What Is Practice?

I asked for suggestions for possible subjects to be covered by future blog posts, and the thing which came up over and over again was practice! Here is the first of several blog posts on that subject.

Everything you or your children do has almost certainly required practice at some point – walking, eating, cycling, driving, addition, spelling etc. We all know that if we hadn’t been encouraged to practise these things, we would have improved at only a very slow rate, if at all. The main purpose of practice is to progress. Most music lessons account for just under 0.3% of the total time available in the week, so it’s inevitable that a lot of progress takes place outside of lessons.

One of the biggest problems is that practice is ineffective; playing is one thing, but it’s not necessarily effective practice. We’ll be looking a little more at effective practice in the next post. I suggest to my pupils a traffic light system to check how effective their practice is:

RED – You haven’t moved on, have forgotten what we did in the last lesson or you’ve gone backwards.

AMBER – You haven’t moved on, but you can do everything you left the last lesson being able to do.

GREEN – You can do everything you could at the end of the last lesson, and you’ve moved on.

Pupils whose practice is stuck on red are unlikely to progress; pupils whose practice is on amber will progress, but only at a slow and cautious rate; and pupils whose practice is on green will move forward quickly.

But what is practice? At a basic level, practice is twofold: revisiting the work covered in the lesson, and preparing for the work to be covered in the next lesson. Depending on the instrument, practice may include exercises, technical work, scales, pieces, listening, composing, improvising, theory, writing etc. Playing isn’t always practice, but equally, practice isn’t always playing.

Before you or your child leaves the lesson, you or they need to know exactly what it is they’re going to practise. Some teachers write this in a notebook, others e-mail details after the lesson (I use a combination of both). The instructions must be specific too; it’s not enough to just go home with a list of pieces and their page numbers. Pupils also need to know how to practise effectively.