Clavier Companion - July/August 2017 - 11
Playing the piano doesn't fit this model. There are
too many variables and too many types of physicality
required in even the simplest piano piece for performing
to ever become automatic. A good pianist makes
playing the piano look natural, but we teachers know
that true spontaneity is only possible after many hours
of repetitious, highly organized practice.
There has been a wealth of inquiry in the last
thirty years about the "best practices" of practicing.
Much of this is based on sports models, which is not
surprising when you consider how much more money
sports organizations have to spend on research than
music teachers. The far-reaching principles, though,
are applicable to any activity that requires hard work,
dedication and persistence.
Why do we practice?
I can answer in one word: technique. The word is often
used in a narrow sense to describe the ability to play
fast, loud, and fluently, but I have a broader definition:
technique is the ability to express physically the ideas
one conceives mentally. Practicing ensures that the
proper physical motions are executed at precisely
the right time, in the right place, and with the correct
attack and release, all in service of musical imagination.
Good practice habits make playing the piano more
fun, even easier. We perform a movement with less
brainpower when we have correctly repeated it enough
times. Done appropriately, practice encodes success,
over and over, enabling motions that took thought in
the early stages to become almost automatic.
Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham from the
University of Virginia has written several books
on learning.1 He says that the brain learns best in
manageable leaps, based on simple explanations
and working on one new task at a time. The key is
mindfulness: planning what is to be done, aurally and
physically, and carefully assessing the result.
It's important to avoid something psychologists
call "random adaptations," accidentally getting a
good result without understanding the reasons why.
I've heard this haphazard work method called "piñata
practice." It's a good analogy: a blindfolded little kid
whacking wildly at a papier-mâché animal, hoping for
a success without having a clue about which motion
is correct. Eventually, someone at the birthday party
accurately hits the piñata and everyone gets candy.
But the happy ending doesn't make it a learning
If you say the slogan "Plan-Do-Review" to your
students, you may see a light bulb ignite above their
heads. Originally developed by the HighScope Early
Childhood Curriculum, this working method is widely
used across the United States. A child is given a task
and uses the "Plan-Do-Review" method to complete it.
Let's say, for instance, that I assign the first work
from Robert Schumann's Album for the Young, Op. 68,
"Melodie," to a young student. Page 12 shows a model
plan I might use in the early stages of practice.
Psychologists have a name for this process:
metacognition. The word means, simply, "thinking
about one's thinking."2 A recent study of beginning
music students found that those who used a
metacognitive approach outperformed those who
learned traditionally (the students learn the piece
in their own way, the teacher corrects mistakes and
models a good performance, the students continue
to practice until an acceptable performance is
achieved or they run out of time).3 And the results of
metacognitive practice lasted longer, too.
Nikolai Aleksandrovitsch Bernstein (1896-1966) was a
Russian neurophysiologist much interested in learning and in music. He noted that musicians have a