Here is an excellent and memorable article about practicing by Peggy Swingle, a Suzuki piano teacher and teacher trainer, from the American Suzuki Journal, Summer 2004.
Practicing–Pain or Pleasure?
Practicing, as we all know, is the most important road to successful progress. The lesson Happens once a week but practice happens (should happen!) seven times a week. While what is presented at the lesson is key, unless it is reinforced and integrated all week it is of little use. Yet successful practicing remains a mystery to many parents. Practice time all too often is filled with tension, struggle and a battle of wills.
Why do we practice?–Explaining the mystery
People practice all the time without understanding why. If you ask students or parents why they practice, these are the typical answers: “to learn a new piece,” “to make it better,” “to be able to play it,” “to learn the notes,” “to not forget,” “because I have to.” (!). While these may be part of the answer, there is a much simpler answer which takes in all these and much more: the reason to practice is to make something easier. It seems so simple, yet this reason has in it the potential to make practice interesting and productive. If everyone in the Suzuki triangle really understands this definition, the battle of practice can turn into an interesting team effort.
If you have practiced and nothing has changed and gotten easier, it simply wasn’t a good practice. What can get easier?—notes, rhythm, fingering, bowing, memory, tempo, dynamics, and so On into the subtleties of phrasing and tone. It is important that the teacher give good directions as to what needs to be done in the piece (the homework), and it’s important that both the parent and student are very clear at the practice about what they want to change. Even a four year old can understand the question, “Was it easier that time?” Older students find that practicing makes sense if you ask, “What are you trying to make easier? Did it get easier?” It’s a satisfying feeling for everyone involved to be able to choose what to work on and then to be able to say “That was a good practice—it’s easier to play the correct notes,” or “That bowing is easy now,” or “I can really shape that phrase just the way I want to.”
How do we practice?
The first half of the answer: mechanics
The concept which many people seem to have about practice is that it is boring, often frustrating and frequently filled with conflict. Actually, practicing can be interesting and satisfying. Once the basic concept (the reason to practice is to make something easier) is understood, the question becomes “exactly how do you practice?”
1. Probably the greatest area of misunderstanding, and the cause of themost conflict between parents and students is the confusion between practicing and playing. These are not the same thing and the difference between the two needs to be very clear to everyone in the triangle. Many years ago when I was teaching at many summer institutes each year, I had several opportunities to discuss practicing with large groups of children while their parents were attending another class. To my great surprise, no matter where I was or what country I was in, if I asked the question, “What is the thing about practicing that you don’t like?” I got the same answer—”My mom (or dad) interrupts me in the middle of a piece.” I thought a lot about that and realized that if the student was in the flow of a piece and focusing all his/her concentration on playing and suddenly a voice said, “That was supposed to be a fourth finger on G,” or “Remember that , crescendo coming up,” the interruption would be very jarring. Not only does it teach students to play with part of themselves always waiting for the ax to fall (actually teaching them not to concentrate fully on their playing), it also instills fear of making mistakes, taking away the joy of playing. Children are very smart. Theirs was the perfect answer to my question, because what the students had been doing was playing the piece, and that’s the time for mom and dad to button their lips!
Practicing is working on a small bit of a piece, usually very slowly, using many repetitions to make something easier. Often this is done hands separately (obvious for piano students, but my children, who were string players, would practice the bowings in the air and the fingerings on the fingerboard as hands separate practice activities.) Playing means playing a whole section or the whole piece through to see if the practicing “stuck.” Almost all practice conflicts can be avoided if, before startingto work on a piece, the student and parent decide if this is a “play,” or a “practice.” If it’s a “play” mom isn’t allowed to say anything until it’s done. If it’s a “practice,” dad and student need to decide beforehand what is the goal (or what the teacher told them to work on), and then evaluate each repetition according to that goal. Was the goal accomplished? Was the passage easier to play? Good questions to ask a student are: “How many times do you think it will take to make it easier?” or “Can you do it four times in a row?”
2. Practicing in small sections or bits means identifying the elements in a particular measure or passage and deciding on what I call the student’s “‘jobs.” There may be a listening/sound job: are all the notes even? did you like your tone? was the articulation correct? Then there may be a physical job needed to achieve the listening/sound goals: did you pick up your finger? is your bow straight? is your arm behind your hand? did you play in the appropriate part of the bow? Students need exact information on what they are trying to accomplish. Mind and body should be busy and intrigued to produce the sounds they want.
Each repetition is a chance to get that spot closer to the goal and easier and easier to reproduce more and more times in a row. If each repetition has a goal and can be evaluated for specific goals, repetition is not boring! It is fascinating and challenging.
This kind of practice is hard work, which is what makes it so satisfying. I tell my students that they should be tired after a practice! It means they worked hard. It also means that practicing needs to be interspersed with playing or other activities.
Effective practice is directed repetition of short segments with clear goals.
3. In my experience, the biggest mistake in practicing is to work on too much of the piece at one time. Effective practice requires:
-finding the patterns which occur throughout the piece and choosing places to practice them, and
-finding the small sections which are causing the stumbles, memory problems or technical difficulties.
The goal of practicing is to make playing and performing easy and enjoyable. Good practicing allows the playing to happen with flow and expression. In order to play well, the details have to be at least on the way to being automatic and the player cannot be worried about that tricky section coming up! That’s why effective practice is vital to success. Playing the piece over and over, especially before it is really solid, actually makes the piece worse because the wrong notes, the hesitations and the uncertainty just get reinforced.
4. Slow practice is the bug-a-boo of most children. They don’t like it because it’s hard! Even older students resist it mightily. (I do not recommend it for very young children four and under: they need enough speed to avoid losing the sequence of the piece.) But for the students five and beyond slow practice creates a solid and confident performance. If the teacher and parent can make slow practice interesting, eventually the student realizes that it really does make playing and performing easier and more enjoyable. But just telling a child to slow down rarely works. Children need some images and fun ways to do slow work. “Put that spot under a microscope and be sure you can hear and see every detail;” or “It’s like weeding a garden. If you run through the garden you can’t see the weeds and you might pull up the wrong sprouts!” “Practice fast slowly: can you put your ‘slow-mo’ switch on and do everything you would do fast only very slowly? It’s fun to demonstrate this one: the student presses my slow-mo button and I start talking and gesturing very slowly; the I press the student’s slow-mo button and it’s their turn, first with speaking and moving, then with playing. Five slow repetitions are worth their weight in gold! Especially with my pianists, we have a little saying : HS=HS. This means Hands Separately equals Half Speed.
5. Regarding repetition, there are two comments, one from Dr. Suzuki and one from Mrs. Kataoka, which have stayed with me over the years
Dr. Suzuki said, “Smart people have a big problem! They learn quick and they forget just as quick!” Teaching bright children is difficult because if you show them something, they can copy it quickly so it appears that they can do it. But if you ask them to do it again a few minutes later, they often have no idea what you are talking about! A slower child, on the other hand, may have to do ten repetitions just to get it right, but will probably remember it afterwards. So I tell m students Dr. Suzuki’s comment and I say, ” Be a smart person who remembers! Can you do it five times in a row?” Remembering to do the task correctly becomes a game, and both student and parent are more likely to remember what to practice and how to do it correctly. A fun game we often play is “Can I make you forget?” We work on a skill until the child can do it reliably. Then I ask, “Can I make you forget?” Then I ask what they had for lunch or what their favorite color is today or one thing they did at school. After they tell me I say, “I bet you forgot!” And, of course, they rarely do.
Mrs. Kataoka was fond of saying, “Your brain is very smart but your muscles are dumb! Your brain understands right away but your muscles have to do it lots of times to remember.” You can use examples appropriate to age and interest. For example, I tell them that when I went to the circus, I saw the acrobats walking on the tightrope hundreds of feet in the air. My brain understands what they were doing: they put one foot carefully in front of the other and use a pole to keep balance. But, I’m not going to get up there and do it My body has no idea of how, and I would have to practice six inches off the ground for quite a while before I could go on the high wire. So often our brain understands what we want to do, but our muscles need to be trained and given many chances to perfect a skill.
Many parents and students still harbor the secret notion that some people can just “do” things without any work. The truth is that those who perform most effortlessly, be it music, sports or anything else, are the ones who practice the most effectively. As Dr. Suzuki said, “Ability is knowledge plus 10,000 times!”
The second half of the answer: Attitude
1. I believe the all people, but especially children, are very intuitive. We read subtle body language, facial changes , and tone and inflection of voice. The better we know someone, the more attuned we are to these subtle signs. For example, your spouse may say something at a party which everyone takes at face value but you know she or he is angry or upset. A slightly lifted eyebrow or a smile which becomes a smirk, a slight lean toward or away from someone—we are all adept at reading these signals.
Children are aware of their parent’s body/voice language to the nth degree. They respond to our physical signals and to the tone of our voices (rather than the content) almost automatically. (In fact, listening to what someone says—content—rather than responding to tone is something which has to be learned because, unfortunately, in our society the two often don’t match! It is a subtle kind of dishonesty which is very confusing to children) .
Parents and children often get into a vicious cycle of practicing. The parent knows it’s time to practice and, remembering previous difficult practices, gets tense. Her voice and face reflect negative thoughts and worries which the child picks up and mirrors right back. How to break the cycle?
Affirmations are very powerful and can have amazing results. Before initiating a practice, start saying positive things to yourself: “I enjoy practicing with Susie,” “I’m so glad to have this time with Joey,” “Learning to play the piano is very exciting,” “We have fun when we practice together,” etc. Choose one or two which are the most appropriate to your situation and quietly say them to yourself ten times each. This will change your face, body language and tone. It takes less than two minutes and yet it is probably the most important thing you can do to turn practicing around. The affirmation strategy will not work instantly–your child will not trust it at first—but if you do it faithfully every day for two weeks, you will notice a change in your child. Change yourself and your child will mirror your change.
2. A question I like to ask parents is: “Would you like to practice with you?” Usually I get a look of shock, then disbelief, then horror! If you wouldn’t like to practice with you, why not? How can you change it? Practicing with small children should be fun. Practicing with older children should be satisfying. The parent needs to keep goals in mind (what got easier?) but practice with humor, fun and enthusiasm. Involve your,child in the process. Ask questions: “Do you remember what [the teacher] asked us to work on?” If the child does not remember, gently coach until you get the answer. The cardinal rule of asking children questions is that the question needs to be phrased so that any answer is correct. “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” are perfectly acceptable answers because they are the truth. At that point you can say, “Shall I tell you or do you want a hint?” Do not ever say “Oh, yes you do” or “Come on, think harder,” or (Sigh), why can’t you remember?” These are very condescending and teach the child fear and a poor self image. (After all how would you feel if someone said one of those things to you?) Whatever the answer, accept it cheerfully and move on. Here are some good kinds of questions:
- · Shall we start with the new piece or review?
- – -How many times do you think it will take to make “X” easier?
- · Is it easier now?
- · Is it so easy you could do it in your sleep? If not, how many more times would that take?
- – Do you like your sounds?
- · Do you think the people in the back row could hear that phrasing?
- · Let’s look at tomorrow’s schedule and decide when to practice.
3. The Cooperation Game
This is a very simple and effective remedial game if the parent and student are really having trouble working together at home. It is meant for students ages four to eight.
Parent, teacher and student have a conference at the lesson. The teacher, explains the game. First, this is the definition of cooperation: “When someone asks you to do something, you say OK and do it with a smile.” We practice on silly things like: “Could you please stand up?” “Could you put your right hand on your head?” “Could you jump up and down three times?.” In each case the student says “OK” and does it with a smile. So the game is that for every day that mom says (in a happy voice) “It’s piano time,” and the student says OK with a smile, the student gets one point. I usually suggest that this goes on the calendar.
We decide at the lesson conference what three points are worth. This might be a lollipop or a special cookie or some tiny toy. It’s important that this reward is decided on before the game starts so that the student knows what s/he is aiming for. The first goal is to get three points. This is only for coming to the practice cooperatively. Then parent and student can try for four points (days), again with a small reward decided oncbeforehand. It’s very important at this stage that the practice itself is kept very short. This is behavior modification and the only goal at this point is to change the attitude toward starting to practice. The first step is to get three or four consecutive days of cooperative practice. The next step is to increase the number of days of consecutive, cooperative practice up to seven days and then ten days and then 14 days with the reward (always decided on beforehand) getting a little bigger each time. After parent and student have gotten to 10 or 14 days, usually the game fades away by itself, but the behavior has been changed.
There are some variants possible to this game. You can add points for doing three things cooperatively within the practice so that each practice is worth four points, and it now takes 12 points to get a reward (we usually use lots of stickers for this version!). The only consideration is that the child must be able to be successful, so it’s important that only a few things are asked for, and it’s very clear what is expected. The three things in the practice might be:
(1) play a Twinkle or a scale
(2) play the practice point in your new piece five times correctly,
(3) play a review piece.
The Cooperation Game can be a very successful way to change practice behavior patterns, but in order for it to work, the child must really understand the meaning of cooperation and the parent must understand that this is to change behavior, not learn lots of new pieces. Practices will be quite short. There may be little actual progress in instrument skills or repertoire for the few weeks while you are doing this game, but if you get a real change in behavior, progress after that will be rapid and everyone will be happier!
Successful and enjoyable practice has several important aspects:
— Understanding that practicing and playing are two different things
— Understanding why we practice—to make something easier and more reliable
— Understanding what to practice—small bits, hands separately, identifying difficulties
— Understanding how to practice—first, with a cheerful and cooperative attitude on the part of the student and the parent; second, using much repetition, slow practice, and having clear goals; third, involving the student in the process of decision making and self evaluation (was that the way you wanted it? was it easier? how many more times do you think it would take to make it easier? etc.)
I truly believe that practicing can be interesting, exciting and positive 95% of the time. If the teacher can give clear directions for what to practice and the parent and student come to the practice session with a sense of fun and a clear understanding of how to practice, there will be a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in making progress. I frequently say to my students: “The most important thing I can teach you is how to practice effectively. I can’t be your teacher forever, so when you leave me, whether you go into music or not, your greatest treasure will be knowing how to practice and learn by yourself.”