Autumn is my absolute favorite season in Colorado — the crisping of the air, the twirl of falling leaves, the changing colors of the aspens, the smell of warm apple cider… A time of transition that lends well for reflection.

Many years ago, a first-grade teacher friend laughingly told me about the time she was teaching the axiom “Practice makes perfect” to her class. A child raised their hand and announced: “My piano teacher says that only ‘Perfect Practice makes perfect!’”

I have been lately reflecting on the importance of persisting to pursue healthy practice habits with our students (notice the use of the word “persist”!). Institutional research* was recently done to study the ability of first year music majors to “self-regulate” their practice. The study results showed three types of students: those that had no clue how to practice, those that knew how to practice but did not self-regulate, and those who knew how to practice and were able to self-regulate. Sadly, the third group of students was the minority in this particular study.

So here are some “chewable” questions for you: What is correct practice? How does this impact outcome and motivation? How can we help our students maximize their practice experience so that their learning is fruitful, efficient, effective and meaningful?

To me, the act of practice is synonymous with the act of learning. Correct practice produces successful learning, and successful learning allows us to enjoy making music. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines practice as the following:

  1. to do something again and again in order to become better at it.
  2. to do (something) regularly or constantly as an ordinary part of your life
  3. to live according to the customs and teachings of (a religion)

Let’s skip definition No. 1 for now. I love how definition No. 2 talks about integrating practice as “an ordinary part of your life.” Can we encourage correct practice habits so that they become an “ordinary” part of our student’s lives? Imagine that? This is the “self-regulating” part of the institutional study I mentioned above. By the way, what is self-regulation anyway?

Do we self-regulate brushing teeth, eating chocolates just anytime (hmm…), washing hands, checking before crossing the road, etc. Obviously, this can be done in other areas of life with a fair amount of success, so that should give us hope…

I repeatedly emphasize to my students that “you get what you practice – whether it is correct or incorrect practice. That’s how our amazing brain functions!” The latest brain research backs this up in the development of behavior, thought and skill pathways. This is the reason that music study is so great for the brain. First and foremost, it develops coherent learning pathways – or at least, that is the product IF we are intentional about the correct learning process as teachers.

The 3rd definition is thought provoking. Allow me the liberty of rewording it thus: “to live your musical life according to the customs and teachings of successful learning principles.”

So when does this begin – the establishment of customs that reflect successful principles of learning? I would suggest that it begins from the first lesson, with simple beginner concepts and pieces. That’s when you learn and teach the art of self-reflection, focus, goal setting and time management – with the little things.

So back to the first dictionary definition of practice. My guess is that most people think of practice as the doing of something “again and again.” That is the part that most students have down. But, what are they cementing again and again? Is it information and skill that they truly want cemented into their brain pathways? Are they aware of their goal for repeating a section five times? What is more important? Knowing why you are doing it, or, just doing it?

If I have raised more questions than I have answered, I apologize. While there is not a “one-size-fits-all” rule for everybody, I do believe that stepping back to see the big picture and our end goal is so important for achieving the smaller daily/weekly ones. It’s what I call a “compass check” – we all need to do that intermittently, in our teaching, practice and personal lives.  So, is our goal for our students to do what we tell them, or, is our goal for them to take ownership of the learning process?

Just so that I don’t leave you with just questions to ponder, here’s a practical tool for your “practice tool box” this week, if you have not tried this yet. Have your student record a specific section of their assignment – especially if they have an i-pod, i-pad, or i-phone. Notice the “i” in all of these devices? They are great for developing self-awareness in practice. Then assign them to listen to their recording with the score and “be the teacher” by marking what changes they need in the score. I’m going to remember to do that this week with my teenage students. Teenagers need specific goals. Let me know how it goes and send me your thoughts and questions!  🙂

* Pike, Pamela D.  “Autonomous Practice: A Comparison of Self-Regulation Among First-Year Music Majors and Implications for Music Instructors.” MTNA e-journal, Sept. 2016, 1 October 2016.