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
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.
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.
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/FASTWhile 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.
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)
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.