We all learn best from frequent exposure to information. The length of time spent per day is not as important as how often. Daily practice of each item assigned is essential in order for lessons to be easily learned.
Instead of minutes spent, it is far more appealing to a child to think in terms of numbered repetitions. 20 minutes might seem like forever to a young student, but if they need to “play measures 3 and 4 with the right hand 8 times”, it’s more like a game to them – rather than “doing time”!
Since training our body (torso, arms and hands in this case) requires repetition, we want to make sure that what we are repeating is right! Once you start repeating, the body learns what it’s been shown – right or wrong. A student will often play the whole piece fast with mistakes, and they’ll feel like they’re progressing fast. However, the true fast way is taking time to prepare to learn first, and then divide the piece into sections. Hence, divide and conquer.
Right hand on the right knee, tapping the rhythm of the upper right hand part. Left hand on the left knee, tapping and counting the lower left hand part. No notes, just rhythms.
The idea here is to place the hands in the best position for playing the notes on the section being worked on. What fingers feel best on which notes? Where is the hand coming from, and where is it going?
Are there any black keys involved? Adjust the fingers to adapt.
Is this part of the piece f “forte” (loud) or p “piano” (soft)? Are the notes staccato (sharp, brief attack) or legato (smooth and connected)? All of aspects of a section of music must be thoroughly researched by the student before any repetition should occur.
Robot?! What?! Musicians call this “muscle memory”, but children more easily understand that “the robot” is the part that runs their legs for them while they play with their friends. To adults, the “robot” is the part of us that makes habits, and we all know we are much happier we are when we properly train our bodies with good habits. Properly training “the robot” requires some real focus.
A student repeats the section while concentrating on rhythm, notes, fingering, key signature, dynamics, and articulations. Whew! This is a lot to think about at once. Hence, the value of working on small sections S-L-O-W-L-Y.
As they repeat their section of music, they will lose the power of concentration. This is quite natural. A number of things may happen:
1. They may begin “daydreaming” and find that the “hands” are repeating something “on their own”. Once achieved, this can often “fall apart”. The section will seem “foreign” again. The student may become frustrated that they have to start over. This is also natural. The whole process may have to begin again until it really sinks in.
2. The student may, however, begin practicing incorrect notes, fingering, rhythm, dynamics, or articulations – without being aware of this. This is to be avoided at all costs because it takes much more energy to unlearn and relearn, than it does to be careful in the training of the “robot”. If the music is learned with errors and then re-learned correctly, the student will now have more than one “default” memory. Under stress (performing), the robot will often choose the memory that has been made first over any others. Everyone knows the power of a first impression. There’s an old saying – “Make sure to at least polish the front of your shoes, so you make a good impression when you walk into a room.” This implies that the back of your shoes won’t matter much after people have made their first impression of you. This also is the reason habits are much more easily made than broken. It is a tremendous life lesson for your children.
3. “Don’ts” – We don’t want to be negative or anything, but these are things you want to report back to your teachers about:
A beginning student may not know why, but they can point to the part of the music they “don’t like”. If you, as a parent, notice frustration occurring in your child – you may ask them to point to their least favorite spot in the music. After they locate it, you can gently point them in the direction of taking “smaller bites” – playing smaller sections slower – or at least report the details back to the teacher. Often that is best because after all, you are not the teacher and if you’re not entirely sure how to help, it’s best to hold off. This also works better before things get too emotional (or after!).
If you play piano yourself, this will help. If not, better to just report frustration (and in what part of what song) to the teacher. More advanced students can diagnose the issues – focusing on:
An advanced student may then design and execute a plan to master the particular issue at hand ( or address it to the teacher ): They must be aware that this is a THOUGHTFUL process. When they attempt to conquer an issue they must:
In short: DO, OBSERVE, and CORRECT.
It is usually appropriate to start with hands separate at first, but when they are played together it is crucial that a student is willing to:
(A good way to think of this is in terms of how one would take a bite out of a sandwich. If the sandwich is made of two slices of wonder bread with a piece of cheese, you can probably eat the sandwich in a few bites. But if the sandwich is made of many meats, cheeses, lettuce, tomato, etc. with thick multigrain bread, you will have to take smaller bites and chew more slowly. It really is the same principle.)
Then, the student should connect the new section to the previously learned material by playing from the last beat of the previous section, then one measure before, the whole phrase, and then finally from the beginning. If these sections have been repeated with correct fingering, dynamics, articulations etc. the student now can experience the joy of orchestrating how the whole piece flows with it’s slopes and valleys – the BIG PICTURE! They can now EXPRESS THEMSELVES!
Coldly, logically – welcome the feedback that the body communicates. Isolate the difficulties down to their smallest components. Learn to locate and “massage” the area that needs the most care. Make the least favorite measure the most friendly.
Mistakes are used to learn, but are not repeated. After the “robot” has been trained to be automated with the right information, a performer can emotionally communicate without extraneous thoughts getting in the way!
Your children’s teachers give assignments to them and show them what to do at home. But it is very helpful for you to be aware of what should be happening at home. You can provide helpful information to the teacher, so they can adjust the curriculum to fit to your child’s particular style of learning. I can honestly say that I’ve not taught any two students who are exactly alike.
Here is a brief outline of what should occur when your children practice at home during the week:
Theory and workbooks. Questions for the teacher are written down in the assignment book.