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Practicing vs. Playing


I think it’s safe to assume that, if you or your child are learning to play an instrument, sooner or later the issue of practicing needs to be addressed. How often do you hear yourself saying, “You need to go and practice”? Do we really understand what practice is? Does it simply mean going to the piano and playing until a timer goes off? Or is there more to it than that?

The dictionary defines practice as “(to) perform an activity or exercise a skill repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.” But I believe there is much more to practicing than mere repetition. Here are some ideas to keep in mind when thinking about practicing.

Practicing is different from playing. Do you hear your child (or yourself) simply playing through their assigned pieces from start to finish? Once, twice, maybe even several times? If they make a mistake, do they go back to the beginning and start again? While it’s tempting to play through a piece over and over, the fact is that the student is not really accomplishing much. Mistakes slip by, errors are unknowingly learned, and progress is minimal. Playing through pieces accurately and artistically from start to finish is the end goal, but simply repeating the piece over and over again is not how the real work of learning is achieved.

Effective practicing is goal oriented vs. time oriented. Each practice session should begin with setting goals for that day. These goals should be small enough to be achievable during the available practice time. Simply setting a timer and playing until it goes off is no guarantee that progress is being made. Learning an entire sonatina movement in one practice sitting is not a realistic goal; however, mastering the last line or a tricky couple of measures is doable, and rewarding.

Appropriate practice strategies boost success. We learn lots of different practice strategies during our lessons. (For example, check out the post on Work Zones.) Knowing which strategies work best in a particular situation within a piece is extremely helpful in laying a good foundation when learning a new piece, and in moving a piece toward a more polished, artistic level.

Time does matter. I often tell students that the only time they should look at the clock regarding practice is to know it’s time to start. Often getting started is the hardest part. We want to establish a habit of working until the goal for the day is achieved. Even though our practice time is to be goal oriented, however, the unavoidable fact is that we must put in the time at the instrument in order to progress and improve. Flying through the practice session to get finished in as little time as possible doesn’t do much to move the needle in terms of improving technique and making our performances reliable.

Sometimes, we all need a carrot. Even though we hope to reach a point where students are intrinsically motivated to practice, sometimes a little reward for a job well done helps. One of my favorites is to have a “dessert” piece to play just for fun after working hard on other repertoire. One of my students rewards herself with a cookie after practicing! Sometimes we just need a little nudge to get over the hump.

I hope you’ll think about what practicing really means, and how some small changes might yield big results. What does practice time sound like at yourhouse?

#practice