Written by: April Vargo
So you just had your weekly, 30 minute lesson and now you're on your own. What do you do? How do you practice?
Having your teacher / coach there to advise for 30 minutes is fabulous, but you have to be able to take what they say and run with it the rest of the week to make sure that you are ingraining proper technique and mastering the correct fundamentals of the song. Practicing can be a pain in the bootie process, especially if you don't know how to practice.
Thinking back on my own musical lessons and experiences throughout the years, I had many teachers, especially at the beginning of my playing and singing who never actually taught me what practicing was. I got the graphs and sheets with the number of days and amount of time I was to fill out after each practice session and make sure my mom or dad signed it so I could prove my awesome work or get a good grade. I knew the material I was supposed to practice, but didn't really know how to.
For instance, what happened when I got stuck on a certain passage or idea, how was I supposed to fix it? Did I even know I was doing it wrong? Did I have the tools to figure it out independently or did my teachers just tell me / show me how to do it when I was in lessons?
It wasn't until about high school that I had some awesome private teachers who really made sure I understood what it was I was supposed to be doing, how to fix issues, and how to best utilize my time.
As a teacher myself, I have also learned what works and what doesn't, and realized that teaching someone how to practice, how to be independent needs to be part of the lesson itself. Every teacher wants their students to want / need them, however, true success is independence....students can take the concepts you're teaching them and run with it.
For those of you sitting down to practice, and not necessarily knowing where to start, I've outlined five crucial steps to making sure you're getting the most out of your time. Some of these steps do include what teachers should be doing for their students.
1. Know What You're Practicing For
What's the purpose of your practice? Are you doing this for your own self-gratification, as a hobby, something you just want to enjoy? Are you doing this in hopes of making money, gaining a scholarship, getting a job? The practice tracks for each of these is completely different.
Someone who is practicing just for fun, can progress at their own rate. They aren't on any deadlines, they don't need to put pressure on themselves, and they can focus on as much or as little as they want for that week. As long as progress is being made and the individual feels that they are successful and having fun, you know you're doing a good job.
If you are competing, looking to get paid, or go on to school for scholarship this is a completely different practice track. This needs to be more rigorous, more intense, more focused. The people you are going up against are putting in their time, have a great deal of talent, and understand that when you get to that level people are looking for any reason to cut you - you can't give them a reason. Practice should be daily, with dedicated time in your schedule, and a clear plan of attack for each day.
2. Know What You're Practicing
Throughout lessons with my students they get constant feedback and direction on what needs to be practiced. We run through the segments that need to be focused on, how to do so (they essentially get a practice run of how to practice), with a summary at the end of everything we talked about. Each student receives a written email from me after the lesson is completed detailing what we talked about, what needs to be practiced, and where their focus should be.
Each of my students also receive all of the materials they need for success. They have music, PDF files, WAV files, any notes necessary, and additional resources if applicable. They should not walk away with wondering how they will practice or worried they can't be successful, they have everything they need, and have been fully engaged in every step of the process.
3. Keep Parents In The Know
If the student is under the age of 18 parents absolutely get to know what's going on in lessons. I have talked to several teachers who believe that the parents don't need to know because it's not their lesson and should be kept out of it. This is a big mistake!
First and foremost parents are most likely paying for the lessons, which means they absolutely have every right to know how their money is being spent. Secondly, many of them are truly interested in the growth of their child and how he/she progresses. I have many parents who are super involved, try to help their children if they need it, and keep their kids on track with the goals for the week.
At the end of the month they also get to look back and see how much progress the child has made and help to give them praise at home, again only giving the child more opportunity to succeed.
This is something I work with my students on every lesson. I ask them how did that sound to you, what was positive about what you just did and what could be improved? I will let them analyze the work they just did, I will give my opinion and we will have a discussion about how to fix it and how to keep the strong sections the same. Once the fix is made, I ask them what they did differently, how it felt, and how we can replicate this?
This process is incredibly important. Most students don't know how to listen and break down their work. They sing or play and wait for the instructor to tell them what to do or how they sounded. By making the student analyze, they understand when something isn't right, how to fix it, and how to identify when something is going well. This way when the student isn't in lessons they are analyzing their own work and practicing more efficiently.
5. Amount Of Time Is Not As Important As Quality Of Time
I don't know about anyone else, but I can definitely remember practicing with a timer. Once that timer hit 30 or 45 minutes, I was allowed to stop practicing. I remember their were certain days I absolutely hated this and found myself just watching the timer. Why? Because sometimes I was done early, it was an easier lesson week and I didn't need that much time. Other times, I was really struggling and progress / mistakes just seemed to get worse and worse. There were other days when I was loving it and would practice for over an hour because I was accomplishing so much and really making some awesome strides.
I don't give my students an amount of time they need to practice. I will sometimes give a day minimum (I'd like to see 3 days a week, 5 days a week, etc). The amount isn't as important. If a person is focused and effective, a 5 minute practice session can be more productive than 30 minutes. Sometimes life gets in the way and we don't have a huge amount of time. I'd rather see some practice than no practice at all.
I have actually seen greater progress by not forcing time, and by pushing objectives and goals. Once students reach those goals, they deserve praise, so that they know what it feels like to succeed and will take it upon themselves to put in the time and energy needed.
Practice can be truly fun and effective, if you know how to utilize your time. If you aren't currently doing these five things when you practice, start instituting a couple at a time. I promise you'll see your time being utilized in a more effective way and your progress increase exponentially.