In both my life and teaching, practicing is where it all begins. And so, it seems logical in rebuilding this blog to start here once again.

The following was originally posted on February 20th, 2011.


Ah, practicing.

As we know, this is where the rubber meets the road, where the lofty dreams of being able to play an instrument meet the reality of learning to do so. Teaching students to practice well is everything.

Now, I have to confess, teaching students to practice is the thing that most excites me about teaching. I love the process. I love the process more than the performance. I would rather practice or think about practicing than about anything else. My favorite, most frequent teaching question is, “How did you practice this?” I ask this question to everyone—regardless of age or level. I ask this even regardless of whether or not the student actually has any autonomy in the issue. In other words, I ask the question even when I fully expect the answer should be, “Just like you told me.” But I keep asking the question because I want students to think about the process of practicing from the very beginning. I want students to fall in love with the process, because I am convinced this is the answer to nurturing the life-long musician: If they are engaged in the work, then they will get hooked forever.

It turns out that this is just one of the many problems with our public educational system and our policies of No Child Left Behind: the emphasis is no longer on the process of learning, but rather on the product or performance, otherwise known as “the test results.” Until we as a society stop demanding performance results, we don’t give teachers much choice but to teach to the test. As music teachers our freedom lies in being able to be all about the process, which is why all my Ed Psych friends think I have the best job on the planet. When we, as a profession, start taking the emphasis off of “how did you practice?” and start focusing only on the product, the performance, we are undermining our potential to change the way kids think and learn. I have often said that if our value and reputation as teachers was earned by our retention rates and not our competition winners, we might each very differently.

Some time ago I was teaching an adult student. After hearing her play one of her pieces, I asked the infamous question: So, how did you practice this? She began reciting a list of practice techniques that seemed to me to be woefully inadequate in the face of the music at hand. When I then asked if she had done x, y, or z she admitted that she had not, and, in fact, those strategies had never even occurred to her. This was disheartening to be sure, because these were not new or unfamiliar practicing ideas. Indeed, they were strategies we had used many, many times in the past.

And so, I was inspired to create what we are now calling The List. The List is a list (hence the brilliant name) of practice strategies that we all should use when working. As I explained to my adult student, while not every strategy would apply to every piece, many do, and if we aren’t working through every strategy that we could, there will certainly be holes in our playing. I know this first hand. If, in my impatience and hurry, I skip some step in my preparation, my performance will suffer. Having a list of possible ways to practice helps keep me honest.

The List.

It is so concrete, simple and obvious, I’m embarrassed I never thought of it before now.