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The Sound of Practice

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

One evening over dinner, my dad asked how Claire was doing at piano.


"Her playing doesn't sound as smooth as it used to be. There's a lot of stopping and restarting. It sounds like she's not very sure how to play the piece," he started.


Cue alarm bells going off in my head. Panicky thoughts start to seep in: Has she not been practising enough? Have we been practising wrongly? Have I not been observant during our practice sessions?


He continued, "Is she learning something new?"


Phew! Yes, that was it. She was learning a new piece. A fairly long piece that comprised 2 movements. I thank my dad for being insightful in recognising that that period of rough playing was not an indication of the lack of practice, but instead a manifestation of consistent practice during the learning phase.


Somewhere between The Sound of Silence and The Sound of Music is The Sound of Practice. (Fabulous quote by Yours Truly, if I can say so myself. Thankyouverymuch.)


What does perfect practice sound like?


Perfect practice is messy

It is akin to being in a construction site. It might look like a big mess. The sounds of repeated drilling at material go on and on and on. Honestly, it might not sound good overall. Over time, the discordant noises disappear, perhaps replaced by less frequent and more acceptable sounds of "patching" work. We start to see the work coming together and soon, get to enjoy the finished product.


Perfect practice is slow

I am always excited for my children to learn new material and encourage (okay, push) them to see how much new music they can learn. Colette reminded me of the need for slow practice by divvying up a new segment into even smaller chunks. She then decided on the approach to do 10 careful repetitions of a chunk each day. "So that we don't let the bad guys (i.e. learned mistakes) sneak into the castle (i.e. the music)," she said. Mistakes that are not acknowledged and corrected become learned mistakes. It's easy to learn mistakes but hard to unlearn them. Don't collect the bad guys. Seal all doors before moving to the next part of the castle.


Perfect practice has stops

As much as I love for my children to be eager to play and even lose themselves in the flow of the music, they need to learn how to stop. This is the difference between performing (when we play on after we make a mistake) and practising. I was surprised that our teachers had to make a deliberate effort to teach my children to stop after playing the section they are asked to. How is it that they don't understand a simple instruction to STOP? Why are they ignoring the teacher's instruction to STOP at this specific spot?? Argh! Most of the time, they try to play on, to show that they know the rest of the piece, or to indicate that they wish to move on from drilling at this tiresome chunk. Sometimes it's because they are not actively listening to the length of the section that they are being asked to play, hence their brain doesn't register where to stop. It's tough but necessary to be firm with stops until the mistake is acknowledged and corrected, so that it doesn't become a learned mistake. This requires asking the child to actively listen or (if your child can read her score) using highlighter tape to 'colour block' the specific section. I've even heard of a teacher who used dark tape to block off all the notes in the score except for the section to practise. You need to plug the leak in the bucket before you add more water to it. Otherwise all that effort in pouring in new content goes nowhere.


Your child might get frustrated at repeatedly being asked to stop while he's trying to get through the piece. Avoid too much stop-start motion by choosing one spot to fix. Don't pick on every mistake. Try using non-verbal cues to stop, such as funny hand signals, or props like a printed 'STOP' sign or a finger puppet.


Perfect practice moves backwards

Sometimes we need to move backwards in order to progress forward. An example is how in getting a piece up to the desired tempo, we may practise playing the piece with hands separate at a faster metronome speed (say, 130 beats per minute), then adjust it downwards to the desired speed (e.g. 110 beats per minute) when playing with hands together. With the cello, when learning a new, more complex bowing pattern or a new technique for articulation (e.g. vibrato, martele or spiccato bow), we practise the new bowing movements on familiar Book 1 pieces like the Twinkle Variations before applying them to the less familiar notes in the current learning piece.


Perfect practice is not linear

The earlier point about moving forward and back might not be totally accurate - music is not linear. Music has shape. Through progressively layering on direction, articulation, dynamics and expression into the piece, our practice shapes the piece and not simply move it along from the beginning to the end.


Perfect practice has errors

We make mistakes. Working on eradicating errors should not make us fearful of making them in the first place. The learning is in the process of making, acknowledging and addressing our mistakes. Mistakes help us figure out whether playing the notes in a certain way works and or does not work. An error-free practice is also a learning-free practice.


Perfect practice is questioning

Encourage your child to question his playing. Why does the way I play this part not sound like the recording or how my teacher played it? What is the difference between playing the note like this or like that? Which tone do I like more - number 1 or number 2? What did I do differently to get the tone that I like? What can I do to help myself remember to repeat the exact same action to get this tone every single time I play this note?


My last word (figuratively speaking) on this is to have a high tolerance for a large margin of error in practice. When your teacher asks how practice was this week, she is not asking for a perfect report on how smoothly it went. Yes, she wants to what went well - but more importantly, where you need help. Recognising and knowing those rough, stubborn and "ugly" spots that surface during practice, and seeking help during the lesson, puts you on the path to progress farther and higher than if you had glossed them over or put them on the backburner to address later.


We may think that the perfect practice happens when all the practice assignments get done or when practice at home involves no mistakes, no hardship, no unhappiness or frustration. We don't think of our efforts at practice as "perfect" because of all the mistakes and challenges that it threw up. Let's change our thinking. If we have aspects of the above - messiness, slowness, stops, repeats, backtracking, errors and questions - your practice is pretty darn close to being perfect.


Let's nurture a healthy attitude for excellence (i.e. doing something to the best of your ability), not perfection (i.e. the absence of mistakes). Practise excellence, not perfection. Perfection is not attainable. Excellence is.


(I much prefer "Only perfect practice makes progress" but he said his long before I did, so he gets to quote as he likes.)




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