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Part One:"...but I practiced!" A practice strategy for learning a new piece

The Sensible Flutist: Part One:"...but I practiced!" A practice strategy for learning a new piece

Monday, January 30, 2012

Part One:"...but I practiced!" A practice strategy for learning a new piece

I have a student (we’ll call them “B”) who has dysgraphia, a learning disability. We have been working together for a year and it has been a very fascinating journey. B’s background is in special education, so I have benefitted from their expertise as I rise to the challenge in order to grow as a teacher and find new ways to teach music to those that process information differently.

Most private music teachers have a few strategies for helping dyslexic students since that "LD" is more common; however, unless the parent and student are up front, it can be difficult to realize you cannot teach in your usual manner with students who seem "lazy" or "don't try hard enough." Unfortunately, sometimes it isn't until the student gives up out of frustration and you feel like you’ve failed as a teacher that we realize missed opportunities. Since private music teachers are in no way trained or ethically able to diagnose a student, we must be patient, armed and ready with a variety of strategies and solutions for each problem that arises in order to customize a student's instruction.

I appreciate B for hanging in there with me. It has been a mutually beneficial path of discovery. Lately, we’ve had a series of lessons where we’ve been discussing practice strategies to help them systematically work on achieving a faster technique and ways to help them learn new repertoire faster. Thanks to a great conversation on twitter*, my own research and input from wonderful collaborative pianist and practice coach Erica Sipes, here is a strategic stepwise plan that I created for B in order to learn a new piece. I wanted to post this online for others that may have trouble seeing the trees for the forest.

What happens when you hit the wall and take longer than everyone else to achieve the same goal? What happens if you cannot use what we typically refer to as chunking (playing groups of notes with pauses in between to allow the brain to process short term information into its long term memory)? Use this practice plan to strategize and increase your chances of success in the practice room if you've tried other ways and they haven't worked so well.

I myself have been inspired to work in this new way especially with music that is out of my comfort zone. Going from larger to smaller details and back again creates a process that encourages confidence in the music.

Start with the big picture:

1) When learning a piece of music, outline the piece to get the big picture before moving on to details. Analyze the piece in order to determine its overall shape, phrase structure, range, key and key changes, and scalar and arpeggiated patterns. If you are able, analyze the piece's chord structure. Listen to the piece at this point to keep the big picture.

2) Play the piece through. Mark places immediately that you know will need attention, but don't get stuck on small mistakes. Stay focused on the big picture in this initial playing.

Begin learning and exploring the finer details of the piece:

3) Learn one musical idea at a time. Too often we get stuck on playing through the material until we feel somewhat comfortable. This way can be time consuming and inefficient. One idea suggested by Erica is to start from the end of the piece and work backwards on one musical idea at a time.

Working within the context of musical ideas versus chunks is one issue that I've encountered in my work with B. Because of the amount of time needed to learn a new piece, a chunk determined by number of notes and not musically becomes ingrained with the break that you take between each chunk. Practicing musical ideas keeps the phrases intact without arbitrary breaks in your final performance.

4) Practice by ear. Work with a recording to learn parts of music that is giving you trouble. I recommend this step especially if you're not a particularly aural person. B is visually dominant, and I suggested this step as a challenge. Practicing this way will help develop your ear and help you tune in to wrong notes and mistakes faster.

5) When you’ve worked through this process, play the piece through to find where you are. Mark any places that are still troublesome and work through the process again until you feel confident of the piece.

Ultimately, I think this process helps those who have trouble processing smaller details. Backwards chunking and practicing by ear for the smaller details help integrate these into the larger picture that you need in order to have a successful performance.

I encourage you to try this for yourself and see what happens. Instead of getting by on innate talent, sometimes a little more focus or discipline is needed in the practice room for the results you want. Stay open to experimenting and adapting the suggested steps in a way that works for you. If you had to adapt any of this to fit your personal needs, I would love to know. Please e-mail me at adelpalazzo (at)

Part Two will be about devising a technique practice strategy. Stay tuned!

*Thank you to my colleagues on twitter for a useful and practical discussion of practice techniques when I asked for advice. Be sure to follow @quartertonality, @TammyEvansYonce, @ericasipes, @AnythingPiano and @hickey_kim!

*Photo credits: Psychologies and Arctangent

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