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12 minutes reading time (2377 words)

What is the "practice toolbox" you use with your students?

Helping our students learn how to achieve expression, ease, and accuracy in their playing requires that we impart effective practice procedures. Some of these involve the how of playing, what we commonly call technique: awareness of how we move and use our bodies; how to prepare, execute, and follow-through when creating gestures; when to relax, when to firm up; when to prepare a shift and when not; generally how to increase awareness of body choreography. But before these areas can be fully addressed, we usually first tackle the what of playing, usually called practice or rehearsal techniques: specific activities aimed at mastering the notes, articulations, and rhythms (the "Basics") by intelligently using successful repetitions that may make purposeful use of varying tempos, rhythms, dynamics, even pitches (but rarely fingerings). In the process, they may also help the player learn to balance physiological excitation and inhibition.

These two areas of what and how seem separate when we focus on just one or the other, but there is much interplay between them, and some of the most useful overlap may not even require conscious awareness. For instance, consider the commonly-used practice technique of shifting rhythms. Some believe the reason this technique helps with evenness is that it allows you to practice the same passage many times while giving different fingers a chance to play fast. But I believe it works because some of those varied rhythms (the "what") give the player time to feel the necessary arm alignment at critical spots (the "how"), and that is what is solving the problem— it's likely that many of the other repetitions are superfluous. Seen in this light, some practice techniques are a "shotgun" approach to solving ease and accuracy, whereas others are more selective and efficient, therefore a better use of time.

I find Steven Rosenfeld's "Practice Toolbox" to be primarily of this second type—clear, direct, and no-nonsense activities that help the player learn the Basics while facilitating the acquisition of some healthy mechanics along the way. I am not surprised at the level of detail he presents. I've known Steve for more than twenty- five years, and have seen that he constantly scrutinizes, analyzes, questions, and experiments in his teaching and playing. He is a practice and technique wonk—I say that as a high compliment! I invite you to peruse his Toolbox.

A "practice toolbox" for students                                                                by Steven Rosenfeld 

Oh, how we wish it were the case that we could simply assign music to students and they would come back the next week with the music learned well, à tempo! How we would like the simple instruction, "practice," to be enough to create the desired results. I'm sure teachers share a bond in finding it a challenge—and even at times, more like a battle—to have our students do the quality and amount of practice needed for good results.

At the same time, we all know that students have busy lives. Many of them come to their lessons stressed, tired, and overwhelmed. And let's acknowledge that they do sometimes put in long days—twelve to fourteen hours—with school, homework, activities, and practice. Students want to "play music" and consider practice a kind of work. A lot is demanded of them, and I always remember that this is their childhood (or with adults, their free time): a preparation, and musical preferences have been addressed, we can then get down to the matter at hand: improving student practice.

Teaching students how to practice effectively is generally about getting them to slow down, concentrate, and practice intelligently. Students must learn how to correctly internalize notes, fingerings, rhythms, articulations, and dynamics—and do it with a sense of pulse. In addition, they must learn how to solve problems on their own, especially as they go further in their musical studies, since one of our important teaching goals is to create independent learners who can function without a teacher.

More satisfying lessons and more productive practice

The idea of "Ten Practice Techniques: a Practice Toolbox for Students" came from the techniques I use most often in my daily lessons. I created a handout for the student's binder. Then, one by one, I have the student perform them from the list. I have been impressed by the results. Just by having students perform each technique, and by providing a vocabulary for the different approaches, there has been a sense of clarity about ways to practice. From what was earlier a dreary admonition, "It's still not right," morphed into a stimulating activity, "Let's see if Practice Toolbox Technique #9 will help you here." This new approach injects energy into the whole area of practice; it makes it fun and challenging because it's more focused. The lessons feel satisfying and productive. It feels like the element of "play" has re-entered the area of practice.

The Practice Toolbox offers variety, but not simply for the sake of variety. While there is some interchangeability in techniques, I still need to carefully consider which one to apply to which situation. If results using a particular practice technique are not immediately present, I usually make one of three assumptions:

1. It was not the fault of the practice technique, but rather, the music was learned incorrectly and has to be re-learned.
2. We need to use another practice technique to get the job done. 
3. We need to combine techniques for best results. 

It stands to reason that just as we need correct neural pathways to play accurately; we also create pathways when we learn inaccurately. Through extra effort these patterns can be unlearned, and this is when a practice technique needs to be repeated. In addition, as we become better at practicing, we get more adept at deciding how to practice a particular spot. More sophisticated practice involves the ability to shift gears and try different approaches as the need arises.

A PRACTICE TOOLBOX FOR STUDENTS
Ten Techniques for solving those Problem Spots 
1. DRILLING: Take the problem spot (one-half measures, one measure, two measures - four measures can be a bit much for absorption) and perform three times in a row, correctly à tempo.) 
Benefits:
1. Solves many problem areas immediately 
2. Tests spot for security or solidity 
3. Provides default method of practice when time is short (or if not sure which technique to use)

Drilling will often need to be repeated during weekly practice. This is usually because the music has been learned incorrectly. Requiring two consecutive correct repetitions can be enough in some cases, but I find that three correct repetitions in a row really tests a spot more fully. Doing a fourth correct repetition seems to do little for overall assurance. Three times in a row correctly might not be a permanent fix, but it is also not a fluke—therefore indicating learning.

2. SLOW/MEDIUM/FAST: Slow practice should be done at about half tempo and loudly! Hammer those notes out. Do not try to be musical. When accuracy is achieved, proceed to medium, then to fast. Repeat the process until correct and comfortable. 

Benefits:

1. Gives an alternative to DRILLING à tempo when too difficult.

2. Improves student's awareness of tempo change and control.

3. Tests mastery of spot by requiring facility at different tempos.

4. Stresses awareness and effectiveness of slow practice. 

5. Allows for gradual challenge of arriving at á tempo

I say "hammer out" the notes because I don't want the students involved yet with musical expression. Also, I have them omit pedal. I realize these are not musically inspiring suggestions, but there is something really constructive about taking in the notes without any extra musical demands. I try for two consecutive repetitions at each tempo, or simply repeat the entire process once at the lesson. I then assign it as a step for weekly practice if progress is still needed, adding dynamics and pedal later.

3. HANDS-SEPARATE PRACTICE: Remember that the piano is a whole orchestra, or at least more than one instrument, not a single-line instrument. Often, there is so much going on that a check-up on LH or RH is due. As always, accuracy is the goal.

Benefits:

1. Builds a stronger foundation in contrapuntal or active two-hand music

2. Creates fuller concentration on challenges of each hands 

3. Prepares hands-together playing when done SLOW/MEDIUM/FAST

While mastery of hands-separate will not automatically lead to hands-together mastery, if each hand is not properly learned in its own right the foundation for putting hands together is weakened. It should be part of the Toolbox, for obvious reasons: when each hand is busy it must be learned in its own right.

4. IMPULSE GROUPSPlay a measure or two, or later, a phrase. Stop! Relax! Focus! The "push" (impulse), then pausing to regroup will allow you to think ahead and be accurate in the next group. Bonus benefit: if the arms appear tense, lift high (off the keys) for complete relaxation during the pause.
Benefits:
1. Encourages taking in music in smaller chunks for better learning
2. Serves as a preliminary step for non-stop hands together playing
3. Helps as an alternative to DRILLING or SLOW/MEDIUM/FAST

I have them vary the length of the pause between groups, shortening it as facility becomes greater, or as the relaxation between groups is easier to achieve. Sometimes I choose to have them hold the notes from the previous measure (generally more desirable), or break the sound entirely (good for staccato passages).

5. 3 + 2 PRACTICE: This is a sharp tool for mastering a trouble spot. We combine DRILLING three (3) consecutive successful repetitions of the problem spot, and then also start two measures earlier—hence 3 + 2! (this is also called "backward practice"). This cements the newly polished area and tests the drilled spot for added security and confidence.
Benefits:
1. Assures a total of five successful, consecutive repetitions
2. Tests drilled area
3. Provides added security for difficult spot. Sometimes a student does fine with the "3" but has trouble with "+2."  This really tells you when a passage is under control and learned well. 

6. MUSICAL MONOPOLY: Play through an entire line, or a longer phrase of four or eight measures. Once through successfully, YOU PASS GO! and can continue on to the next line or phrase. Repeat once if you feel it would be helpful. The comfort level needs to be high.
Benefits:
1. Makes a game or fun challenge out of getting a line of music correct
2. Shows student mastery level needed to do this
3. Requires more concentration than drilling due to larger amount of music

As in all of these Practice Techniques, a comfort level—a degree of relaxation— should be detectable by the teacher. At least some freedom of movement is desirable since it ensures that the learning does not have excessive tension. Tension is related to fear, and this is counterproductive to what I'm trying to accomplish. A passage learned with tension will have to be replicated with a similar level of tension during performance; if tension is greater or less, the passage will suffer. I have students consciously relax their arms between phrases by shaking them out, or letting go of tension by resting them in their laps.

7. METRONOME WORK-UPS: Often used by professional musicians, this boosts confidence and security by increasing the tempo gradually. Speed up the metronome in two-notch or three-notch increments, but repeat a notch if not absolutely accurate. Variation: use the metronome with notch-ups, returning to the slowest tempo as a base between repetitions.
Benefits:
1. Allows for gradual tempo mastery, which is sometimes necessary 
2. Programs the mind for accuracy 
3. Requires added level of security to fit music into an externally-provided pulse

As with HANDS-SEPARATE, there is nothing original about this suggestion. This technique can be used at the late-beginning stage all the way up to advanced levels. It can sharpen listening and strengthen one's pulse, but the sense of pulse should be well-established before the metronome is employed.

8. 2X SLOWLY/3X FAST: Many times, when a passage can be performed accurately, twice slowly, we can go right to á tempo.
Benefits:
1. Shortens practice time if technical motions and security are present at the slower tempo 
2. Provides a "touch-up" when a passage is close to being solid 

Sometimes all that is needed are a couple of accurate repetitions with good motions and physicality, and then an ability to go right into à tempo is present. I repeat as needed if not immediately successful.

9. MEMORY TESTING: Play the passage, section, or, eventually, the whole piece as follows: once slowly with music; once slowly from memory. Then, once à tempo with music, once à tempo from memory. 
Benefits:
1. Forces students to internalize music rather than always reading it
2. Secures memorization 

Sometimes it is obvious that students are not internalizing their music. They're playing the music as if constantly reading it for the first time. MEMORY TESTING can be used both for memory of a piece about to be performed, and to enhance the internalization or absorption of the music being learned. If students return to the reading of the music after practicing by memory, additional facility and knowledge of the music will occur.

10. FIVE DIFFERENT SPEEDS: With a desired à tempo as the final speed, choose four other metronome speeds; notch up, skipping a notch between repetitions (e.g.: 72, 80, 88, 96, 104...104 is final tempo) 

Benefits:

1. Takes less time than METRONOME WORK-UPS; more challenging than SLOW/MEDIUM/FAST 

2. Offers variety in practice method for keeping the mind active 

I find that a lot of passages can be learned effectively simply by using this technique alone. This is also a good way of polishing and consolidating passages or sections learned with DRILLING, IMPULSE GROUPS, and/or SLOW/ MEDIUM/FAST.

By using this Toolbox of Ten Techniques, I know that students understand how to practice effectively, and have at their disposal a useful variety of practice techniques. I experiment with and combine techniques, and repeat as needed. I also stay with the technique if the improvement is steady, but switch if there is blocked or stalled progress.

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From good to great
C.P.E. Bach meets Death Cab for Cutie
 

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