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Teaching independent musicians

A lot of us never actually learned how to practice. It was just kind of implied that we would know how to do it, and eventually we stumbled on things that more or less worked— and then kept doing that for years.

That strategy has gotten a lot of us very far!

Practice is actually an extremely complex process, that differs from person to person, and changes throughout our lives.

If we were taught how to practice, beyond the “do it again” or “slow down” strategy, we usually learned what worked for our teacher, with very little questioning whether or not that might be the best way for us to do things.

Surprisingly, it turns out we don’t all think the same way. (That’s sarcasm, by the way.)

Since a lot of us are now teachers, we can break this cycle. The best thing about such a hierarchical system is that we can choose what to pass down (or what not to!).

So how do we avoid falling in to the trap of teaching without thinking about how the student might implement what we have taught?

1. Schedule time to discuss a practice plan.

At the end of the lesson, remind the student of their assignment, and ask them what they think they will struggle with. How do they know that a particular thing may be difficult? How will they try to solve it?

2. Watch the student practice.

When I teach, I will often have the student practice for a minute or so and pretend I’m not there. I want to see what their thought process is like, what they see as the problem, and how they think about solving it. I’ll have them pay attention to what their thoughts are in the moment. Then I’ll suggest a few things that I would change and explain to them why— knowing why is important, I think. A lot of us don’t ask why we do things. Of course, being watched while you practice makes the experience pretty different— but I think this is still an insightful thing to do.

3. Practice in front of the student.

Seeing how you solve a particular problem— whether it’s the same problem or not— will help the student see differences between their practice strategy and yours. Try to explain to them why you chose the approach you did. Then, together, brainstorm a few different ways to think about or solve the same problem.

4. Teach them about the learning process.

Our brains are amazing, and fascinating, and a lot of the time are a complete mystery to us. But learning a few basic concepts about how the brain works can help students prioritize certain choices over others, and can help them see how to break tasks down in ways that may be more helpful.

For example: different areas of our brain are responsible for handling different types of information. Our senses will each create memories that are stored in different parts of the brain. If we are learning movements and sounds simultaneously, the brain has to use more energy making sure these two areas are communicating with each other. If our learning process isn’t so organized, there could be more back-and-forth between these areas than necessary. It takes actual time for brain cells to communicate with each other— not long, but it isn’t instant— and if we’re learning a fast passage, that could cause a traffic jam in our brain. But if we focus on each part independently first, and then connect them, our memory will be more efficient.

5. Encourage critical thinking.

Music education can at times be rigid. Especially as classical musicians, we are trained to play with particular style and tradition and rules in mind at all times, and we don’t often have a place to do things differently. Practice is that time where we can experiment safely, without fear of being wrong, and in my opinion lessons should be that space too. Let the student make mistakes, and encourage them to learn from them in a curious way— not a judgmental way.

Practice is a very individual process but it doesn't need to be something that students just fumble through for years until they find something that works. I'd love to hear what you do with your students to encourage good practice habits, or what your own teachers taught you!


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