T.J. Tesh, D.M.A.
Practice Myths and Common Questions
"Practicing can be useless or even detrimental if it is not accomplished
with thought, enthusiasm, discipline and organization."
- Irving Bush
Practice… it’s one of those words that strikes fear and apprehension into the hearts of so many musicians. So often, the idea of practicing becomes something of a penance being paid for having chosen the life of a musician, rather than a dedicated journey to accomplishing our artistic goals. Yet, when you talk to world-class musicians, not one of them will say that they became superstars because of some innate talent that led them to the top of our industry. Never! Rather, you will hear tale after tale of the journey each of them has taken to reach the pinnacle of their success, and the story of their continued efforts to reach their artistic dreams.
When it comes to practicing on our instruments, or teaching our students how to do so, there are inevitably some myths that arise. And these myths, so often, provide unrealistic expectations in the practice room, leading to frustration, depression, and all too often a desire to stop “wasting time” in the practice room. Let’s explore some of those myths together, and discuss some ways of making sure we, and our students, understand the realities of effective and efficient practice.
“Practice makes perfect.”
NO!!! It doesn’t!!! Practice has never, in and of itself, made anything perfect. A much more appropriate adage would be that “practice makes permanent.” The way you practice something, when you’re alone in your practice space and the pressure is minimal, is EXACTLY how you will perform it when you are faced with an audience and the pressures inherent in performing for them. If you practice something poorly, with repeated missed notes and rhythms, there will certainly be no moment of clarity where you suddenly find the correct path. Think of this in terms of speaking… if you practice speaking with incorrect consonants and vowels, you will undoubtedly end up speaking in sentences that are completely unrecognizable to those that are listening.
Furthermore, the idea of obtaining perfection is one that simply unattainable, at least to a discerning artist. There will always be something you would like to have done better. If that is not the case, then you are not being truthful with yourself, and you are letting your ego take precedent over your artistry.
“Practicing is logical. Students already know how to do it.”
Actually, it’s not, and they don’t. It’s no more logical than doing geometry without an elementary understanding of algebra. When you tell your student to take their instrument home and practice, without actually teaching them how to do so effectively, you are, frankly, failing them as a teacher. If you truly want your students to be successful, you have to instill in them healthy practice habits.
“I’m teaching my student to play music.”
Nope… this is not the Matrix, where you can plug a cable into your student and upload the skills necessary to play the trumpet effectively. You’re providing your student with a set of tools that will allow them to teach themselves. I once heard it said that my job as a teacher should be to make myself obsolete, and I think those are incredibly wise words. If I have done my job, then my students can leave their time with me ready to tackle any task the world may throw at them, through discipline, preparation and critical thinking.
Surely, we don’t expect all of our students to become professional musicians and/or teachers. So why is it important that they learn an effective and efficient means of accomplishing their musical goals? Why teach them to practice?
Prepared students are able to contribute in a more meaningful way to their team (ensemble), giving them pride of ownership and a chance to provide leadership. No matter their future career path, this lesson is one that will positively guide their decisions going forward, and is a precursor to success in life.
Being able to navigate a path to creating their own success is a guaranteed way to boost your students’ self-confidence and self-discipline. Again, this is a skill that will undoubtedly provide a positive benefit for the student in their future, whether they become a musician, an engineer, an attorney, etc.
Have you noticed all of the orchestras and professional music organizations folding all over the country? Surely, you have. I firmly believe that by creating informed listeners and participants in music, we can slow, or even reverse, this troubling trend.
How do we foster better practice habits in our students?
Teach them to practice correctly!! If you don’t know the answer, look it up and give them the best information possible.
Provide them with a plan of attack when it comes to approaching practice sessions. Teach them how to make the most effective use of their time in the practice room to help them avoid boredom and frustration.
Help them track their progress! Nothing speaks so clearly as demonstrable proof of growth. Record your students regularly, and listen back to those recordings months later as a reminder to your student of where they began their journey, and where they currently are.
Inform their parents what practicing is all about. Taking a moment to explain to a student’s parents what your expectations are in a practice session, and what sounds they might expect to be emanating from their child’s practice area, can go a long way toward fostering an encouraging atmosphere at home.
What should my students be practicing?
Fundamentals!!! A firm grounding in the fundamental skills of playing our instrument is quintessential to success, and our students need to understand that. It is my philosophy that if I have command over my instrument, coupled with the ability to read music well, I can play anything. If the instrument is the one calling the shots, then I’m in trouble.
How much should my students be practicing?
Students lives are filled with so many obligations outside of their need for practice time. For some, these obligations include a job to help support their family. For others, there’s a mountain of homework that must be climbed on a near nightly basis. As such, it’s important to teach your students how to use the time that they do have in the most efficient way possible.
Be sure to emphasize quality over quantity. If you have a high school aged student, one that has only 30 minutes every other day to practice, make sure to provide that student with materials that will maximize their time. As stated above, spending the majority of that window practicing fundamentals would be invaluable. Beyond that, teach them an effective way to break up their practice sessions, helping them get maximum benefit. For example, have them alternate 10 minutes of practice with 10 minutes of homework. After an hour, they’ve done 30 minutes of each, and they’ve been able to approach each session with a fresh mind and fresh face.