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What Students Need to Know About Practicing

Andrew J. Allen | November 2017

    For music teachers, who have been diligently working on their instruments for many years, practicing is almost second nature. This is not the case for young musicians, who might practice a difficult part – and only that – once or twice before a performance or assessment. Students must be taught how to practice. Cramming rarely works when studying for a test, and practice is the same. Consistent, daily practice will yield the best results and render many problems easily solved. Even twenty minutes a day, six days a week will lead to great progress.
However, a set practice routine is insufficient if students do not know what to do with it. Sound and basic technique are just as vital as nailing one particular, tricky passage, and while the ability to triage material to determine what needs the most work is essential, every practice session should cover both sound and technique. As students work on both, here are some topics of instruction to cover.

Time and Pulse
    Students should focus on time and pulse while practicing. This starts in the classroom. When they are beginners, students should be taught a counting system, and this system should be used in class every day. Perhaps, as part of playing exams, students should be required to count examples before performing them. Anything that can be done to engender independence in counting will result in much more confident and accurate performances. Frequent counting quizzes can further aid the utility of this technique. It should become a deeply entrenched habit for students to count any passage accurately before attempting it on their instrument. This pays dividends when students practice, as they then can more easily work out musical problems without help.
    The next step is to teach students how to use a metronome. Most types of technical practice done without a metronome are a great waste of time. While problems can conceivably be solved without the device, its use in practice makes the work quicker and easier. It should be impressed on students from the beginning what an important tool it is, and an inexpensive metronome (or metronome app) should be a required item in even beginning band rooms.
    From the beginning, the expectation should be for students to practice any technical passage much slower than the final performance tempo. The initial tempo should be slow enough that there are no problems performing the required passage in a relaxed and accurate manner. The student should be able to perform a passage flawlessly at least two times in a row before notching the tempo up. When a tempo increase does occur, the metronome should only be advanced three to six clicks, with the aim a relaxed, accurate performance at every step. There should be no perceived shame if a decrease in tempo is necessary. All of the above can be introduced to students as a class. Transpose a challenging passage for all instruments, and use a loud classroom metronome to work through the above process together.

    Tuners are wonderful tools that can quickly show students the tendencies of individual notes on their instruments. However, the constant presence of a visual tuner on a student’s stand can actually prove to be a detriment. If a student is constantly trying to zero the needle they are missing the point that a note can be in tune in many different places depending on its context in a musical example. Instead, students should be encouraged to rely on their ears even more readily than their eyes for intonation. During practice sessions, tuners are better used as tone generators. Matching a pitch is better for development of the ear than watching a needle.

    The next step in teaching students how to practice is to explain the process of chunking, or dividing a piece into much smaller, more easily approachable bits. One of my favorite quotes regarding this is “How do you eat a ton of candy? One bite at a time.”
    The inclination of many young students will be to start at the beginning of an exercise or piece and play straight through to the end. Of course, this is an inefficient way of going about things. Rather, the piece should be divided into logical chunks. Where there is little technical challenge, an entire phrase can be a chunk. However, as the challenge level goes up, chunks should get smaller and smaller – two bars, one bar, two beats, one beat, or even less.
    Each chunk should be practiced with a metronome in the manner described above. Make sure that students then understand the importance of carefully linking chunks up together. Again, with a slow metronome, each section must be built into a larger whole.
    While most musical problems will yield fairly easily to the above, students should be taught a few tools for defeating especially gnarly passages. One of my favorite techniques is a rhythm changing exercise that usually tricks the brain into accepting technique it otherwise may find daunting: For a passage of straight sixteenths, with a slow metronome, perform the same notes in a dotted-sixteenth-thirty-second pattern, then in a thirty-second-dotted-sixteenth pattern. With very few exceptions, even the most difficult passages yield to this technique.


    There are some who advocate simply learning technique and leaving dynamics, articulations, and ornaments for later. I have found this approach to be a mistake. When I have heard students using this technique, I often find many of their musical details to be lacking.  A much more natural way for a student to learn a passage would be for them to learn all aspects at the same time. This is easily done at a slow tempo. If there are problems as a result, the chunk can simply be reduced to a more manageable size. The result, in the final outcome, will be a much more musical, natural, and comfortable performance.

    With a few words of guidance and advice from the director, students will quickly see the benefits of regular practice. It will be a large first step in the direction of musical independence and constant progress.