Monday, November 4, 2013

The Importance of Practice

I repost this one from my more informational/logistical blog ( from this morning.  I fear that my potentially timid approach to encouraging practice has not built that kind of culture that I would hope for.  I will probably always resist those accountability exercises that encourage busy work and a lack of candor as much as any practice it promotes.  We'll see if this makes any difference.

Most students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could probably provide, in a very short amount of time, a very accurate and detail diagram with mathematical calculations exactly how much force and angle was necessary to put a 12" basketball through a metal hoop 24" in diameter who's plane is  120" above the floor by a human being whose feet are behind a line fifteen feet from the area directly below the hoop.  However, any of us who follow college sports at all know that all of this knowledge has not put MIT into March Madness at any point in our lives.  It's about getting out there and shooting foul shots, hundreds of them.  That knowledge has to be followed up with practice.  Your brain needs to know what to do, and your muscles need to how to do it.    (In all fairness, MIT has a history of a decent NCAA Division 3 program.  I guess they can find at least five men and women who are willing to put in the time to let their muscles catch up with their brains.)

It is not easy to work practice time into a busy routine of homework and other after school activities.  For most of us, it takes a pretty strict routine to make sure it happens.  Try dedicating fifteen minutes while dinner is being prepared, or before the evening shower, or something that happens pretty much everyday, but what might be most helpful is to include practice in what is considered 'homework'.  It gives me a little touch of heartburn to hear kids say "I couldn't practice this week because of homework".  What other homework didn't they do because of homework?   I fully understand that band is different than any other class or activity, but a significant investment of time, money, and energy is being put into this activity, and where practice is so essential to its success, it is important to include in the routine, like other homework.

One of the challenges of practice is getting everything out and ready, and then cleaning and putting everything away.  It stands to reason that if you just do it all in one 60 minute blast on Saturday, it saves that hassle.  Unfortunately, the musician, from developing to virtuoso, needs to limit the duration of time away from the instruments as much as increasing the time spent with it.  The muscles and the brain need to keep things fresh, and I assure you that you will see a difference if you can get to the instruments four to five times a week for a modest time instead of the long cram sessions.

When one practices by his- or herself, there is no model, or support.  The truth is out there, and it can be frustrating when it doesn't sound quite like it's supposed to, or even the way it did last time.  As a teacher, I absolutely can tell the difference between someone for whom practice didn't go the way he or she wanted, and someone for whom practice didn't happen enough or at all.  It is OK to fail, and from that we learn.  Come to band or your lessons with lots of pencil marks and lots of questions.  Those are allowed and encouraged.  Enjoy the learning process!  It is also so important to play something you love, and with which you are successful.  Playing an instrument is work, but fun work.  See to that.  Have fun, and be patient with yourself!


  1. This is such a tough concept. If musicians don't learn to genuinely practice, as in not just sitting in front of a music stand with an instrument for a prescribed amount of time, or even not just playing the fun parts of music that a person already plays well, but actual playing of technical exercises and woodshedding of tough passages, growth and genuine steps toward mastery of an instrument cannot take place. No one else can accomplish this for a student of music, either.

    Almost any instrument is fun at first. Playing an instrument well is likewise fun by most accounts. It's that huge area between first picking up an instrument and actually having some degree of mastery of the instrument that isn't entirely fun yet must be bridged in order for music to become fun again. Some people never get there because they're not willing to put in the work. They may never know what they're missing.

    And you're so right that it IS homework every bit as much as academic assignments are homework, and according to what research supports, will do students at least as much good in the grand scheme of academics as will completing homework assignments in academic subject areas.

    Alexis (dual major in piano performance and biochemistry)

  2. I think you make a good point, but I also think that for many kids, it's NOT a lot of fun until they start to get good, yet have trouble getting good because it's not much fun yet. I have to get them through that!