Finding and using a Teacher

If you are looking for a teacher for yourself or your child, you are engaged in one of the most important external factors in musical development.

You can find teachers through:
music stores
internet sites like craigslist, etc.
performing societies
professional societies (AGO)
other musicians
recording studios

Sign up for a month and tell them you may check out some other teachers before continuing.  It may not be practical to try out several teachers at once, but you want to give yourself an easy out to change direction if things aren’t working.  It often takes a lesson or two for a good teaching groove to develop, but it doesn’t take a dozen either.  Being up front about the trial nature of the lessons sets a clear expectation for everyone.

What to look for
1. Ability to teach. This seems overly obvious but it bears mention.  Ability to play and ability to teach are not the same thing.  You want to study with someone who has a knack for explaining how to do something, not just able to demonstrate it.  In fact, you are ideally looking for someone who is very physically aware of what a beginner goes through.  In many cases, musicians who are NOT child prodigies will fit this bill perfectly.  Because they were a bit older and more aware, they are more apt to remember what they had to do to fix a particular problem and remember how it felt to do it right and wrong.

This is measurable.  Just ask this question, “Is my student making progress?”  If 6 months have passed and your student can’t play something from start to finish by themselves, something is wrong.  If your student is not making progress, you don’t have the right teacher or your student is not doing what is prescribed.  Some teachers are great with beginners, others are only effective for advanced students.  This question will sort out where or not your teacher has the ability required for your situation.  Three months is plenty of time to see progress.  Realistically, if the teacher’s instructions are followed, there should be progress week to week.

2. Encouraging to your student.  Throughout the learning process, attention will mostly be focused on what is hard, challenging, or even plain wrong,  This is what the lesson is for – to improve weaknesses, get coaching, etc.  At the same time, it is the teacher’s job to find all the good things and call them out.  Often in the stressful moment of trying to perform something for a teacher, the student is so focused on not screwing up, that they miss the parts they played well.  A good teacher will constantly be pointing out the good things, praising and building up.  We all like compliments and naturally gravitate toward those who appreciate us.  Look for this trait in the early lessons.

3. Likable. If you are old enough to read this book you already know that people naturally get along better with some folk than others.  Don’t fight this because Uncle Joe is a relative, or you you feel guilty in changing teachers.  Choose someone that you like and your student likes.  There is a very high likelihood that if your student doesn’t like the teacher, the teacher doesn’t like the student either.  Think about how this works in your own life, and relationships in general.  You may have a stubborn student who needs some time to warm up to a great teacher who genuinely cares for your child.  But if after a couple months nothing is gelling, you may need to reconsider.

3.  Appropriate to where the student is at now.Usually teachers that specialize in beginners and those that work exclusively with advanced students are very clear in their focus.   Often great teachers of both varieties will teach to a certain level and “graduate students” or have minimum standards to accept students.  Teachers that can clearly verbalize their abilities and preferences in this area should be awarded higher consideration.  Many teachers can and do teach multiple levels.  In this case you need to make sure that they can teach the things necessary where you are.  Skills for two years from now are not what you need.  Particularly in the long intermediate phase where there is mastery of a lot of basic physical and musical concepts but well before concert artistry, it can be a bit nebulous.  Ideally you want to see guidance and strategy at this phase.  You are paying for lessons, so there should be a plan.

4. Style.  Brand-new beginners have so much physical learning to do that style comes a bit later.  All the same, it is always more fun to play something you like.  By the intermediate level, this becomes particularly important as playing must be honed from the right general idea to a fully idiomatically correct expression of the music.  There are ornaments, rhythms and phrasing particular to every musical genre.  Learning them from someone proficient in their execution is necessary.

What to avoid
The Showoff
Many teachers are fantastic musicians.  Most play publicly, or play well enough to impress the average adult.  Having played for years, they often have a deep repertoire of licks, pieces, and skills.  Being an individual interested in getting good, it is often fun to hang around with someone good.  Your lesson is not the time for this.  If you find that the lessons involve more of the teacher playing than the student, something is very wrong.  You aren’t paying the teacher to practice or show off.  You are paying the teacher to teach you or your student.  Sometimes a quick demo is instructive to hear how it sounds at tempo, or illustrate an expressive technique.

I had one of these teachers once on guitar.  He was an amazing musician and had total mastery of the instrument.  He was a regular performer and a session musician.  He could play everything.  The only problem was that he did.  I’d get in 5-10 minutes of playing during an hour lesson.  You can imagine that despite being really impressed with his skills, after a couple of months I was frustrated.  I still couldn’t change chords at tempo, knew no songs, and couldn’t play anything for anybody.  I figured it out and moved on, you should too.

Learning is a vulnerable activity.  In any learning situation, we are going to fail early and often.   Learning is natural and easy when we feel safe and supported.  Failing creates vulnerability.  Whenever the student fails, they know it could have been done better, and their inner artist is telling them so.  If the teacher in impatient or angry with the student, learning will become virtually impossible.  As emotion rises, our minds shift into protection mode to protect ourselves from hurt, physical or emotional.  I can’t think of a single way that anger or impatience will aid a student, particularly a beginner.  If you ever sense either of these traits, you need to move on immediately.  Making art is a sensitive, vulnerable time and should have a supporting, nurturing environment.  When I play poorly for my teacher, he has me take some deep breaths and tells me about how he used to play poorly for his teacher, or helps me find a mental space to try again.  We all know when it isn’t good. What is needed is encouragement and vision, not withering criticism.

The absentminded professor
Your instructor should have a plan for progress.  It shouldn’t be a “winging it” experience each lesson.  If there is no plan for progress, then any progress will be haphazard and accidental. If the lesson starts with the teacher asking the student what he or she wants to learn that day, you need to find out if there is a plan, or is the lesson just about whatever comes up that day?  A plan for progress is necessary to ensure well-rounded development and steady progress.  All athletic coaches plan out their practices based on the needs of the team and where they are in the season.  Your music teacher should be doing the same.

Parent’s Guide to Music Lessons

I wrote this when I was last teaching to help parents with new beginner students and am re-posting it to answer some questions I’ve received recently:


Welcome to the start of a great journey with your student!  Learning to make music is an activity that rewards for a lifetime.  Like most things, it can be enjoyed on many levels from simple to complex.  Like all physical activities such as soccer, or basketball, there are basic skills and more advanced ones.
Learning an instrument can seem overwhelming at first – physically it is as demanding as learning to walk, and mentally it is like learning a foreign language.  Now imagine having to carry on a conversation in your new language while learning to walk!  This process takes a while – how long did it take your student to walk and talk?  The good news is that since your student is much older, he/she can learn much more quickly.
During music lessons, we’ll be focusing on both aspects:  the neuromuscular control needed to perform the movements of playing, and on the “language” of music.  Both will start simply and progress to harder motions and more complex language skills, just like other areas of your child’s life.  In this learning experience, you have a key role to play, as I will not be present for most of your student’s time with the instrument.
The human mind is a wonderfully capable device.  Just think of the thousands of precise actions needed to ride a bicycle.  Even if you haven’t ridden a bicycle in years, I bet you still could on your first try.  The reason is simple:  once our brains learn how to do an action consciously, repetition allows the mind to delegate the now “simple” task to the subconscious mind where it can execute on autopilot.  Riding a bicycle was hard at first, but soon became automatic.  Now you can access that skill without even “trying”.  In these lessons we are going to work on making certain musical skills “automatic”, just like riding a bicycle.
Your role is to help balance the bicycle, so to speak.  You don’t have to ride the bicycle yourself to help your child ride the bike.  Similarly, you can “hold the seat”, musically speaking, without playing yourself.  Instead of looking for a wobbly bicycle wheels, you can help your student by:
1)    Keeping a watchful eye for unnecessary tension
 and 2)    Helping your student practice correctly and slowly at first
Our bodies are never perfectly at rest – there is tension, or muscular contraction required just to sit in a chair, or even lie down to sleep.  Playing an instrument requires fine motor skills.  When the body is trying to learn a new skill, the body’s natural tendency is to make large approximations to “figure it out”.  The result is that the small muscles of the hand and forearm can be overwhelmed by the large muscles of the upper arm and shoulder.  There is simply no way they can compete!  It is quite common to observe “stiff, jerky fingers”, “hunched up shoulders”, and other visible evidence of non-helpful tension.  Good playing looks relaxed, even though effort is applied.  The human body moves naturally and gracefully once it learns a muscular action.  So, how do you help your student relax and find this grace in motion? 

”Parent Trick #1:  Simply place your hand on the stiff shoulder or bunched up fingers.  Just a light touch will dissolve the tension – think petting a baby bird.  Once your student is aware of the tension, it is usually easy to release it.  Just do this whenever you happen to observe it.  It will improve over time, I promise.  No need to make a big deal about it, or even say much.  Just a light touch and maybe a whispered, “relax”.”
The second way you can help your student is by encouraging correct practice.  Correct practice, simply means playing the piece correctly – no giant hidden meaning!  In the beginning, the only way this can happen is slowly.  REALLY SLOWLY!  Think back to when your student learned to walk – it could be seconds between steps!  I mean SLOW.  Think of a carpenter hitting a nail – they usually take a slow practice swing, not quite touching the nail, and then give a fast swing to drive the nail in one or two blows.  The slow swing established the correct motor control pathway.  Then the brain effortlessly accelerates the action, once it develops confidence in how to perform it.  Your student learns the same way – we all do.  Slow actions performed exactly the way we want them to work when “sped up” are quickly and easily assimilated by the brain.  Difficulties melt away when there is no “deadline” for making the movement.
Unfortunately, this works both ways!  The brain is just as content to automate a mistake or bad action as a graceful correct one.  That is why it is far, far worse to practice 1 hour poorly than 1 minute correctly. Particularly at the beginning, when just making the motions correctly is difficult, the most important thing is to make sure that the motions are correct. 
The challenge all musicians face is that we want to play fast!  Years of watching professionals has conditioned us to believe that “good” musicians can play really fast.  And they can.  Paradoxically, the speed comes from lots of correct slow practice.  You won’t be surprised when you hear me tell your student, “If you can’t play it slowly, how will you ever play it quickly?”  This leads us to Parent Trick #2.

”Parent Trick #2.  Invest in a simple digital metronome.  This will cost $20-30 at a music store, or download a $3 app for your smartphone if you are willing to loan it for practice sessions.  Have the store play them for you and your student.  Listen for a non-irritating sound.  You don’t need any fancy features.  Later, we will use the metronome to gauge speed.  Early on, we will use it to enforce a speed limit!”
To start, we will set the metronome to a slow speed, such as 60 “beats” or “ticks” per minute – one per second.  Your student will not be able to play an entire piece this quickly, nor would you as an adult!  We will start with four “ticks” per note.  Once this is easy, we will increase the metronome to “80” and still take four “ticks” per note.  When this is easy, set the metronome to “100” and use four “ticks” to complete the note.  Then put the metronome back at “60” and this time, use two “ticks” per motion.
This process continues according to this table:

Rate of Play                                                  Metronome Setting
Four beats per one note                          60 bpm (beats per minute)
Four beats per one note                          80 bpm
Four beats per one note                         100 bpm
Two beats per one note                          60 bpm
Two beats per one note                          80 bpm
Two beats per one note                         100bpm
One note per beat                                    60 bpm
One note per beat                                    80 bpm
One note per beat                                  100 bpm
Two notes per beat                                 60 bpm

This process continues until your student is playing four notes on every beat at well over 100bpm.  Any time your student is stumbling over something,  use the metronome to find out where your student’s threshold for coordinating this activity lies.  Once your student can repeatedly play smoothly at this speed, then increase the metronome according to the table until the difficulty is erased.  It is so simple, so effective, that it will seem like magic when you see it work in your house!
One final note on practicing: Most parents want to know how long their student should practice.  It would be easy to say “X minutes” or “1 hour”, the best answer has more to do with ability and concentration to practice attentively.  We already know that bad practice is worse than no practice since it teaches the mind how to play all the “mistakes”.  It takes concentration to learn to control the body in a new way.  Your student may find 15 or 20 minutes hard at first.   Start with short sessions, a break, and then another session.  With my daughter, we started at 15 minutes, broken into three 5-minute segments.  She did this “workout” twice a day (30 min daily).  Within three months, she was doing two 60 minute sessions for a total volume of 2 hours a day.   For best results, I would target a total practice volume of 5-6 hours a week.  All you have to do is break it up into bite size chunks.  Just like a video game, once your student starts to “get it”, then the desire to master it will develop naturally.   
Have fun with your student, and be sure to ask questions.  You can help you student master this “bicycle”, even if you don’t play yourself!

Getting Perspective

One of my favorite things about taking lessons is how it broadens my own perspective.  After playing a piece for a week or two on my own, I’ve instinctively fallen into certain habits while playing it.  Then I show up at a lesson, and I get asked questions like, “Have you thought about playing it this way?”, and then hearing it in a new way.  I am asked how I want it to sound, and then have to compare it to what I am producing.  I leave changed – my ears opened to new possibilities, and suddenly, I can’t accept the old way anymore, I am free to choose from a broader universe of possibilities.  Even though I try to build an interpretive map on every piece, I’m still at a place where I discover new ways of hearing a piece, and find stronger options than my first take.  This process of gaining perspective is a massive help to my development, and a big part of what I look forward to at my next lesson.

This past week, I had one other perspective adjustment that I appreciated.  I have for some time held 120bpm in 16ths to be the target for basic scale work.  It is quick enough to handle most of the things one might play, and, I figured that once I get there, then I can see what else may be needed to work on the larger works in the literature.  I’ve been after the 120 bpm for so long (several years), that it took on a life of its own as a goal.  But in my last lesson, my teacher and I were discussing scales, and she related a recent experience at a Master Class she attended.  The artists giving the class informed her that he doesn’t allow any of his students to begin work on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas until their scales are flawless at 160 bpm in 16ths.   I paused for a moment and realized that this was a pretty wise perspective.  Often the fast movement of his sonatas are marked “Presto”, and frankly won’t sound right at 120bpm – they would seem slow and lack the thunderous impact of a faster reading.  By setting the bar at 160, he assures himself that his students can play at the required rate to fully engage the music.

So, I walked in with scales that I had prepared, and walked out with a new goal!  That kind of perspective expansion is always welcome.  I had my internal meter adjusted to better reflect the level of technical development consistent with my goals.  What is interesting, is that this led to a breakthrough in practicing.  I had been coasting at 80bpm, working on learning some of the minor scales, but realized that I can actually play the ones I know at 100-120bpm with a little work on the crossings at certain points.  Given a new goal, suddenly I had wind in my sails to accelerate my practice and to move ahead to where I need to be.  Once I set goals that satisfy the inner artist, I find perspective on what it really takes to get there quite valuable.  I will have the Sonatas ordered well before I hit 160bpm, but I know what I need to do to start them in earnest.  Now I have great motivation to get to work on my scales!

What perspective do you need on your own playing, performing, or teaching?  How do you get it?

Lesson Frequency

What lesson frequency yields the greatest impact in playing results?  If having a lesson a week is good, is having one every day better?  Or is better to go every two weeks, so that more individual practice can be done between lessons?  There are several factors that influence the decision of how often to obtain instruction.  External factors include things like:  how often can you schedule lessons into your life?  How many lessons a month can you afford?  How often is your teacher available?  For most students, these factors tend toward weekly or bi-weekly (every two weeks) lessons.  But there are several other considerations that merit investigation.

First, one’s level of technical and artistic development has a lot to do with lesson frequency.  In the beginning stages, a lesson every week is highly advantageous.  There is so much to learn, and so many questions, that if you are making any effort at all, you will be looking for some expert input after a week.  At this level, it is not about artistic craftsmanship, but about identifying and fixing harmful or poor playing habits before they become ingrained.  It is about renewing one’s motivation by checking in and finding out if progress is being made.  It is about receiving encouragement when you really don’t know quite what to make of the process.  When you haven’t yet learned how to isolate, diagnose, and solve problems on your own, checking in weekly for even 30 minutes does wonders in the beginning for keeping everything moving in the right direction.

Second, one’s weekly practice volume must be considered.  As we have discussed elsewhere, there is a lower bound to effectiveness.  If it takes about 6 hours to make noticeable progress, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have lessons more frequently than this occurs.  For most this is accomplishable in a week.  But there is nothing to suggest that showing up with the minimum possible volume produces the most effective lessons.  In fact, it is my experience that substantially more volume produces the greatest benefit from a given lesson.  I find that keeping a practice volume where music can be brought back with fingering intact and basic interpretations mapped yields the greatest results.  The tempo may be half the target tempo, but if the basic technical problems have been solved, then the interpretive map can be refined with experienced ears and fingers.  This level of preparation makes for happy teachers, and ultimately contributes to a productive relationship.  Setting lesson frequency such that substantial progress occurs also makes for a highly satisfying lesson.  You KNOW that you are better than the last time, and it shows.

Thirdly an individual’s general rate of progress is important  For a given practice volume, different students learn at different rates.  The main issue is not really the practice volume as such, but the measurable progress between lessons.  On the one hand,  it is actually possible to go longer between lessons as skill develops.  Once a student is able to identify technical and musical problems, isolate them, diagnose the issue, and solve them, it is possible to continue work without worrying that something is going horridly wrong.  This is quite freeing for the responsible intermediate student, and allows for independent work to be done.  At the same time, if practice volume is high, and progress is rapid, it is quite possible to have too much time in between lessons.  My experience is that there is a point at which you know that it is time for external input.  I find myself WANTING a second opion – to practice performing it for someone to see where my nerves throw it off, to figure out how some section could be better.  I know I am at this point when I stop pushing the metronome up, or I find myself playing the piece well, but without stretching any further, or feeling lost as to other interpretations.  As an adult student, there may be times that you continue to practice heavily, but miss a lesson date for whatever reason.  It can feel long, when the completed work is piling up and you know that it needs to be evaluated and corrected!  This is a good time to put a piece on maintenance mode and to start work on a new piece where there’s lots of basic work to do before needing input.

At the higher levels of musical development, taking lessons more than once a week can be common.  With a 6 hours representing two days of practice or less, it is possible to take lessons twice a week and be making rapid progress.  The idea here is that if technical issues are not in the way, then extra time and attention can be paid to artistic matters, with the student working not so much at playing the piece, but on finding the most musical expression of the piece.  This level of work tends to be done as an advanced student, working with performance coaches and preparing for major concerts or recitals.

As with other areas of practice, you will ultimately have to make your own map for how lesson frequency fits into your development at this time.  The truth is that the various internal and external factors will change over time and you will want to regularly evaluate whether or not your lesson schedule is aligned with your goals at the instrument.


Crunch Time

Sometimes, it isn’t even about slow times – there is major activity in other areas of life that intrude heavily on practice schedules.  To the degree that practice is done in carefully chosen windows of discretionary time for most amateur musicians, it stands to reason that any other than a minor schedule deviation is going to impact practice.  This has been my experience.  While I can choose to focus on an “extra” activity for dedicated practice, I can’t really do that with two.  Life is about choices, and with time as the most precious commodity, we have to choose our battles.  As you know, i’ve chosen music to fill that spot, but sometimes other things demand attention.

On occasion, though, despite our best plans to be focused  on our craft, other issues press in.  It could be a big project at work, a significant change in personal life such as moving, graduation, loss of a loved one, caring for a sick member of your household, etc.  All of these things are good and necessary.  There will even be choices to take a special class or volunteer to help a church or community organization that ultimately affect our practice.  Avoiding this is not practical.  We need to accept and fulfill our obligations and the other commitments that make us complete and successful.

I find that during a crunch time, my practice volume will drop roughly in half (particularly if my weekend is impacted).  It feels so short!  I also find that it is a good time to consolidate around developing pieces and technique.  It takes a lot of effort and attention to work on difficult new music.  When I know that the crunch is of a short duration, I can shift the workload onto refining things that are already in my fingers with less effort than sorting out new technical difficulties with a piece.  When I am most heavily loaded, focusing on scales and other technical studies works well for me. By shifting to more technical things, it requires less of my total involvement to practice, and it is strangely therapeutic to do deep practice on something as simple as a scale.

The other thing that I keep in mind is that the situation is temporary.  I have not altered my goals, my commitment, or my ability to progress.  I don’t have to be hard on myself for flexing with life.  Generally, I won’t flex unless there is no other way, but life does have times where there is “no other way”.  At that point, I don’t need or want to fight.  It is best to preserve energy, complete what must be done to get out of crunch time, and then resume the normal flow of practicing.

One of the interesting things about having overworked severely (to the point of falling ill) on a few occasions, is that I’ve discovered what my physical limits are.  Our bodies are not infinite.  Even when healthy, I can only work so hard. That level may be higher or lower than someone else, but it is what I am legitimately capable of.  Assuming that you too know what the real and sustainable limits of your own body, it becomes possible to adjust during crunch times. I want  to move forward as quickly as I am able.  I try to organize my life so that it is in a good place for maximum progress, but when I have to make adjustments for a few days or a week, then I can only do what I can do.  Knowing those limits enables me to understand what maximum progress means during a crunch week.  Of course I would like to be doing more and progressing more rapidly, but self-management from “what is” is more effective than beating yourself up over some ideal that is not possible at the present time.  When you need to deviate from your normal routine for several days or a week, don’t be too hard on yourself, but do what you can and then just pick back up when the crunch is over.

Slow Days

Not every day is going to scratch the top of the deliberate practice mountain.  Not every day can be a maximum volume day, no matter how lofty the goals.  Everyone is going to have days that just don’t go according to plan, when sleep, work, family, or even one’s own need to rest simply must take priority.  This is far from a bad thing when the road is long.  Even within a practice session, we can’t just play as fast and loud as possible for the whole time – our bodies aren’t made for that.  We must pace ourselves not only within a practice session, but across the week, and even longer intervals.  So what does a slow day look and feel like?

For me, a slow day is different than just being tired, though sometimes that is involved.  Often a slow day follows meeting and exceeding my practice goals for the week.  There is a satisfaction in knowing that the work is complete, and done well.  I work diligently and purposefully during much of the week, particularly the weekend when I can put music in the best parts of my day.  But the end of my practice week is often different.   It is a chance to reflect on what worked and didn’t work, and to simply enjoy the week’s progress.  When you are doing the work on a daily basis, progress is inevitable, and a slow day is a chance to find out where that progress has taken you.  Practically, I use less structure in my practice time – I may spend longer on scales to really investigate where things stand, or to review older material.  I also concentrate on trying pieces at their full length at a comfortable tempo, or experiment with a much higher tempo that I can’t play cleanly.  It is part of understanding where I am, and what I need to do next.

It may seem counterintuitive that a slow day may have unusually fast playing, but it is important to realize that I don’t push for the speed – I just lightly execute and see what crops up.  Sometimes I am surprised at being able to play substantially faster than I have been practicing, and I lock in a whole new level with light practice.  I also find out where the problems lurk.  I don’t solve them on the slow day – I note them for specific work in the upcoming week.  This is survey work, not rigorous and meticulous practice.  It is part of setting up the next week.

Another reason for slow days are those days when the “inner artist” (see Julia Cameron’s excellent book The Artist’s Way) just needs a break.  If you are putting your best self into your art, it takes something from you in more ways than just physical.  There is emotional and spiritual energy invested in your playing, dreaming, and working.  Just as bodies need rest and rejuvenation, our souls and spirits need to be lifted up, rested, and encouraged for the next push.  A slow day with reduced practice volume is the perfect time to do something that speaks to you: watch a movie, listen to a masterwork, paint a picture, or read a book.  Even if there is a way to conduct a forced march to some kind of technical achievement, who would want to play mechanically well on an empty emotional tank?  The goal is to make art that move the soul and spirit, not to be a mechanical reproduction.  Planned slow days are part of this process.

Slow days are good for reflection on what you are studying and why – to ask questions about what comes next and how the pieces you are working on move you closer.  When you are carrying substantial practice volume, you will be working pieces out of the new category and into the development category rather rapidly, so every week offers a chance to add a new piece or two to the mix.  Which ones?  Why?  Hard ones to sink one’s teeth into?  or perhaps easier pieces that can quickly be added to repertoire and offer the satisfaction of rapid progress?  Slow days are a good time to put some new music on the desk and explore the themes – is it worth spending hours with, or not?  This kind of reflection works to build a balanced practice schedule with pieces at several difficulty and commitment levels.  Having some pieces that will take a month or longer to bring to performance must be mixed with pieces that can be learned and polished in a week.  Being able to see progress is a great encouragement, and can be part of every week.  Slow days help me keep that vibrancy by letting me explore things that I might or might not add to the practice regimen.  It can be tremendously freeing to work through some material with the freedom to not practice any of it!  It makes committing to the serious practice of a new piece more special when you have made a considered choice between several pieces.

My week includes slow time.  I need time to rest and recuperate, to think and plan.  I set my weekly practice goals so that I can enjoy a slow day along the way.  I’ll often cut my practice volume by 1/3 or 1/2 on a slow day.  I have this luxury because there are other days that I make it happen – often many days in a row.  Taking a needed or well-deserved slow day is the grease that lubricates the gears.

It Won’t Be a Surprise

When television stations do “human interest” stories, producers love a good “surprise success” story. Something about watching someone who has just won the lottery, or a new car seems to be very good for ratings. But there is nothing strange about this – people love to see other people succeed. The Olympics are popular for this reason, too. It seems that in human psychology, some people make little distinction between a lottery winner and an Olympic athlete – both get their day of fame. In reality though, some activities – like the lottery have a large surprise element. When the odds are tens of millions to one against you, no one expects to win every time they buy a ticket. The winners are genuinely surprised.

The podium at an Olympic event is not like this. No one there is surprised to be competing. They have all prepared for most of their lives to be there, and plan on winning. Of course there are things outside their control, and yes, they have given an abnormally good performance, but there isn’t much surprise that they are in the Olympics – there was too much effort and expectation put in over too long a time to register surprise.
Climbing the mountain of musical ability is much more like the Olympics than the lottery. When you are finally able to play all the pieces you want to play and they sound the way you wanted, it won’t be a surprise. There is too much preparation involved. When you work every day for years towards a goal, the surprise is more one of realization that you have more or less “arrived”, mixed with the knowledge of how much more you want to accomplish.

The flip side of this is that if you find yourself “surprised” at how well or poorly a performance goes, it is a good sign that preparations have been inadequate. Full preparation involves getting to the point where it would be surprising to make a big mistake, rather than that it would be surprising to do well. The goal is to have our expectations accurately reflect in our results because of the thoroughness of our preparations. In our planning to succeed, in our practice, and in our performance, there should be an underlying intentionality that informs all that we do. When we intentionally remove the flubs, pauses, and interpretive flaws in our playing, we remove surprises for our listeners and ourselves. Ultimately, strong performances are not a surprise to the performer, but are carefully and thoughtfully created over months and years of effort.

Whether it is a performance, a level of achievement, or some other musical goal, plan and work to a level of intentionality whereby you will not be surprised when you play well and smoothly. Proper preparation, and careful consideration of how to eliminate mistakes will remove uncertainty and provide both mental and physical re-assurance that you can deliver excellence repeatedly.

Spot Checks

Once a practice has whittled down the technical problems, the tempo is right, and interpretive details are falling into place, it is time to start readying the piece for performance.  Gerald Klickstein’s 4th chapter in The Musician’s Way has a lot of good tips on how to memorize and involve multiple types of memory. As you go through this process, it becomes necessary to evaluate how ready the piece is performance.

I use a little drill called “Spot Checks” to test myself.  The essence of this is to without any preparation (other than perhaps setting a metronome) just start into a piece and play it all the way through – repeats and all.  The trick is not to start over again, stop or pause, but to continue, just like it was a real performance.  My goal is to evaluate my performance without pre-playing the piece, or using the sheet music, but trying to simulate having to just start something and play all the way through.  I will often do this outside of my practice times so that it is more like someone said, “Hey, will you play us something?”.  Any spots that are not secure tend to show up using this method.  Very often what is secure with the sheet music may not be with memory, and vice-versa.  The “Spot Check” sorts this out.     In my experience, places that seem secure in regular practice with a metronome and the music suddenly aren’t when performed by memory alone.

If “spot checks” are showing problems, then the piece is not yet secure for a performance, and it is obvious where to work.  As sections are memorized, it is useful to use this technique to place sections in random order and test the ability to recall a section.  Sections can be linked together in this fashion as well.  Using a recorder provides another window into the spot check process.  The key is to simulate a performance as much as possible, not stopping and restarting repeatedly.  Use musically complete thoughts for your spot checks and ultimately the whole piece.  Once spot checks have substantial consistency and are at the level you desire, it is time to start performing the piece for family and friends to isolate any other issues prior to putting the piece into your official repertoire.

Setting and Achieving Practice Goals

In previous posts, we’ve looked at how much effort it takes to excel, and at the need to develop our own map on how to get from where we are to where we want to be.  Ultimately, everyone has to make their own practice schedule, but I’ve found a couple of ideas useful.

1. Start with an annual practice goal – We know that it is going to be a multi-year effort to “get good”, so thinking in terms of yearly progress can be quite helpful.  Here is a little table on how many years it takes to get to 10,000 hours:

If you know that you are targeting an overall goal of 10,000 or more hours of practice, it can be sobering to realize just how long it is going to take to get to the final destination.

2. Determine a sustainable weekly practice volume.  For me, a week is short enough that I can generally forsee problem spots in my schedule and plan accordingly.  On optimal days, I can do two 90 minute sessions and still keep work and the rest of my life happening.  You may be able/willing to do more or less.  But if I have to travel, or commute to a customer meeting, then I may only get in one 90 minute session on that day.   Here’s an expanded view of the last chart to show how daily volume adds up to weekly and yearly volume.  The chart assumes 6 days of practice 50 weeks a year.

Looking at this chart, there are several things to keep in mind:

  • A practice volume of under 2 hours a day makes it very hard to achieve the higher levels of accomplishment.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t a whole world of great music to explore below this level, because there is.  It is possible to thoroughly enjoy oneself at every level of achievement.  This statement isn’t about the limitations of less practice for an average adult as much as it is a fact to be reckoned with for those few who truly desire to play at an expert level.
  • There is a lower bound of effectiveness for forward progress.  You can see our previous discussion on that here.
  • It is pretty much impossible to practice effectively for much more than 4.5 or maybe 5 hours a day.  See previous article here. Conservatory students don’t practice more than this.  They may have many other hours playing in ensembles or in musical classes, but there is a real limit to how much and how hard you can work  without flat-lining from a progress perspective.
  • The serious student looking to achieve a substantial mastery of the instrument will want to target 2.5-4 hours per day of practice volume.  A decade will see substantial progress toward the goal, and significant musical accomplishment every week.

3. Missing practice sessions bites into the total very quickly.  If my goal is to get 18 hours a week, and I miss two 90 minute sessions, suddenly I have 15 hours for the week.  If I miss two 90 minute sessions and one whole day, then I am down to 12 hours.   My weeks are busy enough that it isn’t really possible to make up 6 additional hours in the following week, so I could easily miss my goal by a wide mark (600 hours a year vs. 900 planned)!  It is not an exaggeration to say that every practice session counts!  The same idea holds true at every level of desired practice volume.  When you are playing a game that favors consistency, then missing sessions is costly. This is why it is so important to choose a sustainable volume target.  If you set it based on some desired schedule instead of a realistic schedule, you will find that your week has to run perfectly to accomplish your goals.  My schedule demands fluctuate throughout a week, so I cannot count on perfect scheduling.  I’ve found that I have to plan each week carefully to make sure I can get in all the sessions I am counting on to reach my goals.

3. Break down the desired daily volume into chunks that fit your schedule.    For example, if you want to have three hours of daily volume, then this could be: 2x 90 min sessions, 3 x 60 min sessions, or even 6x 30 min sessions.  The trick is to create atomic units that you can slot into your day, and then identify those slots!  If you can get in 30 minutes before dinner and 30 minutes after dinner, then you have carved out 1 hour of practice.  If getting up early gives you an extra 60 minutes, then you can secure two hours of daily practice.  For me, I want to average 3 hours per day, but some days I will only get 90 minutes.  So, I created 90 minute chunks and 60 minute chunks to fil in on the weekend.  I have found that for me, four hours of practice pushes what I am capable of at the present time, so the most I need to plan for is 2×90 min sessions + 1×60 min session.

Once you have a target, then you can plan how to use each chunk of time.

4. Define the time allotment for each chunk.  I have personally adopted the rough outline suggested by Gerald Klickstein in The Musician’s Way.  This is not the only way, but I had no need to re-invent the wheel. As my needs change, I expect to alter the balance of how time is spent.  Here’s a sample of my current 90-minute workout:

New Material (35 Minutes)

Developing Material (20 minutes)

Performance Material (alternates with Developing material morning and evening)

Technical Studies (15 minutes)

Scales (3 x 5 min each)

Musicianship (20 minutes)

Sightreading (10 minutes)

Ear Training (10 minutes)

The larger chunks I further subdivide into 5-10 minute intervals.  I find this is enough to work on a phrase, cadence, or other complete musical thought.  If I am learning a new 2-pt Invention by Bach, I might practice hands-separately for 5 min on the first theme in each hand, and then move to another piece and play the 2nd cadence for 10 minutes, and then work on the ending to a piece for 10 minutes, and so on. This lets me work effectively on multiple pieces at once, and move forward on all of them every session.

Looking at my notes from this morning, here’s how this played out:

New Material (35 Minutes)

Bach Inv. #1 measure 1-10 @ mm 126=8th note – no mistakes (10 Min)

Bach Inv #1 measure 10-19 @ mm 108=8th note – clean from here to end of piece (10 min)

Bach Inv #1 2nd cadence @ mm 120=8th note – still slight gap in LH (15 min)

Developing Material (20 minutes)

Schumann The Merry Farmer @ mm=92 (performance tempo) clean except meas 4.  whole piece safe at 80bpm (10 min)

Bach Invention #2 1st Theme, hands separate (10 min – 5 min each hand)

Performance Material (alternates with Developing material)

Technical Studies (15 minutes)

Emin harmonic scale – HS @ 80bpm, HT @ 72 bpm 2, 3, 4 octave pattern

Amin harmonic scale – HS @88 bpm, HT @ 72 bpm 2, 3, 4 octave pattern

Gmaj scale – HS @ 80 bpm, HT @72 bpm 2,3,4 octave pattern

Musicianship (20 minutes)

Sight-reading (10 minutes) – 4-part reading from hymn book

Ear Training (10 minutes) 3rds asceding/descending randomly: 17/20, 4ths & 5ths:  17/20, 19/20

5. Take detailed notes.  If you quickly jot down exactly what tempo and work you accomplished in each 5-10 minute micro-session, then you know exactly where to pick up the next time you practice that piece or technical study.  This is illustrated in the above example.  It is easy for me to glance at these notes in my notebook and know that in Bach’s Invention #1, I have to bring measure 10-19 up to the tempo that I have the rest of piece at – it is the weakest spot. I should allocate more time to this in my next practice, and less to a part that is more secure.  You can flex as needed to put attention on the parts that need it.

For example, I am also working on the C-major scale this 2 week period, but it didn’t make my morning practice – I only have 3 x 5minute intervals.  So in the evening session, I will trade out the Gmaj scale for Cmaj.  I repeat the minor scales because they are newer to me, and so they get 2x the practice right now.

5. Practice with a timer.  You need to keep on track.  It doesn’t help to make a plan and then spend half your time playing scales, or the beginning of one song. Breaking everything down into 5-10 minute chunks allows you to maintain complete focus for the duration of the exercise or practice goal.  It also helps if you get interrupted.  Rather than write off the whole session, you know exactly what you need to do to finish the workout.  I set the timer when I am ready to begin, and then stop when it finishes, resetting it for each 5-10 minute micro-session.  By using the timer on my smartphone, I have a workflow that easily travels.  Of course, a cheap digital kitchen timer would work just as well.  Once in the groove, I know that I am getting in a full workout towards my goals, and I don’t have to think about anything except executing the plan.  This is freeing, and lets me know that I don’t have to think about practicing all day – I just have to do my short 5-10 minute sections that add up into 60 or 90 minute workouts, and then get my workouts in during the windows I have them scheduled in the week.

Your practice map will likely look a lot different than mine.  I’ve helped my children make 25, 45 and 50 minute “workouts” for their studies in drawing and painting.  They determine the breakout of time, and move the micro-sessions around as they need to.  Using the above example, you can make a map to get from where you are to where you want to be.  Consult your teacher if you are not sure about the amount of practice volume needed to reach a particular musical goal.  If you only need 2,000 hours to reach your goal, then you can plan out the right path that fits that volume goal.  Many musicians are happily playing in bands after a few hundred hours of work, so this shouldn’t be seen as only for the very advanced student.

On the other hand, if you are, or intend to become an advanced musician, then the ideas we’ve just explored will connect the dots between desired outcomes and practical concerns.

Practicing on the Road – Coda

The reality is that even a grueling travel schedule can be redeemed for music making.  Mental practice is demanding, but yields rich and real results back at the instrument.  It turns out that an inability to hear or sing the piece does affect it’s playability and expression.  Complex finger and hand coordination issues can be worked out in slow motion in one’s mind.  The sound of your instrument can be recalled inside the mind with perfect tone, pitch, and timbre. It is possible to work with a metronome and discover where one’s conception of the music isn’t keeping pace with the tempo.  I have found that that these are the same places that my fingers stumble, and that fixing it in my mind fixes it in my fingers.

Best of all, airplanes can be transformed into an excellent practice studio.  If you don’t have work to accomplish in-flight, this often makes mid-day practice a reality – a dream situation for the dedicated amateur who normally gives the most mentally alert part of the day to other work.  In the air, distractions can be virtually eliminated, and a couple scores fit effortlessly into any carry on.  Ear training, metronome, and virtual instrument apps on a smart phone or laptop let you keep working, even offering pitch references to start pieces in your mind.


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