As a piano teacher, I spend 50% of my time teaching kids how to read music and the other 50% of my time teaching them how to practice. As a voice teacher, I spend 50% of my time teaching body awareness and technique, and 50% of my time teaching them how to practice. And as a dance teacher, I spend 75% of my time teaching “moves,” 20% teaching technique, and 5% teaching them how to practice. Of course, we run drills and repetitions, practicing in class. But that’s not the same as teaching someone how to acquire a skill on their own. In an attempt to rectify this imbalance in my teaching, I thought I would take some of the insights I’ve garnered from teaching piano and voice, and share them here for any and all interested in learning more about practicing.
First, my definition of practice:
Practicing is the process of taking something difficult, and making it easy.
That’s it. Take something hard, make it easy. For me, this idea of practice extends to all things; mathematics, literature, science, the arts, philosophy. In my brain, I do make a distinction for the practice of physical actions where the goal is to train the body and practice of intellectual things that focus on that specific, grey matter part of the body. When training the body, we need to train the mind, too, but the end goal is for the body to be able to execute without the mind having to consciously process in minutiae. It just takes too long to go from the brain through all of the processes to the commands to the body to the actual execution. We need the grey matter in the beginning, but my methods of practicing always strive for minimizing the role of the brain in the end.
Stage 1: Practicing for “The Click.”
My college piano professor had a saying that has been repeated by many a teacher: “Practice DOESN’T make perfect. PERFECT practice makes perfect.” The challenge for us is that it is near impossible to start out perfect. So the first part of our practice is to get to perfect. Slow, meticulous, methodical. This is my mantra to get there. I have two main tools for this.
The first is the zoom tool. In piano, I often say, if you can’t play one note right, you can’t play two notes right. If you can’t play two notes, you can’t play the measure. If you can’t play the measure, you can’t play the phrase. And so on. One of the easiest ways to take something difficult and make it easy is to zoom in to the point where we can be successful, master that little chunk, and then start to add these little pieces together. Most often, students try to do too much at once. Mastery is built on the understanding of every fine detail, and its often easier to learn those details one at a time than to try to tackle everything at once. Sometimes, you can take out some details, such as styling, as you master the basic movement. Then, go back and add the detail as the next goal to accomplish.
The second is the slow-motion tool. The slower we go, the more time we have for our brain to process to think, and to execute with accuracy. Eventually, we want to get the brain out of the way, but if we’ve got to use it, lets give it the time it needs to do its thing. With repetition, we can minimize the amount of time we spend thinking about each step in the process.
Throughout this stage of the process, its important to be observant, think critically and make adjustments. If you screw up the same way two or three times in a row, address the difficulty immediately. Zoom in, and drill the problem. Or slow down. Its better to take your time in the beginning than to be unlearning mistakes. From my own experiences, unlearning mistakes is a painful and tedious process.
Stage 2: Perfect Practice
When I’m working with young students, I often find that they short cut the first part of the process and then never really get to the second part. Once you are able to do something perfect, then the practicing for retention begins. We want as many clean, perfect repetitions as possible. Usually, I set my students goals: 3 times right in a row, 5 times right in a row, and as they get to more complicated and challenging music, 10 times right in a row. The goal is to build consistency, and identify any remaining weaknesses in execution which should be addressed with the stage 1 tools.
This is also the time to slowly increase speed. We don’t immediately jump to the desired speed, we want to build up gradually, always remaining in control of our execution. I have lots of other little tools that I often use to assist in building up speed. For instance, I will move as quickly as I can to a predetermined pausing point(s), acclimating my body to the quick actions. Then, I’ll shift where the pausing point is. Eventually, I can put it all back together without the pauses.
In addition, it can be useful to start from scratch, modify your technique or your way of thinking. In piano, I will sometimes practice staccato (short, detached notes), just to force my body through the same motions in a different way. With singing, that might mean practicing a pop song with classical technique. In dancing, I might adjust the scale of the pulse or the amount of stretch in the connection. The more ways you force your brain to grapple with the same material, the more mastery you develop over it.
One last thought on practicing in general: Set clear, deliberate goals for your practice time. It feels good to accomplish. One small thing done is progress. And it may be that the next day, you lose that progress. Don’t worry, it will come to you easier the second time. In the movie, Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character narrates, “Geology is the study of pressure over time.” Practice is the same thing. Pressure over time. Practice smart. Work hard. Apply pressure over time. “That’s all it takes really, pressure and time.”