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How To Save Time Practising

I eavesdropped on a neighbour's music practice last night.

I was walking my dog when I head the strains of a child playing Lightly Row on violin .

I could tell that the child and parent were working hard on the piece. The child was playing the entire piece over and over again. The parent would sing with gusto alongside.

I could also tell that there were at least 8 different notes in their rendition that were not in tune. This ingrained intonation probably comes from subjecting my ears to 9 years of listening to Lightly Row on recordings, on the cello, on the piano and on the viola! (I'm still listening to it because the girls keep the piece in review for honing bow and finger techniques, such as applying vibrato and 'soft thumb'. The challenge put to them is to bring their Book 1 pieces up to the playing level of their current book.)

More than 10 minutes later, I circled back under the unit to go home. They were still playing Lightly Row. There were still at least 8 different notes out of tune. I applaud the parent for singing gustily for 10 minutes straight for what must have been at least 5 repetitions of the full piece!

It felt all too familiar because we used to practise like that. Practice would comprise playing through the full piece, complete with wrong or out-of-tune notes. I would la-la-la along, point out the errors upon the end of each attempt and have the child play the whole piece again. Despite 'practising' the piece throughout the week, the errors never fully got fixed before the next lesson and we would spend precious lesson time correcting mistakes.

I realise now that our biggest error was in not changing the way that we practised. We spent too much time practising wrongly when we could been smarter about it. (Not for the lack of guidance and reminders from the teachers, but because of my reluctance and laziness to switch to a new practice approach. After all, it takes more work to change a routine than to continue with it.)

Here's how it works (using the story of Lightly Row on the violin as an illustration):

Child spends 10 minutes playing Lightly Row 5 times, trying to fix 8 out-of-tune notes. But 8 notes is too much to fix in 1 day.

Over the 6 days before the next weekly lesson, Child would have spent 60 minutes playing Lightly Row and might still have 8 out-of-tune notes.

What if daily practice looked like this instead:

Child spends 10 minutes working on 2 specific phrases only. The target is to get 2 notes in tune each day. (And this is entirely possible to do through deliberate listening, reflection, and short, focused repetitions.)

Over the next 4 days, Child would have spent just 40 minutes playing Lightly Row and have a high chance of getting the full piece in tune.

At the next weekly lesson, the teacher could spend less time working on Lightly Row and might have the opportunity to introduce the next piece.

I know, I know...

We don't like breaking up 'the flow' of playing through the full piece. We love listening to the 50 beautifully correct notes and give in to glazing over the 8 wrong ones. Because honing in on the wrong notes means having to listen to wrong notes being played over and over again every day.

But why are we spending time repeatedly playing what is already correct? When we could spend time fixing the errors? At the next lesson, the teacher spends 30 seconds praising the 50 notes played well. And 30 minutes drilling the 8 wrong ones.

"I don't have the heart to stop my Child when he's in the flow." I feel that too. But I have learnt that in practising with young children, there are few and countable times when they are truly in the flow. The majority of practice time involves them (1) rushing through (2) robotically playing a piece to get it over and done with.

We are doing our Child a disfavour by not stopping him, by letting him glaze over mistakes, by not taking the opportunity to develop good practice strategies and habits - that will apply to learning anything beyond the piece at hand.

I get that nobody wants to have to deal with a cranky child who gets stopped every 4 bars to have his mistakes pointed out and made to play those difficult notes again and again to make them right. But stopping and working on something is necessary. We can learn to manage the reactions and emotions by prepping the child beforehand on what practice today is going to be like, and to recognise and reward his attitude towards conquering the 8 'bad guys' in his piece over praising him for the 50 notes that he already plays well.

True, deliberate practice will not sound beautiful. It will be challenging. It may not even be fun. But it will always be thoughtful, soulful and meaningful - and worthy of your time.

Practice Tip: Working solely on mistakes can be hard - and pretty boring! Try interspersing 'work pieces' with 'fun pieces'. Teach your child to work hard on his work piece, but also give him the opportunity to 'perform' and flow through past pieces without interruption, and only give him feedback when he's done. It's all about allowing for variety and balance!

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