Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Conflicting advice on practicing?

As a pianist most of my hours at the instrument are spent practicing. A successful 30 minute concerto performance is the result of 20, 30, 100 hours of work alone in a practice room. So *how* I practice is one of the most important topics for me to consider.

As a teacher, "how to practice" is likewise a central subject of conversation between my students and me. They spend many more hours practicing on their own each week than they do with me. With this in mind, it is not surprising how many books and articles have been written on the subject of practicing. I myself have given presentations on practicing to various music-teacher's groups, and have more than once been a part of public "panel discussions" on the topic of practicing. Recently, there have been two articles gaining a lot of attention among musicians that both give good - but possibly conflicting - advice. I am sharing them both here for you to read for yourself and decide what you think.

First is an article from Time Magazine from August, entitled "Over-Practicing Makes Perfect" ( The basic premise of the article is that practicing well beyond the point of knowing something ("over"-practicing) is not useless repetition, but in fact is teaching our brains (and/or fingers) to do the task more and more easily. The ultimate result of this "ease" is that we can devote more attention to other tasks. In other words, if we practice a difficult passage of music enough, it will require little or none of our attention and we can focus on the musical expression or something else.

This article suggests that when we continue to repeat or "drill" certain tasks, it may appear that we are not making progress (beyond a certain point), but there is in fact something being gained. This is probably the advice we (and/or our students) would NOT like to hear - it implies that we all should be practicing MORE, that we should be repeating things more. We would all much rather hear that there is a shortcut, a quick way to learn things so that we can move on to other activities, like watching baseball games or blogging.

A more recent article ( from the interesting blog "Bulletproof Musician" is more immediately appealing in that sense: it suggests not a shortcut, but certainly a more interesting way to practice than mere repetition. The article is well worth reading yourself, but some of the salient points include the fact that our minds tend to "tune out" sameness - our brains are instead wired to be alert to changes, rather than things that remain the same. So when we practice in the same way (or practice the same passage of music) over and over again, we quickly become mentally disengaged and much of the work we do doesn't "stick," according to the article.

The remedy for this is not so easy to describe, but basically it is to vary - constantly - what or how we are practicing. For example, we can take a specific passage of music and practice it different ways in succession (first hands separately, then in rhythms, then slowly, then back to hand separately, etc.). Or we can intersperse the practicing of one passage with another (first a few minutes of the Liszt Sonata octaves, then a few minutes of the Fugue section, then back to the octaves, back to the Fugue, etc.)

At first glance, this method of practicing is very appealing precisely because it is very much unlike the way I have practiced, and the novelty is fascinating. It can, however, also seem a bit chaotic - rather than sticking with something until it's good, we keep going back and forth between different tasks. The purpose is to keep our minds engaged, but I can easily imagine that we can lose our focus and end up half-learning many things rather than fully learning a few things.

I do recommend reading both of the articles, and coming to your own conclusions. I welcome hearing your comments and ideas here on the blog. Do you think the two methods contradict each other, or can they coexist?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Convincing others (or ourselves?) to take music lessons

For about a year now I've been teaching the Piano Pedagogy course at Boston Conservatory, a requirement for undergraduate pianists. It's been a learning experience for me, as I never actually took a course on the subject – my own abilities as a teacher have been formed by experience and by seeing the examples of many wonderful teachers who taught me.

But one of the particular challenges as I think about helping conservatory students become better teachers is that most of their future students are likely to be less gifted and ambitious than they are. Only the most interested and talented students end up attending music school for college or graduate school, but many of these will end up spending at least some portion of their careers teaching students who may not even want to be there. They may have parents who drag them kicking and screaming to their lessons, or (if their teachers are lucky) they may want to play the piano but will not be willing to put in the work required (I can relate to this myself – I don't always WANT to put in the work needed, but I have learned through experience that hard work makes me play better, obviously).

A further challenge to the future incomes of these students (who, by the way, are spending quite a lot on tuition!) is that piano lessons are not something every kid (or parent) is interested in, and I would guess that the numbers have decreased over the past 10 or 20 years (though I don't know for sure). There is certainly no doubt that funding for music education in schools is lower than it once was. The debate over funding for arts education is constant, and it has led to a variety of studies attempting to show the benefits of music, for example, beyond the attainment of skill at an instrument or the increased appreciation for Beethoven Quartets. Recently, my Facebook friends have been gleefully sharing this article about the recent Nobel Prize winner (in medicine), Thomas Sudhof, who credits his bassoon teacher with teaching him his most valued skills (work ethic and listening).

I would certainly concur that childhood music lessons teach much more than music (though that it in and of itself is valuable and enjoyable of course). What I don't know is how much is specific to music lessons and how much is gained by the mastery (or the process of mastering) any skill. My daughter, for example, spends about 2 hours a day, 6 days a week, at the ice rink, and I'm proud of her accomplishments. But while it would of course be an amazing (and unlikely) achievement one day to go to the Olympics, the real benefit of all those hours (and all those thousands of dollars spent on coaches) is that she is learning to be disciplined, to perform in public, to cope with nerves and disappointment, to have courage (it's pretty scary doing a double lutz), and of course it's also good physical exercise. Some of these same skills or personal qualities might be developed in music lessons. And these life skills are clearly beneficial in many fields, as the Nobel Prize winner Sudhof said. On the other hand, more time spent on music means less time spent on, say, computer programming, or some other potentially useful skill.

Another article making the rounds on Facebook is on a familiar subject: what kind of qualities or activities separate the great achievers from the rest of the world? This particular article uses high achievers in distinct fields (Mozart and Kobe Bryant) to illustrate some key elements of success: The two main points are that when we practice, it will take time (10 years, in fact) before we achieve greatness, and that our practice needs to be with a specific purpose (something I've been telling students for years). Mozart is cited as an example of the first point, and Kobe Bryant as an example of the second.

Do articles like these help to persuade parents to sign their kids up for music lessons? I think there are some who look at kids' extracurricular activities as a stepping stone to college admissions. There are many kids who diligently practice an instrument only to stop the moment they arrive at Harvard. The number of adults in community orchestras clearly is much smaller than the number of kids in youth orchestras. Is this because they don't have the time? (That is certainly possible! But many kids in youth orchestras get there only because their parents act as full time chauffeurs and secretaries). Is it because they now hate music? (That doesn't seem likely – I assume their appreciation for music would be greater). Are there a lack of community orchestras for them to join? (Possibly, depending on the community where they live).

I think that aside from the time issue (which can be real – some adults work multiple jobs, and/or have children to care for, etc), I think adults simply don't value their own “extracurricular” time as much as their kids'. That is, they might set aside many hours (and dollars) to take their kids to take music lessons, but they themselves think “it's too late for me.” When it comes to sports, I can see this line of thinking – a 40 year old might hesitate to start learning to ski for fear of injury, whereas a 10 year old can heal quickly. And in music it is true that an adult learner will never be able to achieve what a 15 year old who started at age 5 can do. But I think many are enrolling their kids for “extra-musical” reasons (get in to college, develop a work ethic, learn an appreciation for culture) that isn't necessary any more for an adult (or so they think).

I have to express admiration for those adults who do see that education (musical or otherwise) can and should continue throughout our lives. I have an adult piano student who is 74 years old. I know some skating parents who take lessons once or twice a week (I took an adult class for a few months years ago, but it doesn't fit in my schedule any more), amazed to see how much braver their kids are on the ice than they are. My mother, when she was in her 60's, took the same introductory computer course two or three times in an attempt (not altogether successful) to be more comfortable with word processing and other basic computer skills.

Many years ago, as a college freshman, I was in New York rehearsing with a violinist friend in the home of the great pianist Ilana Vered. I was giving some musical advice to my friend when Ilana walked in the room and said “you should give the same advice to yourself.” Many of us devoted parents who take our children's mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual development very seriously might think about being good “parents” to our own selves.