why students don’t practice
There is only one reason a student stops practicing and gives up playing an instrument, short of physical injury or lack of access to an instrument or lessons: a lack of progress - they just aren’t getting better. The main motivation for practicing is the fact that progress is occurring. Students quit because they can’t tell they are getting any better.
Why don’t students make progress?
Because they aren’t practicing.
1. They don’t know what to do, or
2. They don’t like doing it
If they don’t actually know what to do when they sit down with their instrument, a student’s practice time will be full of mistakes, frustration, boredom and aimless wandering. There will be very little music played, barely any repetition, everything will be played at too fast a speed and too much will be tackled at one time. Mistakes won’t be picked up but will be ingrained as bad habits. This then brings about number two above, “They don’t like doing it”.
So the bottom line is, students don’t practice because they don’t know what to do or how to do it. Teach them what real practice looks like and they’ll love it, because it’s actually an engaging and enjoyable activity that results in real progress, real skill development.
It takes time, a lot of time, to master a skill, and music isn’t any different. Most of us find it irresistible to believe that some people are just born with it, are naturally gifted or talented but the truth is that no one gets good without putting in the hours. It doesn’t matter how unskilled a student feels they are to start with, anyone can get there by learning how to practice.
HOW AND WHY PRACTICING WORKS
Recent research in neuroscience tells us that one explanation for how our brain learns new skills is through a process called “myelination”. Myelin is a fatty substance that coats the connections between the neurons responsible for the action you are practicing. This insulates the connections and allows for faster and more efficient firing, unfortunately, even if what is being practiced is wrong.
Fortunately though, neural pathways develop slowly and a few mistakes here and there won’t have a lasting effect. The important thing is to practice correctly as often as possible and not allow yourself to repeat mistakes but instead stop and correct them as soon as they are detected.
Expert musicians will never let themselves go past a mistake without stopping and finding out why they made the mistake and how they can fix it, then fixing it before continuing with their practice. This method of practice can shave off a huge amount of wasted time practicing the wrong thing and saves even more time in the future that will be spent unlearning the mistakes once they have been engrained.
Want to know more about practice and the brain?
It takes time to develop a practice routine; students don’t automatically know how to practice just because they are having lessons. Week by week, lesson by lesson, they will gradually discover what it means to practice, how it feels and that it works!
FORMAL PRACTICE REALLY ONLY REQUIRES FOUR STEPS:
WORKING ON WEAKNESSES
CHUNKING INTO SMALl PARTS
PLAYING VERY SLOWLY
LOTS OF REPETITION
Students must develop an attitude where they come to value mistakes and look at each error as an opportunity to learn and improve rather than seeing them as evidence that they are just no good at it.
By focusing on what they can’t already do (the hard bits) rather than on what can already be done (the easy bits), the students skill and ability will improve far more rapidly as even the easy bits will get better when the hard bits improve.
Skill consists of identifying important elements and grouping them into a meaningful framework. The name psychologists use for such organisation is chunking.
When a musician learns a song, he assembles it via a series of chunks, which in turn are made up of other chunks. The fluency happens when the musician repeats the movements often enough that he knows how to process those chunks as one big chunk.
Practicing very slowly will ensure less errors are made and allows the student to actively listen and watch for errors while playing. This is a difficult habit to form but is possibly the most essential.
Our brains don’t care about how slowly we move, they just care that we are repeating the same action over and over, which is the signal to myelinate that neural pathway so that the action becomes easier to perform in the future.
An example of slow motion practice
Watch this clip from 1:50 and see a great example of how slow to practice!
Once an error or difficulty has been identified and the student has chunked it down and figured out how to play it correctly at a slow speed, it must be repeated over and over. Just as a student will underestimate how slowly they need to practice and work on too large a chunk, they will also do too few repetitions. Instead of pushing for a higher repetitions though, a student would do best to focus on the correctness of each loop and only stop once they are satisfied they are doing it right.
For a more in-depth look at how to practice and why it works, download a copy of our “Practice Secrets Report”
While it is important to get kids practicing their instruments daily, it isn’t always easy and can also be hard for kids, and parents, to find the time. But music practice doesn’t need to be boring or hard. The following is a list of activities that your child and yourself can engage in that will help them in learning their instrument and learning to develop a practice routine.
InFORMAL PRACTICE can be any of the following:
PERFORMING TO PARENTS
JAMMING WITH FRIENDS
LISTENING TO NEW MUSIC
GOING TO CONCERTS
mucking around with music
when and how much
Practice is best done in an evenly distributed manner, a little each day rather than in a clumpy way, a lot one day and nothing for the rest of the week. The myelination process takes place at night while we sleep, with regular practice this happens more often so we learn faster.
Morning is a great time to practice, the mind is fresh and alert, it’s a great start to the day, and where as practicing at night we can make a student feel tired, practicing in the morning can help one to feel more awake. That being said, there is never a better time than the present to practice if one is having trouble finding time or getting started. Just pick it up and get going. Some experts believe that practicing right before sleep can improve myelination, so really, whenever it can be squeezed in or when best suits the student’s schedule is great.
In terms of how long to practice, for beginners, even five minutes a day is sufficient. As soon as a student begins to make progress though, they should increase the time they spend on their instrument each day. An hour a day is enough to get really good after a few years. If a student wants to rise to the top level of expertise on their instrument, 10,000 hours is required which equates to three hours a day for ten years. The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.