by Robert Song Fisher (Catoctin School of Music)
The sound of splashing water at the community pool, sun-filled days with the dusk light stretching late into the evening, beach escapes, camping trips with the family, summer camps galore – it’s summer! Unfortunately, daily structured practice time can become difficult to maintain and less enticing with each passing day for some young musicians. With the myriad of “fun” activities available to many students during the summer months, spending solo practice time away from friends may not always be top priority.
This is the time of year when I find myself especially encouraging beginning students to practice like they eat pizza! Mentioning pizza usually warrants a smile in return and many, if not most, students young and old share a love for this ubiquitous dinner favorite. It is a culinary phenomenon that is planned (style, flavor, toppings anyone?), anticipated and salivated over, requiring minimal justification as the dinner of choice by millions (health implications aside). Pizza draws many to motivation, interest, intrigue and investment. So too, practice can be planned and structured in a way that “draws in” and motivates the learner, like a warm, freshly baked pizza! “Pizza” style practice time should not only include appropriate warm-ups and studies within method literature, but also time for songs and repertoire the musician finds enticing and “delicious”!
Balance your musical “diet”: What is musically delicious vs. nutritious?
Can you name your favorite pizza style and toppings? Now, can you name your favorite musical styles and pieces for study? Success in musical practice ultimately requires motivation. Intrinsic motivation yields the most successful and long-lasting results for most musicians. Like a delicious slice of pizza from the shop ensures repeat customers, successful and rewarding practice results in repeat practice! “Delicious practice” time is important! Practice sessions should include activities and repertoire that “taste good” to the ear and rewards the student for their time and diligence. Do you have a favorite song or musical style? Include it as part of the end of every practice session! Enjoy singing music from a particular composer, artist, band, or genre? Have this music on hand as a draw for daily practice. Want to leave practice sessions with a sense of accomplishment? It is ok to include less technical work or simplified arrangement – as long as your practice session includes music filled with joy and reward. Musicians want to connect with their music, and nothing spurs motivation in practice better than having songs that evoke joy!
As an important side note, practice time should still include “nutritious” music and activities that challenge and grow the musician. Not every scale, etude or passage will evoke ecstatic joy, yet as any seasoned musician will tell you, these are necessary aspects of practice that develop grit and expand musical ability. In the end, if practice habitually includes nothing challenging, growth will not occur and progress will stagnate. Wrestling through technique or struggling through challenging music is normal and ok! Strategic and faithful practice will eventually yield growth. It isn’t always easy, but it is necessary.
Balance is key. We need our musical veggies, vitamins, and exercise but make sure to include some music that is sweet to the learner and rewarding to reinforce the muscle of motivation in practice. Warming up, technical exercises and faithful study through challenging passages is crucial for growth, however, don’t forget to balance your “nutritious” practice time with some “delicious” practice time. Every student needs to have something rewarding to play or sing during practice to motivate them to return the next day.
Practice by the slice!
Rome was not conquered in a day. Pizzas are not consumed whole. Likewise, music is not studied and perfected in one fell swoop. Practice music like you eat a pizza – one slice at a time!
Dividing practice time into smaller, attainable goals leads to successful practice. Rather than hoping to accomplish an entire etude or piece in one sitting, isolate sections or only a few measures at a time. Make strategic yet attainable goals with each practice session. Make tackling a fast, technical run the primary goal for one session vs. mastering the entire movement in one practice. Isolate and group similar phrases, passages, or measures in your music and commit to only rehearsing and mastering those passages for one rehearsal. Then do the same for the next passage and so on. Only after several multiple practice sessions should all the parts come together. This not only makes each practice session more manageable; it provides something “new” to work on each day, with the goal of eventually “putting it all together” towards the end of the week prior to the next lesson with a teacher. Being able to combine rehearsed phrases and passages during a penultimate rehearsal can often prove to be a “reward” itself for beginning musicians eager to hear what the song sounds like after isolating passages throughout the week. Practicing “by the slice” makes it easier and often allows students to learn challenging pieces more efficiently. Our brains process and store information most efficiently through small, repeated action and study. Cram sessions never work in the long term. Musical success is built on healthy, manageable and motivated practice.
Perfect “Pizza Practice” Makes Perfect!
Most music teachers encounter students on occasion struggling with practice routines or motivation. As the famous quote from Vince Lombardi goes, “Practice does not make perfect – only perfect practice makes perfect”. The same applies to developing new practice habits. Simply making goals to “practice more” will not necessarily result in “perfect” practice. Having a varied repertoire that includes a balanced musical diet of “delicious” and “nutritious” music is vital. Dividing assigned repertoire into “bite-sized” pieces and setting attainable short-term practice goals ultimately leads to long term success.
Developing healthy and sustainable practice habits takes time. Take it slowly, one goal and one practice “slice” at a time. The results are worth it. Bon Appetit!