I love talking to students about how they learn and how they practice music. Recently I've talked to students from different education systems from countries in Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Middle East, and found that students are fascinated with how learning occurs, and excited by the prospect of becoming better learners. Everyone likes learning (not necessarily school); the boost in self-esteem and self-growth are indeed one of life's great joys. We are born to learn. But I rarely observe a systematic approach within school music departments that address the 'how and why' of practice. Given that the majority of instrumental tuition is delivered by private providers, learning how to learn music it is often left to chance and the initiative of that individual. Students usually know that slow practice is prudent for example, but they don't always understand why. This article reviews some fundamentals of musical practice.
Do you want to be an expert?
When I ask this question, a majority of students indicate that they do -not necessarily in music, but in some domain. In recent times many books have been written about the nature of expertise and the expert brain (see appendix). The average human brain consists of about 100 billion neurons, and the brain's job is to find patterns, to make connections. When a stimulus is repeated often enough a new connection or neural circuit is made. Further repetition strengthens this connection in the form of myelin, a fatty white substance that coats the axon of a neuron. This is known as the white matter of the brain and as an insulator myelin significantly increases the speed of the neural impulses involved in transmitting information. So the answer to this question: do you want to be an expert? Build more myelin. How? By repeating an activity. How often? More is better, but at least four times for a new neural connection to form. Repetitio est mater studiorum!
How long does it take to be an expert?
In his book 'This is your Brain on Music' Daniel Levitin says the emerging picture from studies is that 10 000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert. That is, roughly equivalent to 3 hrs per day of practice over 10 years. What Levitin suggests is that nurture is more a factor than nature in becoming an expert. Daniel Coyle in 'The Talent Code' says that as long as an individual has a threshold level of natural ability, what distinguishes expertise is a matter of hours. This doesn't mean that everyone who puts in 10 000 hours of work does become an expert, rather that experts who have done less than this are few and far between. Malcolm Caldwell cites many excellent examples confirming this point with stories about The Beatles, Mozart, Bill Gates and others. But the point of all this from my perspective is that these findings can be used to encourage students to work hard and to believe in their ability to improve; that the brain is plastic and can become anything that we want it to be if we are willing to work hard enough. When I ask students if this seems like too much hard work, a few hands show. But as I say - if this is the case then the better, because those of us prepared to endeavour shall be distinguished by our efforts.
Most music students are told to practice slowly. Interestingly, everyone's conception of 'slowly' seem to be different! As teachers, we need to model what we mean by slow practice and why it is a cornerstone in practice effectiveness. Rachmaninoff said "the most efficient manner in learning to memorize a piece seems to be the one which proceeds in an error-free manner". He believed that if we never 'practiced' a mistake, the chances were we wouldn't perform one either. Hence he was known for excruciatingly slow practice, like setting a metronome on the slowest tempo, moving only incrementally upon successful completion of a musical passage. Our brain doesn't distinguish bad habits from good; it does its job of learning patterns faithfully. Coyle refers to slow and repetitive practice as 'deep' practice. He says that when we slow down our brain can pay deeper attention to the neural circuits being formed and 'myelinated'. He cites an example of a New York music academy where a professor told students "if what you're practicing is recognisable then you are playing it too quickly". Mozart was known to repeat a musical passage 10 times. His father would place 10 dried peas in Wolfgang's left coat pocket and after each successful attempt; a pea would be moved to the right pocket. Of course any failure -even on the 10th repetition would have all the peas moved back to the left pocket and young Wolfgang had to begin over again. What encouragement to slow down and play a passage perfectly!
Isolating a passage for 'deep' practice is known as chunking, which is to organise items into manageable units. It has been more than 50 years since psychologist George Miller wrote his paper "The Magical Number Seven, plus or Minus Two". He explained that our short term or working memory is limited to what it can deal with to about seven discretely different things, and hence the need to learn in small units. I like to use a telephone number as an example; we usually chunk a 10-digit number into units of four and three for easier recall. The other important truth about working in small units is the notion of successful completion of a unit. Completing a task successfully is motivating and satisfying. It gives one a sign of progress, lack of which is one of the key reasons people give up learning an instrument.
Good learners are meta-cognitive; that is, they take responsibility for their learning and reflect upon it. Successful deep practice -determining the chunks and units of work, repeating them sufficiently and at slow tempi are excellent indications of a meta-cognitive practice routine. Another good practise is what psychologists call 'verbal mediation'. This is an active description of our thinking as we practice. I often ask students to tell me what they are thinking, that is, to think aloud' as they practice. I find that this will almost always uncover the root of a problem.
Practicing music can take different forms. Most students practice music with their instrument and notation, most of the time. But it is very good for the development of the whole brain to practice the other permutations involving the use or non-use of music and/or instrument.
It is only relatively recently that brain scanning techniques have revealed to us the true power of the imagination. In one such experiment, a young violinist had fMRI scanning done under two conditions:
1) playing music with the violin and
2) no violin but imagining the playing of the same music.
The scan showed almost the exact same neural functioning and circuitry. I often tell a story which I am told is true, about a professional golfer who after being imprisoned for a year for a crime played a spectacular round of golf upon his release. When questioned by his golfing buddies how this was possible with no practice for a year, his reply was "but I did practice -18 holes every day up here", pointing to his head. This man went through all the detail as he would in a usual round of golf and his imaginary game took about the same time as a real game of golf. When I was studying piano, my teacher encouraged me to read my score on the train and practice imaginary piano on my lap. When travelling by plane, John Coltrane used to close his eyes and practice on a piece of wood, imagining that it was his saxophone. There is not enough time in this article to go through all the benefits of playing with and without music, but we do know that reading music is more of a left-brain activity, and playing from memory uses the right hand side, so it makes sense to do both and activate the whole brain. Whole brain activation has been a key ingredient in the annals of human genius: Einstein was an advocate of the power of the imagination, and for the arts in providing inspiration. The great scientist was well known for his competence as a violinist, and for being inspired when day-dreaming. Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci studied the 'art of science and the science of art'.
When problems are recognised and errors encountered, it is important to deal with them as soon as possible. During 2009 I took an opportunity to perform as part of a duo at Dubai's iconic Burj al Arab hotel. This 10-week assignment was given at very short notice, and my job in accompanying an unfamiliar singer provided several challenges, not least of all playing a repertoire in my singer's unique key set. I kept a notepad on the piano to detail those passages that required work and revision, and would duly practice these the following morning in readiness for the next evening. The best time to solve a problem is as soon as possible. I don't like musical problems incubating in my mind!
The same principal for immediacy in fixing musical problems also applies to immediacy in retaining inspiration. I encourage students to use their technology (read mobile phones) in lessons. Not in the traditional sense, but the average mobile phone has three functions useful for learning: a video recorder, sound recorder and camera. Teachers can record homework and playing advice on the phone sound recorder, or more pro-actively, students might ask to record their teacher to repeat their 'gem' of advice just proffered. Photos can be taken of embouchure, hand position and the like, and students might video a teacher's model performance.
Whilst the above suggestions might make sense to students, one should not assume a seamless transition into practise. Students need to practice how to practice. Teachers would do well to model practice techniques, and then observe the student in at practice. As Daniel Coyle says "it's not practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect".
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