated while pressing, covering, sliding or bowing the correct note on that instrument.
  1. PlayNow, play the exercise on your instrument.

Important!  If you have trouble with any step, go back one step until you master it, then move to the next step!  This provides the student with a strategy if things go wrong or they can’t figure out what’s going wrong.  We also talked about “isolating” or focusing on problem measures.  Fix the measure with the problem, go back one measure and play into the next BEFORE going back any further in the exercise or piece.  This is just one of many ways to make sure students understand that it’s not “Practice makes perfect,” but Perfect practice makes perfect.” 

Download a PDF of 4 Steps to Play. If you have an idea for a practice strategy, feel free to post as a response to this article.

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