Learning an instrument needs practice – no one would disagree with that. But, knowing how to practice effectively and efficiently to make good progress is a little more challenging.
A university music professor raised this topic the other day on social media as he had noticed he was having to teach students how to practice. He was pretty surprised that he was having to teach this to university students at all. What was interesting about this thread was that when we discussed the topic further we actually realised we hadn’t really been taught how to practice effectively at a young age either. So to presume our students come with this knowledge already was a little unfair.
In fact, it really is easy to presume that our students know how to do many things. Let’s take technology as an example. Ask a student about tik-tok, snap chat or how to make a video on their phone and they will be able to confidently show you. But, ask them to send an email with an attachment, created a powerpoint or type a letter correctly and they don’t always know how to do it. Students still need teaching these fundamental skills in IT and this is also true of learning how to practice an instrument.
So here are 3 ways you can help your student practice more efficiently:
- Understanding how the technical aspects relate to their music
When I was learning to play the clarinet, I worked through the ABRSM exam board course. You learn the pieces and then all the technical aspects such as the scales. I never really minded learning scales and arpeggios but I real never understood why I needed to learn them other than to pass the exam.
My teachers never really explained how technical aspects such as scales and arpeggios related to a piece of music and I think it was a hinderance to my progress as a young musician. Every piece is in a specific key signature and within that piece the melodic line will be littered with scalic and arpeggio movement. The piece would probably modulate to a related key signature and if I had truly understood these relationships earlier in my musical training it would have helped me understand how to master the technical challenges of a piece quickly and spend more time on the expression and story-telling of the piece.
In all the years I have been teaching music, I still advocate that we must help our students see the links between academic classroom music, instrumental lessons and ensemble playing. The theory and musical elements are the same in all areas of musical study but our students don’t always connect this without our help. This should be happening from the very early stages of learning music and not just for our advanced university students.
2. How to learn a piece by breaking it into sections
It is so easy to start a piece of music, play it for a while, make a mistake, start again at the beginning, and repeat. The only problem with this, as you already know, is that the only section that ever truly gets good is the beginning!
So help your student break the music into sections and practice it that way. Why not start at the end and work backwards? By changing the patterns of learning a piece, particularly the longer works our more advanced students study, then it keeps the boredom out and the mistakes from creeping in.
3. Understand the structure of a piece
Musical pieces are full of repetition and structure. Yet how often do we get our students to identify this outside of the academic classroom? Even from the beginner stages, students understanding repetition in musical phrases and overall structure – whether that is ternary form of verse/chorus structure – will improve dramatically. That brand new two-page piece that looks terribly difficult to your student – once explained how it was composed and structured suddenly becomes much more manageable to learn.
Once the structure of the piece is understood then talking about the musical phrasing, expressive elements and technical challenges (articulation, etc) will make more sense to the student when they are trying to create a higher level performance.
If I could go back and chat with my 22 year old self I would tell her that the mentors were WRONG!
One of my favourite parts of teaching is when students find or suggest new songs for us to learn together.
A life of music is hugely rewarding and fulfilling but, like most things, can get monotonous at times if you don’t keep it fresh and new. So how do we keep music and lessons interesting?