Bentz Music Studio

Practice for Advanced Students

Saturday, August 4, 2018 by Andrea Bentz | Practice

Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.,  author of The Bulletproof Musician blog, writes about practice and performance concepts for more advanced students and musicians. His goal is effective, efficient practice and confident performances. 

His advice? Don't  practice rather mindlessly, meaning always going for a certain number of repetitions, or playing until you hit a stumbling block, working on the tough spot, and moving on. This causes problems:

1. It wastes time More can be accomplished with a focused effort of small goals (maybe improving just one measure!) and active listening. Mindless practice usually reinforces bad habits. 

2. It makes you less confident  We don't know exactly why we keep missing that one note in the middle of the passage because we haven't stopped to analyze it. "We tend to practice unconsciously, and then end up trying to perform consciously — not a great formula for success." 

3. It is tedious and boring  "What we really need are more specific outcome goals — such as, practice this passage until it sounds like _____, or practice this passage until you can figure out how to make it sound like _____."

 What are some ways to stay productive in a practice session?  Kageyama suggests students try the following:

1. Duration

Monitor when your focus starts to drop. This may be 10 minutes, it may be 45 minutes. Step away when you start to lose your focus, do something else, then come back to the practice session. You will accomplish more in less time at the keyboard. Research has found that more effective learning consists of reviewing a small section of music about three times, then moving on to 2-3 more small sections (each maybe only a measure or two) and working on these sections about three times before circling back to the first section again. Try this method - it should help keep your mind focused. 

2. Timing

When do you have the most energy during your free time? This may be the best time to fit in a 20 minute session. When do you really wish you could sit down and express yourself at the keyboard? This might be a great time to play through a completed favorite piece, then tackle one tough problem in a new piece.

3. Goals

Have clear goals for each week, broken down into practice session goals. Try using a practice notebook. Keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. This will help you be mindful of your practice and remember what works and doesn't work. A more advanced student learns so much over the course of a month or two that they will need a record for referral.

4. Smarter, not harder

Intense practice is usually good, but ".. There are also times... when we don’t need to practice harder, but need an altogether different strategy or technique." Step away from your practice and think over the problem. Is there a practice technique you have learned in the past which you might be able to apply to this situation? Could you find a good online performance of your piece that might give you new insight? You might want to skip practice of this section altogether as you think about a new practice approach. When you have some new ideas, go back to the section and experiment.

5. Record Yourself

It is difficult to hear every nuance of your playing as you work through rhythms, hand positions, and more. A recording will give a student several new ideas about ways to improve. If there is no way to hold the phone for a picture, just set down the phone and record the sound. Play back while you follow your music and be your own judge. Write down measures you want to improve and work through them one or a few at a time during upcoming practice sessions.

In summary, advanced musicianship requires a depth of focus only possible for more mature students. Your life experience, maturity and discipline are a great advantage as you tackle more complicated pieces. One of Kageyama's favorite practice quotes is from Master violin teacher Leopold Auer:   “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”. My students are not at a university or professional level - yet! I might change the quote to say: "Practice with your mind and you will accomplish your weekly goals in much less time, with less frustration, and a greater sense of satisfaction and accomplishment".

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