Music is said to be a universal language. It can mean different things to different people, however the techniques involved in learning and practicing music can be very similar for any instrument. Most of what is written below is applicable to students of any instrument, except for the division of hands in the case of piano practice.
Students are told to practice. This verb is probably mentioned in each music lesson at least once. As a music teacher for over forty years I know that just telling someone that they should practice is not enough, especially if it isn’t happening regularly or in a productive manner in the first place. Music teachers need to be sure students understand what they are to do in practice and not just tell them to do it. In this way they will be able to employ and use to their benefit the information and instruction learned at lessons. It is the job of the music teacher to be sure that students understand all practice materials that are presented in lessons.
“The Fundamental Things Apply”
Practice is difficult as a concept if the basic elements of music are not emphasized and made clear throughout the entirety of music lessons. For that reason, we stress note identification for each clef equally, note values and counting as they pertain to time signatures, how notes fit into measures and how measures fit into a phrase. This whole whole-view concept help students to know that learning music is more than just recognizing the note names.
One very valuable function of the music lesson is in helping students to learn “how to” practice. Teachers guide their students in a way that practice should imitate. In music selection, student pieces can be divided into short groups. These groupings are generally about four measures in duration. If the weekly objective is to learn one page of music it may be divided into as many phrase groups as are included on the page. Sixteen measures will likely have four phrases. Phrase groups make sense because they act like sentences in a story. Four measures of music often present a musical thought and ultimately can be shaped in a way that helps to present the musical idea. Notes, counts, fingerings and sometimes dynamic markings an pedaling are all included as valuable information within the phrase. Practicing each hand separately simplifies the effort. That makes reading notes of the treble or bass clef a less complex process which otherwise can be confusing until each hand alone is clearly understood and practiced. Dividing complete pages into the number of phrases and practicing each of the phrase groups multiple times will help to cement fundamental concepts of notes, counting and fingering. There is no way around learning to practice without a clear understanding of these basic elements. If a student is not interested in their own practice or is confused as to what to do, a return to elemental fundamentals such as note identification and a closer look at counting and how that is done is needed. With all that in place do the following and practicing should be more fruitful:
- Determine a regular time of day, and an amount of time can be used to practice. i.e. thirty minutes at 4:00 every day.
- Look at the current assignment which should be indicated from the previous lesson.
- Open to that specific assignment. Be sure notes are identified correctly. Refer to teachers notes or lesson supplements regarding organization of notes into lines and spaces of each clef.
- Work in four measure phrase groups start by practicing hands alone. The music teacher should have helped to identify phrases at the lesson and perhaps will indicate them with slurs which cover the four measures.
- Determine to practice each hand alone in each phrase, a number of times, I use three. Be sure to count out loud and use the fingering as suggested in the music during these repetitions.
- Switch hands to practice the alternate part in the same manner.
- Put hands together and play the phrase.
- Do the same for each consecutive phrase group until the assignment is completed.
This is a very basic approach to effective learning of pieces assigned. Other practice for more advanced students would include scale and exercise practice as a portion of each session.
Having the lesson plan and what is due for the next lesson in mind is necessary in getting there. A week, the usual interval in between lessons is enough time to finish work assigned.
Simply playing through assignments from beginning to end is probably the least effective way to practice. Tougher measures can be identified and practiced separately outside of the more routine phrase practice. I usually try to have three weaker areas in mind which can be worked on until they are as readable as the rest of the assignment. Going to the weaker places first, even if not in the order of beginning to the end of the piece is good to do.
Most of my lessons plans include work on new repertoire, the review of at least three previous pieces, current scales, current exercises and something fun like a piece chosen by the student for sight reading purposes…..just because.
With a sense of direction and purpose, good practice habits and keeping a relatively firm practice routine better and excellent results can be expected.