Practicing efficiently

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Someone was over at the house when I was practicing yesterday and noticed me repeating a 4-bar phrase over and over for a long time.  Later on, she asked me how she could get her children to practice that way.  As it turns out her children are like almost all children; they practice by playing songs all the way through and rarely stop to practice on problem areas.

I was that way too.  My idea of practice was to play every song through two times.  That took close enough to 30 minutes to keep my parents happy.  I did not start practicing better until I was much older. And truthfully, I know that I could still be much more disciplined in how I practice.

Experts know that the best way to learn music is by breaking it down into small pieces.  The smaller the pieces, the faster you learn.  I was practicing a 4 bar phrase yesterday, but the truth is I know that my real problem was in the 2nd bar of the four.  I should have just been practicing the first two bars together.  If I had, I would have fixed the problem in half the time.  If I worked just on the 2nd bar, I would have fixed the problem in a quarter of the time.

And the fact is, even that is not enough.  A true expert would identify the one little thing in the bar that is causing the trouble.  Quite often, it might just simply be the movement between two individual notes.  Just practicing that particular movement for a few minutes will pay big dividends.

We all instinctively know this stuff.  But few adults (and certainly fewer children) apply this kind of logic to practice.  Why? The answer is simple really. This kind of practice is not fun; it is hard work.  That is the real reason I don’t do it as well as I should and that is the reason you probably don’t do it either.

Here is the thing though.  Music should be enjoyable.  There is no rule that says we have to trade enjoyment for efficiency.  Quite the opposite.  In my case, I consciously have decided that I am not willing to be miserable just to learn the music a bit faster.  I try for a happy medium: practicing medium-sized chunks of music rather than tiny chunks of music.

And that is how you need to think when you work with your children.  If you want them to win contests but run the risk of them growing to hate music with a passion, force them to practice as efficiently as possible.  If you are willing for them to grow slower but want them to make music part of their entire life, take it a little easier on them.

There are no right or wrong answers.  Much of the Asian community is known for taking the more efficient approach.  You see the results in their students.  Their feeling is something like this: yes my children will hate it and they may hate me for a while, but they will thank me in the end because you achieve a lot of happiness from doing something well.

I can see their point.  In many ways, I think it is better than the approach I more often see in the United States and the approach I lean towards.  I tend to take it easy on my children.  I could not care less about them winning contests.  My goal is that they will develop a foundation they can lean on and build on later in life.  I certainly see the value in discipline and work, but I think there are more ways to teach it than through music.  If I thought I had prodigies, I would probably be a bit harder on them, but I do not quite see the value in trying to force my children into being something they aren’t.

But my best advice is this.  Try for some kind of happy medium based on the child.  Always reinforce the value of more efficient practice but don’t go crazy with it.  One thing I do with my children is teach them to learn music 4 bars at a time.  If they will just practice 4 bars a day and get those 4 bars perfectly, they can learn almost any song perfectly within a few weeks.  Show them why that is true (a typical song is 50-100 bars and many of the bars are exactly the same).

If they do well with 4-bar phrases, start encouraging them to learn 2 bars at a time, etc.  You will have to judge how far to go with this based on their interest and capability.  My sense is it is a mistake to push too hard though.