Using the excuse that we are still in the beginning of a new year (a great time to rethink our habits and routines), lately I have been broaching the subject of practicing with my students even more than usual.  Of course, we talk about how to practice all the time, but rarely do we talk directly about how much and when we practice.  Maybe I just haven’t wanted to ask too many questions, preferring to look the other way and assume the work will get done.  This is certainly the case with students who generally come prepared week in and week out, who always fill out their practicing and sight-reading charts (Sunday. Pages 10-13. Monday. Pages 14-17….), and who are making sure and steady progress.  I don’t want to jinx things, so I mostly I have left the subject alone. Why mess with what’s working? I ask myself. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this avoidance demonstrates wise or cowardly behavior on my part.

Because these recent conversations about practicing are enlightening, to say the least.  Turns out, many of them are practicing a lot less than I would have guessed.  My default system of task practice versus timed practice means that as long as the assignments are getting done, I haven’t always been diligent about checking how long they are practicing.  But my recent discovery that some elementary and early intermediate students manage to get through their assignments in as little as 15 minutes is unsettling.  I am particularly alarmed at this comment:  Miss Amy, at the end of the week, when the music isn’t new anymore, I can go even faster!  In the past month, I have heard some version of this statement repeatedly, always spoken with the confidence that I am then going to praise them for their cleverness.  One student, in fact, even went so far as to apologize that his practice times didn’t get “fast enough” as the week progressed.  When I suggested that practicing wasn’t the same as, let’s say, running a mile, where the goal is to decrease our time in subsequent repetitions, he was so disappointed he burst into tears.

How are such abbreviated practice sessions even possible?  It takes 45 minutes in our lessons together to work through these same assignments.  True, I stop and correct, teach new concepts and break down details, but still, we never even come close to playing the repetitions required in their daily practice assignments.  How are these same students working through their assignments in such short practice segments?

The answer is I have no idea.  Actually that isn’t true.  I have an idea all right, I just don’t like thinking about it.  What is happening, I’m afraid, is that corners are being cut, assigned repetitions or practice strategies ignored, music is being played at a ridiculously fast tempo, AND when a mistake or two or three is made, students are just blatantly ignoring the errors, on the theory that maybe they will just go away.

Hearing about these shortened practice sessions, I have tried not to act appalled.  After all, I don’t want the kids to censor their confessions to me. But after about the third of these disheartening conversations, I started bargaining, What if we try something new?  What if we try aiming for an average of 30 minutes or 35 minutes or 40 minutes a day?  What if when you think you might be finished, you practiced 5 more minutes?    

I have found that the kids are receptive to the idea; five minutes seems like nothing much at all, laughable even. I’m not asking them to double their practice time, just for five more minutes when they think they are done. We talk about repeating particularly challenging assignments.  I suggest taking on extra sight-reading pages or reviewing old favorite pieces.  I offer that they could spend the time improvising or making up another composition.  All I really want is for them to stay on the piano bench longer.  I want to see what might happen.

All this reminds me of something that Julia Cameron, the writer and creativity guru, says: “Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.”  She maintains that people often stop right before a breakthrough.  Looking through Cameron’s lens, I think she may be onto something. I see too many students who give up for the day right before they might succeed in getting a tricky passage under their fingers, or might finally understand the notes of the C-sharp harmonic scale, or might really see the overall structure of their new sonatina.  I haven’t wanted to complain (indeed, until recently haven’t even understood what I should complain about), because these are the same kids who practice consistently and faithfully, even on holiday breaks and school vacations, but now I’m wondering if we are missing the miracle.

Of course, this has got me thinking about my own practice habits.  I put in hours a day at the piano, no question there, but I suspect that the sheer quantity of what I have to practice and learn on a regular basis tends to encourage me to skate briefly across everything, but thoroughly practice nothing.  Yesterday I tried my own suggestion:  when I thought I might be done for the day, I practiced five minutes longer.  Five minutes was nothing, really, but I could feel it make a difference, that I had scraped through to a deeper level of understanding, that even in that short additional time, I had figured out something about the music I hadn’t grasped before.  That elusive miracle.

The implications go beyond the piano bench.  What would five extra minutes in the kitchen look like when I am cleaning up after dinner?  What would five extra minutes give me in the garden or at the computer or on the yoga mat?

It’s a new year, rife with possibilities: An extra five minutes here, another ten minutes there.  Baby steps.  So far no one is complaining; in fact, one student even went so far as to announce that he liked this new plan because, in his own words, he felt “more prepared for his lessons.”  He was right about being more prepared and, as a result, our lessons together feel less rushed.  I fix fewer wrong notes and rhythms; we have more time to learn the next new thing.  Who knows?  The miracle may be just around the corner.