February Practice Challenge

One of the great mysteries for new students (and sometimes even advanced musicians, too!) is practice -- how frequently, how long, and just HOW. To that end, this February I invited all of my students, from Fairy Lights up through adults, brand new beginners and advanced students alike, to participate in a studio-wide practice challenge!

The first week was all about frequency, the foundation of good practice -- aiming for daily, because daily practice means each session counts. Missing an occasional day is unlikely to cause much trouble, but skipping days routinely means each practice session is more like treading water, a struggle to maintain skills rather than build upon them.

To keep our focus on frequency, the first week's challenge was to take an "action shot" photo each day of the student practicing. It immediately became clear that we need to have a KnightLizard Music photography show sometime; these pictures of musicians in action were gorgeous!

Our second week prioritized listening. Listening to recordings, especially of music currently being learned as well as pieces recently mastered and those coming up in the near future, is of vital importance. I would hazard a guess that it is the one of the most overlooked components of a successful practice routine.

So the second week's challenge was to drop a quick note each day with the names of the CD and/or pieces that were listened to. I could easily tell in class which students had bumped up their listening! And the beautiful thing is that once listening becomes a routine, it is very easy to maintain. Some students keep their CDs in their cars. Some listen at bedtime, first thing in the morning, or while making or eating meals. Not only does hearing repertoire professionally played imprint the correct notes, rhythms, tone quality, and expressivity into the student's memory, but it also tends to inspire enthusiastic practice immediately afterward!

The third week I wanted to delve into the HOW of practicing, which is a valuable lifelong skill both in terms of perfecting the approach and in using it in many diverse arenas beyond music. Students sent me videos of them practicing one piece each day and I replied with feedback.

For my beginners, a lot of my comments had to do with set-up, posture, and hand shapes. Because most of my students come to my studio for lessons, this was sometimes the first time I had seen them practicing at home. Was a piano bench too close or too low? Was a string player's instrument properly situated? Were wrists in alignment, backs straight, heads balanced? All of the above form a baseline for success. If playing is physically comfortable, we are more likely to enjoy it!

My advice to intermediates tended to focus primarily on the importance of practicing small portions of a piece rather than merely playing straight through. As pieces become more challenging, this becomes increasingly vital. If you spill tomato sauce on one square foot of an 8' x 12' room, do you mop the whole floor indiscriminately or do you focus your efforts on the messy area? Efficient practice is not just faster, it is way more satisfying.

 For my advanced students, the videos gave us a welcome recurring checkpoint for polishing skills like vibrato, shifting, and articulation, and fine tuning intonation, dynamics, tone colors, and other expressive elements. This chance to workshop more deeply paid off in spades as students took charge of their learning, choosing where to target my input each day. 

For students of all levels, this portion of the challenge was a chance to uproot bad habits almost before they had formed instead of having them grow for a week. New material was embarked upon more smoothly and older pieces that had been lingering for weeks or months with one or two small issues to fix were mastered in a matter of days.

The fourth and final week targeted the joy of practicing. Inelegantly dubbed our review/catch-up week, students who had not completed previous weeks were invited to do so now, and those who had were to review the old pieces of their choice to glean new insight from them.

So many students/parents told me they found this week revved up their engines and made practicing all of their pieces easier, more fun, and more rewarding.

Having a second chance to accomplish this challenge lit a fire under students who might otherwise have felt inadequate for not reaching their goals. The students who used this week to catch up may be surprised to hear they are actually some of my most dedicated practicers. They know the value of "try and try again," "slow and steady wins the race," and all of those other tropes of wisdom that value perseverance above all.

Reviewing previously polished pieces rivals listening to recordings for the title of most overlooked aspect of effective practicing. It is tempting to spend all of our time pressing onward, tackling new pieces and techniques without respite. But when do we savor how far we have come? When do we truly enjoy our growing abilities? When we play those songs we thought were so hard a month or a year ago and discover how comfortable they are now! Not only that, but we find we can add nuance to these unearthed works that would have been far beyond us when we were learning them, refinements of expression that make the music come more fully alive. And later, upon returning to our current works in progress, we realize the most persnickety spots have magically gotten easier.

Students look at me skeptically when I tell them I've yet to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star without honing some aspect of my playing. At times this ceaselessly moving target of never-fully-done evokes groans of frustration from all of us musicians, but like a meditation practice it can be a gateway to profoundly fulfilling enjoyment.

Perfect performances are a myth. Our goal when practicing is not perfection but finely wrought joy. Joy in hard work, joy in tangible progression, in teamwork and collaboration or in blissful solitude.  The simple delight of being beauty in motion, and above all, the treasured gift of conveying the unspeakable depths of one's being directly to another.