How to Practice to Get the Most From a Music Lesson
We spend a lot of time at Upper Beaches Music School talking about the importance of practicing. "Practice at least 5 days a week," we say. "Practice this line 4 times every day. Practice just this bar at least 10 times each day this week," I told one of my students earlier this week. This is good advice. But this is highly prescriptive practicing, and it might only be what's necessary for the next few days. How can you tailor your practice sessions with your child so that you get see the maximum improvement before the next lesson?
If you are practicing with your young child (which you should be, if you are adhering to the Suzuki Method, or your child under the age of about 10), part of the purpose is to help your child break down their practice time in to manageable chunks so that they can see improvement. This isn't always easy or fun (read our posts on "Practicing With My Three Year Old" and "Five Tips to Make Practicing More Fun"), but it's perhaps the most important step in the process of learning an instrument.
Too often, when I ask a student how they've practiced a piece, they reply with a confused look and a fumbled answer. "I played it," they say. Which I take to mean, they started at the beginning and played through to the end. If they were ambitious, they probably did this several times a day. But somehow, the piece didn't get better or easier. They just improved their ability to play through it with all the mistakes in it.
The thing is, what we normally call "practicing" isn't always effective. In fact, I'm not completely convinced most young students know what they're trying to achieve other than knock off a few more twinkles. But it's not the repetition that makes it improve. It's the repetition of the appropriate passage or set of notes in the correct way that will see improvement.
As a teacher, when I assign homework like "practice this section 5 times every day," I've done some work for could have been done at home. I've broken the piece into small sections, identified the tricky spots, and given a prescription that I think will help it to improve. For many students, this type of "check the box" practicing is the best way for them to be productive in their practicing at home. But for others, this is too formulaic. The student (and their parent, if they are young), should be able to come up with an even more tailored system that will adjust each day as they improve.
Here's how to practice at home.
The best thing you can do at home during practice time is to identify why a piece does not yet sound performance-ready. The problem is probably one of two things: It's either a technical problem that makes everything sound less than lovely (like a bow that isn't straight), or it's a specific spot in the piece that is just tricky in it's own right. Sometimes it's a combination of the two. If you can identify which one it is, you're miles ahead when you arrive at your music lesson.
If the problem is a technical one, the solution is simple. Choose something to play that your child finds dead easy, like a review piece, a simple scale, or even open strings. Then aspire to play it with the most impeccable technique possible- the straightest bow ever, the best thumb in the world, the nicest posture you've ever seen, etc. If you do this regularly, the proper technique will start to spill over into the more difficult pieces too.
If the problem is a specific tricky spot, the solution is slightly more complex. But once you understand how the piece is structured, it's easy to identify problem spots and isolate them. And once you've isolated them and tried to figure out exactly why they are so troublesome, the real practicing can begin. Then when you arrive at your lessons, your teacher can tell you things that you wouldn't have figured out on your own. Even better, they might move on to a new concept or piece.
Here's how to practice a tricky spot so that you get the most out of your lessons:
1. Divide the piece into small sections (if you don't know how to do this, have your teacher help you identify the natural phrases)
2. Rank the sections in order of difficulty
3. In the difficult sections, identify what makes it tricky. Is it a string crossing? A problematic fingering?
4. Work on fixing the tricky spots in the difficult sections by playing only the few tricky notes slowly
5. Gradually speed up the tempo of just those few notes, making sure you never go so fast that you can't play them perfectly
6. Play the tricky spot in the context of the difficult section, still only as fast as you can play it perfectly
7. Play the difficult section in the context of it's surrounding phrases
8. Play-throughs of the entire piece only need to happen when all the tricky spots have been solved and put into context.
Rebecca Lane is the director, founder, and owner of Upper Beaches Music School. She teaches at the school on Saturdays, but most days you can find her chasing after her three young children, one of whom is in the Suzuki violin program at UBMS.