My Dirty Little Secret for Effective Practicing

I know how it goes.  You leave a lesson and, because you had had a busy week, felt completely unprepared and played much worse than you know you are capable of, and now you are determined to change things around.  Oozing commitment from every pore of your body, you swear that THIS is going to be the week that you get your act together, practice 3 hours every day, and do all of the things your teacher set out for you to do.  You’re going to practice that out-of-tune passage slowly, you’re going to practice that fast passage with all of the rhythms you can think of, do your scales, arpeggios and octaves, and you are going to finally, FINALLY, FINALLY, learn that etude that was assigned to you 4 weeks ago, and has been re-assigned to you at every lesson since.

But not tonight, since you practiced a bit before your lesson, and really, lesson days don’t count as practice days, right?  And then tomorrow comes, and you have to study for that big, important test, but the next day will be totally clear, and you can totally do 6 hours that day (except that when you get home, you find out that you have to go to your little sister’s play that night) and by that fourth day, you have lost that momentum, and all sense of inspiration, and you’re tired out from your big, important test and your sister’s play and you don’t practice much that day either, and all of a sudden, it’s your lesson day again, and you still can’t play that passage in tune, and you still can’t get your fingers to move fast enough for that tricky passage, and you still haven’t gotten past the first 2 lines of that etude.

 

 

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You feel disappointed in yourself, your parents are threatening to stop paying for lessons, and your beloved teacher just sighs and tries to do the best they can with what you are giving them. Meanwhile, your peers are gaining more and more momentum, learning repertoire faster, performing more concerts, winning auditions and competitions and coveted festival spots.  Why can’t you just get it together, you ask? You know you are just as talented as they are.

Have you ever considered how lucky professional athletes are, in that from day one, and all the way through to their high-profile competitions on the world stage, they get to work with their coach on a regular basis?  It’s not like they see their coach once a week and then are left to their own devices until game day!  Their coaches are there at every practice with them (or at least most of them) measuring progress, setting different drills, and basically forcing them to do the right work, the right way.  I suppose there are a few people in the world who are so utterly self-motivated that they can do all of the work on their own, but let’s be honest, those people are few and far between.  The vast majority of people out there work best and accomplish the most when there is some sort of immediate accountability in front of them.

 

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Years ago, I was hired to work with a new young student of a prominent Boston teacher.  Being a bit messy in his “practice” habits, this teacher agreed to take him on if they hired someone to be a practice coach, and handed them my information, knowing I had recently moved back to town and was looking for work anyway.  I drove to this kid’s house once, twice, sometimes 4 times a week if he had something coming up and sat there helping him practice.  I didn’t “teach” him, I just took what his teacher had told him to do and helped him do it. If his teacher had written 25x! for a passage, I sat there and counted to 25 while he did it.  Week after week, this student showed up to his lessons completely prepared-having done all of the exercises laid out for him, making progress on his repertoire and improving his technique.  In 4 years, he went from being a scrappy, out of tune disaster to winning a spot in a Juilliard studio for undergrad.  I loved working with this kid and his family, and always looked forward to going over there, but the very best moment for me, was when his mom said to me (equal parts tearful and proud) “He thinks he can start practicing on his own this year.”  And he did.  By working with a coach for a period of time, he had been building solid practice techniques–and, through the consistency of our sessions, had built in the habit of working that way.  He had everything he needed to do the work on his own.

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Since that time, I have done a little more coaching, and I have run week-long practice camps at various places during school vacation weeks, and those are always my favorite way to work with students.  As I began to establish myself in town, I built up my own teaching studio, which, due to logistical constraints, meant that I was only seeing them the traditional once weekly, and I felt that frustration of wanting to see them every day to help them practice.  My students who had musician parents holding them accountable held a distinct advantage over the others and it didn’t seem fair.

Now that I am traveling and concertizing more, I’ve been taking full advantage of the new online technologies of Skype and FaceTime. In addition to my teaching,  I have found myself moving back to doing more practice coaching again-with both students and young professionals, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it.  I constantly wonder what the classical music world would look like if everyone was practicing well and consistently.  People would have less stress, less self-loathing, and a lot more confidence to get up on stage and love the experience of playing their instrument.

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What do you think?  Have you ever worked with a practice coach? Or, if you’re a teacher, have you ever sent your students to work with one? I’d love to get a dialogue started about the usefulness of coaching in the classical music world, so please leave a comment below with your thoughts on the matter.  If you’d prefer to chat with me directly, you can find me here: https://katekayaian.com/teaching/

Cheers!

~Kate

2 thoughts on “My Dirty Little Secret for Effective Practicing

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great thoughts Kate!! I love reading your articles because they so directly relate to what I’m doing (22 students in my studio!). I’m always figuring out how I can get to “listen” to how they practice at home because that gives me the whole picture of what they’re doing right or wrong. How about a “practice spying device”?? LOL
    Best regards, Roksana

  2. katekayaian says:

    Thanks so much, Roksana! I LOVE the idea of a practice spying device, though I’m a little afraid of what I’d hear. I often tell my students to pretend I’m in the next room listening to them practice.

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