A few weeks ago, I came across this article titled, “8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently.”
To summarize – experimenters observed a handful of piano majors as they learned a moderately challenging 3 bar excerpt during a single practice session. The experiment was designed to identify the practice habits that lead to a higher or lower success ranking among the participants. Participants were ranked on their ability to play rhythms and notes accurately. Additional aspects of tone, character, and expressiveness were also factors.
As far as the results are concerned, what struck me is that the number of correct repetitions a student made did not have an effect on the student’s ranking. However, the number of incorrect repetitions was a factor. So was the percentage of incorrect repetitions to correct repetitions.
My own observations correlate with these findings. The students who take their time to learn an excerpt correctly from the very first try, learn much faster and perform more securely. The students who play a new excerpt 10 times incorrectly before playing it once correctly, struggle with issues of memory, technique, and hit-or-miss performances.
Setting up stopping points within a new phrase is very helpful. We set up a stopping point just prior to the trouble spot and make sure to stop and get our bearings before moving on. Once we orient ourselves, we can consciously choose the correct fingering, rhythm, dynamic, etc. and successfully execute the passage at a practice tempo. For most music teachers, this is a no-brainer.
However, developing the desire to slow down and repeat a passage correctly in a young child poses a challenge. In my studio, I use all manner of games like car races and smiley-face games to encourage slow practice tempos, adherence to stopping points, and executing correct repetitions.
The parameters of the games are straightforward. The student can play as slow as he or she needs to play. But, if the student makes a mistake in notes, fingering, or any other pertinent variable we are working on that day, my matchbox car will advance one car length. If the student manages a correct repetition, no matter how slowly, his or her matchbox car will advance one car length. I also tell them that if they feel unsure about what to do, even in the middle of practicing a passage, they are free to stop and start over before they crash into a mistake. The main goal is to play the entire passage mindfully and correctly.
To a young student, learning without errors can feel a lot like “hard work”. That’s because it IS hard work. Using games can help make the process more palatable to younger minds (as well as their parents and teachers). A small dry-erase whiteboard is invaluable. We can create two columns on the board – one column for me, and one for my student. The student wins a smiley face if they play an error-free repetition and I get a smiley face if they don’t. I find that once a young student begins to lose a game due to careless mistakes, they quickly become more focused.
It is important to be creative in choosing games appropriate for the student. Little boys like car races that end in car crashes, and little girls think that is silly. (Why would you want to crash your car?) But a princess journey through an enchanted forest just might do the trick. A little online research reveals plenty of game boards and race tracks that are quick to download and easy to use for practice. The erasable white board is great for the Smiley Face Game, Tic Tac Toe, Dots, Musical Hangman, making silly drawings, and much more.
When used with care and focus, games can provide an avenue for learning deeply by setting high standards and having fun achieving them. Games can be applied to a variety of situations in addition to cultivating focused repetitions. Behavior, attitude, and following directions can all be encouraged by using games appropriately. Children learn deeply when they have fun and enjoy the process. I find this to be true for myself as well. So why not have a little fun while we avoid mistakes in our learning?