Questioning the Practice of Practising

9 November 2015 Werribee, VIC, 3030

Learning to read the music can be challenging...Learning to read the music can be challenging...At the end of the lesson I say to "John" to practice song 1, 2, and 3. His task is to play the song through and become more confident and competent in playing the songs both hands together. But the next week, he starts playing, and as the song goes on he starts making a few mistakes and starts from the beginning. Again he plays the song and stumbles at "that" bit. I ask him what the problem actually is. He says that "he does not know". Sound familiar?

This is the time where we go into "problem solving" mode. And we get the student to "fix" the mistake. That's all fine. But are we conscious of exactly "what" we are doing at this point? How come getting this "right" can be "hit and miss" and not reliable? 

I start questioning myself about "what is practice" and how can i improve my teaching so that students become more competent players. 

A few days later I am sitting at my piano practising for an upcoming examination. I stumble upon a section. I say to myself "What is the problem here" (fingering problem) so I start going over the problem area then practising either side of the problem. 

This is not new. As teachers and players we all KNOW HOW to practice and how to get students to practice. You repeat something over and over until it is "automatic". My question is "How does something become automatic"?Is it just doing some over and over, or is there something else we have not been considering? 

Teaching "John" I discovered that the act of "practising" is actually training the brain. John KNOWS what to do. He can read the music. He can hear it (by singing it). He can play the song by ear.

I asked John to play the song again and consciously tell himself out aloud before he got to the spot where he would stumble to play a particular note with a particular finger. I explained that he had to "unlearn" what he had been doing and start learning it newly. In the playing of that section 5 times correctly and putting it back into context could he play the whole section of the song without stopping. 

John explained to me that this level of practice was like learning to drive a car: learning the mechanics of reading the symbols, interpreting them and looking ahead, listening to how it is and how it "should" be, and the playing of the notes. In effect, practice involves nothing more than establishing brain patterns and making them "automatic". 

It now seems obvious that the success to teaching is nothing more than getting students to develop successful PRACTICE TECHNIQUES. Getting a piece right should now never be a mystery. Effective practice is now more than ever about developing effective cognitive brain function rather than just "getting the notes right".