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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Practice Rut? Expand Your Thinking!

It is easy to get into a practice rut. Your practice sessions with your child become routine, and your interest wanes.  You lose your enthusiasm for the number of repetitions that your child’s teacher thinks are important (Ten times a day? Really?). Even professional musicians suffer from this problem and have to work to discover the fun that can be found in practice. I have a solution: expand your thinking.

I know. It sounds like that tired cliche, “think outside the box.” But really, that is what is required. Here are three examples where expanding your thinking produces something entertaining and interesting.

Squares of Eight

I borrowed this idea from an article I read at If you have not visited this site, there are many free articles and theory tools that you will find useful and interesting.

The purpose of the “Squares of Eight” game is to teach the student the best way to master something and what quality effort is involved. The game also provides the student with an interesting and fun way to do repetitions. I want to demonstrate to the student how important correct repetitions are. You have heard the old adage that “practice makes perfect,” but in reality “practice makes permanent,” and that is the true lesson that I want a student to learn and take away from this game.

Before we begin the game, the student and I identify a particular passage or finger exercise that we want to improve with practice. In the squares of eight, I take a piece of paper and fold it in half. Then I fold it in half again, so that the paper has been quartered. Then I fold it one additional time; the paper is now evenly divided into eight squares. I number each square sequentially from one to eight. I put a small game piece (a poker chip or a small piece of candy will also work) on square number one.

The student plays the passage or exercise. If the student plays correctly, the student then advances the game piece to the next square. The student plays the passage or exercise again. Now the game becomes interesting. If the student does well, the game piece is moved ahead. But, if the student does not play the passage correctly, the game piece gets moved back a square. We continue the game until the student finally reaches square 8.

As a teacher I find it amusing to watch how different students work through this game. Some students keep “banging their head against a wall” by doing the same thing over and over without ever addressing the issue. I have to offer more guidance in these cases. Usually though a student soon figures out that a slower and more careful repetition will net a positive result and advance the game piece further ahead. In other words, the student learns that slow and steady nets quicker practice results.

Then we play with this game and “expand our thinking” to keep the game interesting. One student drew a race track that wound among the squares and used a little match car as a game piece. Another student turned the game into a pirate story that had various obstacles to successfully navigate to reach the treasure in the last square. Another student nicknamed the squares to represent the difficulties that each square represented. For example, square number four was the “habit breaker” and square number six was the “habit maker."

The Scary Story

Here is another example of expanding your thinking. In this example, the student was learning how to navigate some of the tricky places in “Humoresque” in Suzuki Violin book 3. I stuck some colored highlighting tape on each tricky place to make it easier for her to isolate the passages that needed extra attention and repetition. The student would also see the areas to come, and the colored tape would “foreshadow” the areas before she played them, reminding her to take her time and be careful. The different colors also helped the student to get a picture in her head of the piece’s logical structure, which would help her with her memory.

We used yellow, purple, blue, pink, and green tape and one teensy bit of red. To make the practice sessions even more interesting to think about, we gave each colored area a name. The yellow tape referred to the patch of “Yellow Yucky Yuccas.” The purple place became the “Purple Pools of Poison.” The blue tape spot became the “Blue Bogs of Bubbles,” and the green tape became the “Green Gorge of Ghosts.” We also have the "Pink Patches of Prickles." The little red tape spot became the “Red Rose of Ramputa,” which was isolated in the middle of the purple spot to remind the student of a particular grace note place.

When the student plays the song, she concentrates on making her way through all the treacherous spots with exotic names. We giggle about the names and use goofy voices like TV announcers in a wild animal documentary. We added a “swaying bridge” over the “Green Gorge of Ghosts” to imitate the swaying motion that the bow uses to make the string crossings.

Do the Opposite

Sometimes a practice rut can be overcome by expanding your thinking with a different or opposite expectation. For example, I have trouble on a particular Bach Allegro movement. I have always had difficulty with this particular movement because it stretches my tiny hand in an uncomfortable way. There is nothing I can do except practice it enough times so that it eventually improves. I noticed that my frustration was increasing, so I decided to do the opposite with my expectation. Instead of making music of it, I turned it into an etude.

Yup. I turned that fine piece of music into a thing of drudgery. Instead of frustrating myself about making the piece sound beautiful, I altered my expectations. Some might say I lowered my expectations.

An interesting thing happened as a result. I started to improve. I still have some trouble playing it but not as much trouble as I did before. I am still not ready to make music out of the exercise just yet. I want to keep working on this etude project a while longer before I decide to add the additional complexity of a musical expectation. My goal is to continue with this “exercise” throughout January.

You can invent your own opposite expectation whenever you encounter a practice issue or frustration by first identifying what your expectation is. Then figure out a way to change that expectation.

I provided three examples above of ways that you can expand your thinking. These are just three ways that popped up this week during my teaching sessions. Take a look at what you are practicing this next week and consider whether you can use any of these ideas to shake things up a little.

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