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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Five Practice Questions

Recently I worked with an older student who seemed to have some difficulty focusing on the task at hand, which should have been the performance of his homework from our previous lesson. I realized in the case of this particular student, that we had a fundamental miscommunication of lesson expectations and goals. So in the course of our discussion, as we sifted and sorted our way through the morass of thoughts, expectations, and problems that the student presented me with, we came up with five questions that helped to focus the student in his practice goal-setting, his home practice plan for the next lesson, and in general whenever he plays at any time.

In the anticipation that other teachers and parents face similar problems with their students and children, here are the five questions:


Am I playing at the right speed? Many problems are caused by a student's choice of tempo. If the student is constantly stuttering or correcting mistakes as the student flies through a passage, then the tempo choice is incorrect for the task at hand. My studio rule is that each time a student flubs or plays an error, the student must slow down the tempo. Another error? Another slowdown. After all, if the student were flying a spaceship into a meteor shower, the student would make these sorts of speed adjustments automatically. I am sure that many parents would want their children to understand the necessity for matching speed with conditions, especially once the student reaches the age of driving privileges.

What do I sound like? What is my tone? Is it pleasing to listen to? Am I scratchy, too soft, too airy, too heavy? Am I resonating my strings and pitches? Do I like to hear what I'm listening to? Do I even know what I sound like? A tape recorder or short video recording may help here. I have had some interesting results from the use of an iPhone app called "slopro." I make a short video and then play the film back for the student at 50% speed (to maintain the same pitch but an octave lower). My students have found this very interesting and usually hear the problems immediately and correct them in the next practice/performance go-around. In fact, most students immediately adjust the tempo (see practice question #1 above) in order to correct the problems.

Am I playing in tune? Well, duh, I know this is obvious, but apparently many of my students need to be reminded of this. Again, a recording makes this very obvious.

Is my rhythm accurate? Nothing will ever take the place of a good metronome session. I myself use this technique all the time to remind me of places where I tend to pull away from the established tempo. It is alright to make adjustments for musical reasons, but I believe that the correct and steady tempo must be the default position before I allow exceptions of any kind.

Are there any bumps in the road? When a student hits a bumpy patch in the road, we make sure that we have visited the above questions. There are times, however, when the stretch of road has a bumpy area that really needs to be addressed more than with care and speed. Just as with potholes in a road surface, we have options:
  • drive right through the hole (I don't recommend this, and I find that fathers are especially touchy about the damage done to car tires with this technique)
  • drive around the hole (find an alternate route or fingering/bowing/musical expression)
  • repair the hole (address the problem and work to eliminate it entirely (this involves thought, time, and access to practice ideas; consult your teacher for this type of advanced help).
And those are the five practice questions that I used to help focus my student's attention on practice areas. I am more confident now that he understands how to prepare his next lesson.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Well, Anne, I was posting a thought here and deleted what you had written. So sorry, not my intent. I was following up on your comment that question 5, what do I sound like, was a good question. For this particular student, this question and the others was designed to engage him in his own evaluation and learning. This has been a struggle, but I think we've come up with a solution. I will write about this.

  2. Paula! It's great to see you posting again. We missed you! :-D

    1. Thanks, Eric! I've had a tough year for sure, but I'm making plans now to be back regularly.