When I was thinking of a topic to discuss for January, I kept coming back to “your playing reflects your practice.” I witnessed lots of student performances in the past month, and had some of my own. Each of those performances was the product of weeks or even months of practice time. To a large degree, the level of success in each performance was determined at home, by practice. Sure, lessons help, as does a certain amount of innate ability. However, as one sage college professor recently said to me about semester-ending juries: The kids that practiced hard did well, and those that didn’t, didn’t! Let’s look a bit more into the relationship between playing and practice.
Time and Attention Are Important
The amount of practice per day is where I start the conversation with students and their parents. There is a certain natural and practical limit per person, adults included! By natural limit I’m referring to the amount of time that a person can focus. Past that limit, practice time is largely wasted. For a very young child, that may be just 10 minutes, whereas for a teen or adult, it might be measured in hours. Some practice days will be better than others, and that’s just, well, natural!
The practical limit refers to allocation of time. Even though a teen might easily focus for an hour, he may have to stop at 30 minutes, in order to get a host of other things done before the next day. When a child has lots of activities, it’s good to see if there is enough time available to practice. If there isn’t enough time in the schedule, the family has to take a serious look at what needs to be cut. Regrettably, sometimes piano is the activity to be cut.
It goes without saying that frequency is also important, but it really needs to be considered separately from time available. For a younger child, a small amount of time per day with daily frequency is the best solution. As students get older, and get more variability in their after-school schedule, practice frequency will need to fluctuate. That older student might be able to get her work done in just three to four days per week, as long as practice time is increased. My schedule is even more extreme than that, since I typically only practice two or three days per week, but can be efficient for hours each time.
I make sure my students have plenty of time to learn a piece for a festival or recital, and I do the same for my own performing. If I have a recital coming up in a month or two, I try to get a jump on my practicing, because I cannot afford to get behind. For students, this generally doesn’t present much of a problem, unless a student gets into a multi-week practice rut. Sometimes there’s not much to be done when that happens, though regular checkpoints can help to identify the issue.
I can give a very good example of last-minute preparation, from my own experience. I performed a piece on the organ where most of the notes were played correctly, but there was a serious lack of musicianship. I was performing in a musical style rather foreign to me, and I didn’t understand the larger form of the piece as well as I should have. There were lots of nuances that went unexpressed, trills that weren’t well planned, and the registration was not varied enough. When you leave the note learning to the end, you don’t get the gift of time. Our brains often process our learning when we are doing other things, and gift us with new insights at the next practice session.
Your playing reflects your practice. No shortcuts! I’m reminded about what Stephen Covey said about the Law of the Farm. If you don’t prepare the land, plant the seeds, water, and fertilize, you won’t have a crop to harvest. Our work really isn’t much different. Cramming doesn’t work well for musicians. Take my warning from the paragraph above. Music needs time to germinate in the brain between practice sessions, just like plants need time in the fields. An impartial observer at a recital or concert will never know how much time went into preparing for a music performance. However, I assure you that there is no magic involved!