Practice! Practice! Practice!
by Kyle C McGowan
Practice makes perfect! But does it? Jillian Michaels says, “People believe practice makes perfect, but it doesn't. If you're making a tremendous amount of mistakes, all you're doing is deeply ingraining the same mistakes”.
“Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect” Vince Lombardi.
So let’s talk about practice. We’ve gone through the steps of practice, the mechanics of “how”, but let’s talk about what needs to be in place to make our practice more effective and efficient before we even put our hands on our instrument!
First of all, establishing a schedule that becomes a habit is essential. Setting a schedule so that piano practice happens optimally at the same time every day, so that when it’s that time, you are headed to the piano, as a matter of course. Most say it takes about 30 days for something to become a habit, so don’t expect this to happen without effort at first!
Second of all, prioritizing piano practice like homework is another vital element. Let’s face it, piano practice isn’t all that fun for most of us! When you go to dance practice or sports practice, you’re met with friends that have the same interest. A coach or instructor is on hand to constantly provide valuable feedback on what you’re doing and to redirect if you’re doing something incorrectly. They run you through drills to help you get better and provide encouragement and guidance so you are constantly engaged and progressing in your sport. Piano practice is mostly a solitary and isolating experience, much like homework. You can ask for some help or guidance from a parent or older sibling, but only if that parent or sibling has the time and experience you need in order to be of help.
Third, the environment is key. Finding a time to practice when there are no other activities going on in the practice area is important. Being able to think; and to not feel self-conscious to count aloud, sing a melody, or to make mistakes is crucial to a successful practice session. We want others to listen when we feel our pieces are polished and ready to be showcased, not as we’re going though the process!
Lastly, having all of our materials out and at the ready and having a plan is a fundamental key to a successful practice. You are provided a notebook, which we make notes in every week to emphasize what you are to be focusing on during practice. Either details of a piece of music that should be worked out, or specific tasks, such as studying a certain grouping of notes, doing theory work, etc.. This work should be planned out - this might include simply putting a checkmark next to the item as it’s completed.
The purpose of practice is so you come to lessons prepared with pieces to play that are at their best for the week. That way, we are able to work on specific elements of a piece during lesson. We can pull apart trouble areas, fine tune elements and concentrate on artistry and otherwise polishing a song. We also, just like school, present some concepts that may need to be studied during practice or played through a musical illustration.
In summary, practice is the most important part of your piano career. Most successful pianists will tell you that their practice time propelled them forward much more than lesson time did. Lesson times are for a check-in, to ensure you’re on the right track!
by Kyle C McGowan
After a student has finished a piece, they frequently hear me ask, “So how was that?” Usually I get an answer like, “Fine” or “Not Good”, or “Ok”, to which I respond, “Tell me more. Pull it apart. What are some elements of the piece and how did you do on each of these? Notes? rhythm/counting? tempo? articulations? dynamics? pedaling?” To which they either shrug their shoulders or respond, “You’re the teacher …” Or both. It’s the rare (usually older) student that is able to articulate their analysis of their playing.
Why is it important to self-evaluate your playing? It’s important to be able to discern your own skills and know where you need improvement. The idea, really, is to work me out of a job! The role of a piano teacher is as mentor, to teach you, the student, how to fish for a lifetime. If I am always sitting here and correcting and directing, there’s no opportunity for true growth.
If I ask the question enough during lesson time, my hope is that the student will eventually anticipate that question and begin to reflect on their own during home practice time. It makes that home practice time then so much more productive and effective. It gives the student a more specific focus for where to spend their minutes of practice.
When a student is dependent upon my critique of their playing, they await criticism. I can start with a positive, but usually it ends then with something that can be improved. When a student takes responsibility for their own self-evaluation and reflection, they can focus more readily on the aspects of the piece that really need attention.
As parents, you, too, can support this at home. When you hear your student practicing, simply asking, “What did you like about your playing?” “Which areas do you feel need more attention?” Or when they show frustration at a part that’s not coming easily, “How do you think you could practice that section?” I teach here about taking very small sections apart — sometimes just a few notes at a time!
Getting our students to approach their own playing with a critical, reflective ear, makes for a more successful student.
The Rogues Gallery Approach to Practice
by Kyle C McGowan
Every once in a while, we come across a certain passage in a song that stumps us. Sometimes it’s because of the rhythm, sometimes it's a difficult fingering. Other times, it’s because of the dance between left hand and right hand - we can get each hand independently to do what we want, but putting them together is a recipe for disaster!
Enter the Rogues Gallery. If you’re a Batman fan, you know that the Rogues Gallery is the term for the various villains that Batman has faced over the years. From a pure law enforcement perspective, it’s the use of a collection of mug shots or other images of criminal suspects kept for identification purposes. For our purposes, a Rogues Gallery are those passages that give us the most trouble in our pieces. A grouping of measures that when we reach that part of the piece gives us the greatest grief. We are playing along, then all of a sudden we come to a screeching halt.
If we start from the beginning every time we encounter a trouble spot and hope that the trouble spot will just resolve on its own if we play the part we can play over again … WRONG!
It’s best to remove that passage from the rest of the piece. Either literally, by making a copy and cutting it out and taping it to a plain piece of paper and just practicing that part. Or, figuratively, by separating that part in our minds and just working on that part of the piece and ignoring the rest of the piece until we are satisfied that we have it down. It does no good to go back to the beginning and just hope that the part we can’t do is just going to all of a sudden “happen” when we encounter it again!
If you’re a baseball player and you are a great outfielder, but you have trouble hitting the ball, when you have an opportunity to practice, would you go to a batting cage or practice fielding, throwing / catching the ball? I think we all know the answer to that!
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