August 18, 2011 § 2 Comments
I have a number of students who don’t practice. Yet they continue to improve at the piano.
Yeah, right, you say. It’s a semantic problem: no practice must mean putting in several hours a week.
Wrong. Their idea of no practice is NO PRACTICE. I know they are reporting the truth, because they are often out of the country when the no practice occurs. Hard to practice when you are working in a hospital around the clock in Africa.
They come to their lessons religiously and work hard when they are here. And they continue to improve. Some are rank beginners, some are playing the Chopin Ballades.
I’ve never had a rational explanation for this phenomenon, but my teacher shocked me when he told me about it. When I began teaching, he said, “Don’t worry too much about practice. If they come to their lessons every week, they will get better”. I didn’t really believe him until I heard it with my own ears. But it is hard to convince anyone else that this happens. It seems at least self-serving, or maybe delusional.
But science is coming to my rescue. Here is a little article that describes a similar phenomenon in auditory perception.
I think the best summary of the findings was by one of the authors, Beverly Wright: “Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain”. Less pain and more gain is what all musicians are looking for.
Which group do you think did best on the sound discrimination task in the study? You have a choice between 1 group who practiced listening for 20 minutes every day and then spent 20 minutes just passively listening to the sounds while they did something else. The other group spent twice as long but only practiced every day.
After a week, it was test time. The winners were not the heavy practicers but the ones who spent just 20 minutes “working” and another 20 minutes fooling around with puzzles with the relevant sounds piped into their ears.
This is like my students who leave for Africa after their lesson and come back in two weeks playing noticeably improved.
“It’s as though once you get your system revved up by practicing a particular skill, the brain acts as though you are still engaged in the task when you are not, and learning still takes place,” according to Wright.
Now, if you read the research article you will find some ifs, ands and buts, especially if you are trying to extrapolate to Chopin. For example, the researchers found no difference in the heavy practicers and the light ones when they delayed fooling around with puzzles phase more than a few minutes. This doesn’t exactly correlate with the trip to Africa.
Still, science is taking some steps to clarify what exactly improves learning. Does more work always mean more progress? My students’ improvements are not just a fantasy. They really do get better. The lessons keep the connections going, their brains keep learning something about piano playing even away from the piano and my teacher was right: I don’t have to worry too much about students’ practicing.
July 23, 2011 § 4 Comments
The other day I caught up with a mom I hadn’t seen in years. Last I heard, her oldest daughter was playing the cello in the local youth orchestra, taking part in competitions, having 2-hour lessons each week and practicing 4 hours a day.
Impressive? You bet. Parents and teachers talk about this kind of kid with awe. Even other kids are impressed. There is magic in hard-working adolescents making music. We all wonder about the future-will she be the new Yo-Yo Ma?
The answer in this case is no. Her mom reports that, 10 years later, she won’t touch the cello. She doesn’t even keep it with her-it is in a closet at her parents’ house. She and the cello have broken up, a common ending to the high-pressure music program she went through.
But, she does play the piano. Playing the piano was just a handy skill. It could pad her resume, help her learn her cello parts more thoroughly. No one took it seriously: there were no competitions, no pressure to perform, no high-stakes lessons. She just learned to play some music that interested her, learned some skills she could use forever, learned how she and the piano could get along. Learned how music could belong to her and her alone.
This is what I mean by sustainable piano lessons. Piano study need not distort your life. It can fit into it, enhance it, comment on it, make it endurable, give it weight, give you a home to come back to. It doesn’t have to be all about making teachers look good and preparing you for a career as a performer. It can be just about you and the piano. That’s enough.
You can sustain the study of the piano for a lifetime. It can sustain you for a lifetime. I try to make my lessons sustainable for all the people out there who need the piano but don’t need the other stuff.
What sustains you? Leave a comment below.