Bombing my Practice Room

Hating the practice room is one of the most debilitating problems for aspiring young musicians. After all, it’s not actually possible to become a better performer without being consistent in your daily work.

Have you ever wondered why two students even of the same teacher will approach the practice room so differently? Maybe one is eager and ambitious while the other is trepidatious. Maybe one is disinterested and the other is ready to destroy the practice space… And the instrument… And the teacher…

Is this all personality? I think not.

For example, if a student has high expectations when they enter the practice room but they do not know how to equally assess both strengths and weaknesses in their performance they will almost always inevitably steer toward recognizing only weaknesses. This can quickly result in frustration and low self-esteem. Often the practice sessions are very short and completely unproductive.

Likewise, if the student can equally recognize both strengths and weaknesses but is unable to construct methods for eliminating those weaknesses they are likely to develop technique imbalances and want to gravitate to literature that only reflects their strengths. When faced with “prescribed” literature (such as that for all-state, solo competitions, or ensembles) they will have little control over the content in that music and may get increasingly frustrated as they recognize the widening gap created by avoidance. This can also result in frustration and self-esteem problems. Their practice may be long and driven but only of very lyrical work that avoids articulation or of only technical work that avoids dynamic control and shaping.

Let’s take a look at how any and every student can start to build a healthy approach in the practice room today.

First- every student needs to be able to label their own strengths. I have found that the more advanced a student is the more self-critical they tend to be, perhaps as a result of exposure and awareness. I make a habit of telling students what their strengths are until a student can identify what they like about any given performance. (Note to the hard-nosed teacher: a strength is here defined as the weakness of fundamental technique which is of least concern to you at this particular moment in your life as a teacher 😂)

Second- every student must be able to label their weaknesses. In my experience it is best to give them a maximum number allowed. I usually change this arbitrarily. For example, one lesson I might have a student list the three things in an étude that they feel they most need help with. On a different day I may ask them to tell me a weakness that they felt stood out in their playing but they can only list one weakness for each strength that they label.

Third- the student needs to be able to identify a practice technique they have been shown in lessons or rehearsals that would be helpful when addressing the labeled weakness. I find it best to have a student pick one problem, one method, and assign 2-5 diligent working minutes (depending in attention span and playing level) to that task. They may need to be told that each day they can slightly alter the practice technique for variety’s sake but that it may take a few days for real progress to sink in and yield long-term benefits and consistency.

Here’s an example:

Jenny has a beautiful tone in her scalar passages during warm-up but in her performance of étude #21 her tone becomes edgy and explosive when articulated. Unable to find her strengths when questioned I have her play the opening slur of her scale exercises. I compliment her on her tone and air support and ask what technique in étude #21 made this more complicated. Now she easily recognizes articulation as the culprit. I ask her what articulation exercises she knows and how we can blend it with what is asked in the étude. (Younger/less experienced students need more guidance with this.) See my blog: Baby Steps

Fourth- the student should try to do some goal driven practice for two or three areas of weakness in the practice routine but it’s best if these are short, intensive sessions which are alternated with other practice techniques like playing through longer sections or full-runs. Every student must have variety in the routine or it becomes stale, boring, and ineffective.

Fifth- the student should be able to recognize goal-driven practice as a success even if the weakness is not completely “cured.” The ultimate goal of practice is to learn and grow which is a natural result of goal-driven practice.

Hopefully the student will be better able to recognize both practice success and progress which should lead to more confidence and a healthier approach to the next practice session. After all, I would rather a student blow up their practice routine than blow up their practice room.

Picture courtesy of Kyleah

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