The Practice Revolution: A 3 Pronged Approach to Productive Practice

productive practice

There are four principles that I consider to be the fundamental framework for music instruction: Posture, Pulse, Phonology and Personality. These principles drive every lesson and rehearsal, from the very first time onwards. And they remain the underlying principles for our emerging professionals just as for our beginners.

They also form the driving force behind practice—but how can we set up a process where we can be sure that our students will practice?

Having inquired about the health of our student’s pet hamster (which always gets a lesson off to a good start!), maybe we then ask…

“So what have you been practicing this week?”

It’s a fair question. And here’s what might happen in a perfect world:

If the week’s practice was set up with considerable care, if our student really understood the prescribed activities and all the various ingredients involved… If, during the actual practice, our student felt a sense of achievement and understood how it fitted into an enjoyable and meaningful ongoing learning program… And if our student knows that whatever has been practiced will be duly acknowledged and will form the basis for the next lesson…

…Then we might expect the answer to be enthusiastic, informative, and filled with a positive eagerness for the ensuing lesson. But the truth is (if the answer is indeed truthful) that our question is more likely to be met with a rather negative and defensive response:

“I haven’t had time to do much …”

“I only had time this week to go through my piece last night and it didn’t go very well.”

“I couldn’t remember the notes of C sharp minor arpeggio and got annoyed.”

“I didn’t really understand what you wanted me to do and besides, I was too busy.”

Students, from time immemorial, have found endless reasons for not practicing. All the various reasons why students might not practice are covered in my book, The Practice Processbut right now I’d like to suggest a method through which we can get our students to change their attitude, and begin to think much more positively and enthusiastically about their practice.

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The 3 Prongs of Productive Practice

If practice is delivered as a sort of ‘bolt-on’ at the end of a lesson or rehearsal, we certainly can’t be confident that it will be done enthusiastically, or indeed at all! We need to find a method whereby it becomes a natural extension and will always be carried out with purpose and pleasure.

We probably do have one group of students who practice with pleasure—and it’s usually more than just pleasure: this group frequently really love it. I’m thinking of our beginners. It’s all new and exciting and they often can’t get enough of it. But for many, that euphoria soon begins to fade as the novelty wears off, progress seems to slow down, and everything becomes more complex.

What goes wrong? How can we retain this enthusiasm?

The whole problem has largely arisen because we have the notion that the success of our students’ practice is mostly because of things that they do rather than things that we do. If our part in their practicing process is simply giving them a list of things to do, it’s highly likely that things will not be done. If we’re going to start a real transformation, a practice revolution, we are going to have to take on more responsibility and begin to manage their practice with more care. This doesn’t necessarily mean more work or a seismic shift in what we already do. But it will require a change of approach.

The difference is that this new approach puts practice center stage in our teaching and allows students to see it as a natural part of a vibrant, ongoing, and organic process, rather than an often tedious and only vaguely related optional extra. The basis of this approach is really very straightforward and simply requires us to make sure that three things happen. To some extent, we’re probably doing them already—it will just be a case of refining and managing them more effectively.

  1. The first is that we regularly talk about, explain, discuss, and describe the practice that our students are going to do, during the whole course of the lesson. Try to use the phrase, “When you practice…” often as lessons unfold.
  2. The second is that we decide what is to be done in collaboration with our students, and set it down on paper in a very clear, understandable and engaging manner. It’s not a question of telling our students what they are to practise. The actual substance of a week’s practice needs to develop as a result of a dialogue with them and it needs to be set out with imagination.
  3. The third is that we assiduously generate each new lesson out of the practice that students have done.

So, in three words:

Integration, Representation, and Connection.

I call this the Simultaneous Practice Cycle and it’s a topic you can find out much more about in my book, The Practice Process.

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