My primary job as a teacher is to teach my students how to teach themselves, or in other words, how to practice effectively. In lessons, I walk them through the process of practicing, and while strategies change to suit different problems, the framework essentially remains the same: find, fix, repeat (a LOT), move on.
However, as the semester has gone on, it has become clear that my students need more explicit guidelines for their practicing than an instruction to use the framework to fix all of their problems. So, after teaching well over 300 lessons since August, a light bulb finally came on in my head this week. (Clearly, this was a slow burn.) On the spot, I invented the first of my Golden Rules of Practicing, all of which I will discuss here over the coming weeks.
Golden Rule #1 of Practicing: Never play something wrong the same way twice.
This gets at the fundamental problem in most students' practicing, namely that they think simply having the instrument in their hands counts as practicing. Honestly, I was well into my professional life before I realized how far this was from the truth, so this problem isn't isolated to the youngest players. Golden Rule #1 is designed to help by keeping practicers from mindlessly running through music without making improvements. There's a lot hidden in this simple-sounding rule, so let's look at it from different vantage points.
The first consideration is that mindfulness is built into the rule: one can't know a mistake has been made twice unless he/she is playing with awareness. Focusing on the music we make as we make it puts us on the fast track to improvement.
Equally important is the urgency this rule implies. Students (and the rest of us) constantly complain that they don't have enough time to practice, so who has time to make the same mistakes repeatedly? If we are aware that something is wrong, we need to fix it. Now. Or at the very least, make a note of it so that it can be fixed soon.
Also, the specter of healthy guilt looms within Rule #1, thanks to that word we should never use, never. Perhaps this is controversial, but I communicate from the point of view of a musician who has been salvaged by healthy guilt. If I know something is wrong and don't fix it, an irritant gets into my brain, like a grain of sand in an oyster, and it continues to irritate me until I return to the practice room to work it out and make a pearl. If I don't want to be irritated, I can work the problem out when it arises, thereby avoiding the guilt. Acknowledging the power I have to take responsibility for my own playing is what makes the guilt healthy, and framing it that way helps students too. Bob Duke, Head of Music and Human Learning at The University of Texas at Austin, puts it this way (paraphrased): as long as someone is happy with the status quo, why would they ever want to change? In other words, sometimes we need to be irritated to push ourselves to do our best work, and we likewise need to irritate our students from time to time as well.
A final element of this first rule is the idea of playing something wrong the same way twice. There is a virtually endless number of ways to play something poorly. However, if we are focused on fixing a passage--inventing and trying strategies, making changes one at a time--and the problem persists, then we really aren't playing wrong the same way every time. After all, we're making changes, so we're not having the same experience every time. Investment in the process and constantly trying to find a solution: these are invaluable behaviors that will help us find a solution or at least rule out the things that aren't the solution. As such, they should be positively reinforced within ourselves and our students.
As we wrap up, a word of caution regarding the word "wrong." Many people tend to internalize it as a value judgment. Playing something "wrong" makes us "bad players," and that can be the beginning of a neverending spiral of shame. I'm clearly not against using the word, but as teachers, it's important to frame it well. "Wrong" just implies that something is inaccurate, problematic, not being played to the best of the student's abilities. It has no reflection on a student's character or potential, and in my view, it does not even reflect on a student's true abilities. It is important that students, especially the most serious ones, understand this, so that they have the mental and emotional energy to keep going, even when the problems they're tackling are great and many. The same goes for us professionals, as well.
If you want to read stuff like this regularly, subscribe to Dr. Tim's Teaching Tips on the right! I promise you'll only be emailed with new blog posts, never spam. You can also add the blog to your RSS feed.
Finally, if you like this post, then you'll love The Scientific Method of Practicing, where the underlying information is covered in detail. Head over to the publications page to pick up a copy.