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Laurie Niles

Starling-DeLay: Robert Duke on practicing

June 7, 2007 at 5:43 AM

I loved the name of this lecture by Robert Duke at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies: "Practice Makes Better, Practice Makes Worse, Practice Does Nothing At All."

How true. When practicing is working, it feels great, But sometimes we seem to be swimming backwards in the practice room – or maybe even drowning. What are we doing wrong?

"There's a mistaken notion that everything is better if you just PRACTICE MORE," said Duke, who has written a book on intelligent music teaching. "More isn't going to make things better."

It all depends on how you practice. Duke suggested that teachers try using one of a students' lessons simply to observe the way he or she practices.

"You will be flabbergasted at the difference between what you think they are doing in the practice room, what they think they are doing in the practice room, and what they are actually doing in the practice room," Duke said.

"We make the tremendous assumption that students are listening like we (teachers) are listening," Duke said. "Often they are not... they are too busy trying to play the instrument."

"We have to let them in on what we hear," he said.

Unfortunately, the feedback we give them can come with a lot of baggage; for example: that sounded "bad." The more descriptive the feedback can be, the better: "that sounded thin to me, can you make it sound thicker?"

"It starts with finding in the student what you really love about their playing," Duke said. Students are motivated by their successes.

"Pieces don't get better all at once. Instead, maybe this little section gets lovely," he said. Once you can show them how lovely one little section can be, they start getting dissatisfied with the parts that are not as good.

What makes learning compelling is being able to see where you can go, and having evidence that you'll be able to get there, he said. If the disparity between where you are and where you are trying to get to is too great, this results in discouragement.

A typical goal in the practice room is: I'm going to learn this piece. Duke called this an "idiosyncratic skill," the learning of one particular piece. A better goal would be the development of "generizable skills," such as physical skills, reading skills, intellectual skills.

This, by the way, reminded me of my little tango with the piano. As a teenager, I was already fairly accomplished on the violin when I went to a well-known piano teacher in my town. He made the assumption that, with my foundation on violin, I didn't need to learn the fundamentals of piano. So he taught me how to play a Chopin Nocturne, a rather complicated one. It resulted in this: I can barely play anything on the piano. But to this day, I can play that one Chopin Nocturne!

Duke said that the "generizable skills" should be at the core of every lesson.

"Teachers who have to submit their lesson plans every week could just make a rubber stamp that says: Lesson plan: beautiful tone, playing in tune, moving efficiently," he said. The lesson plan is the same thing, every day.

How does a person learn, though, and how can we best use our time in the practice room?

It's pretty hard to understand how the brain works, Duke said. "Trying to understand a brain though an MRI is like trying to understand how a TV works using a volt meter."

Certainly the brain isn't like an audio recorder with a blank tape. "We're writing stuff on a tape that has other stuff in it," Duke said, and that new stuff has to be integrated into the old.

One interesting thing about the brain is that, when one learns a physical skill, it can be transferred to another part of the body. Duke gave the example of signing your name on a piece of paper.

"But if I asked you to come sign your name on a blackboard, it would look pretty much like your signature," Duke said. In fact, scientists have found that if you sign with your feet, it still pretty much looks like your signature.

What is remarkable is the fact that these actions require a actually totally different motions, and different muscles. "How did I know how to do that? Those muscles have never done that," Duke said. The answer is that the programing in the brain is not attached to certain muscles.

So how exactly do muscles learn? In music, we know that we tend to learn a motion, and once it is refined, then we repeat it to make sure we have it right. We come back to it later still, to make sure it's still there. Much repetition of the motion is required.

Studies about repeating and refining motions show that the motion is learned best when that motion varied during repetitions, but not as well when the motion is repeated the exact same way every time.

When one repeats motions many identical times, the brain spends less effort and there is less development occurring. But when the motion is changed, the brain has to solve the problem every time, engaging a different kind of thinking pattern.

"It has to do with what the variable practice forces your brain to do," Duke said. Variable practice (changing the way things are practiced) develops flexibility, whereas stable practice (same way every time) requires less cognitive engagement.

Duke also said that muscle movement is more efficient when motivated by an end goal.

"When you see a baby and they want something, over there, their whole bodies move. There's no automaticity in their motions," Duke said. By the time kids start playing the violin, they have automated their motions in a very sophisticated way.

"We disengage that automaticity at our peril, and at our students' peril," Duke said.

Instead, focus on the function of the movement, not the movement itself, he said. Teachers interfere with the natural and efficient movement of body parts by focusing attention on already-automated motions.

In a piano test, students were studied for their efficiency of motion when focusing on different aspects of playing. When focused on their fingers or on the keys, the students did the worst. When focused on the hammers, they did better. When focused on "sound," they were most accurate.

"The focus that was farthest from the body was most effective," Duke said. "We should focus the learner's attention on movement GOALS, to the greatest extent possible."

From al ku
Posted on June 7, 2007 at 11:05 AM
again, thanks laurie another jounalistic milestone. the coverage should even be of help to those who dozed off during the lecture, haha.

ahh, quality practice,,,,what else is there that matters?:)

From Julia Loucks
Posted on June 7, 2007 at 12:35 PM
Lots of really interesting points here for me to think about in my practicing!! This is exactly what I needed to help motivate me to focus on intelligent practicing during the lazy days of summer!

Much appreciated!

From Chris Dolan
Posted on June 8, 2007 at 2:28 AM
Thank you very much Laurie for posting this write-up. It came at an opportune time as I have found myself caught in the doldrums, and floundering helplessly as of late in my practice routine. It seems as though I have lost the ability to practice intelligently over the last week or so, and it has been driving me nuts! Really, I know that part of the problem has been lack of sleep, but I find myself making the same few stupid mistakes over and over again, like someone lost in the woods who keeps winding up returning to the point they started from, never able to find the way out.
From Gennady Filimonov
Posted on June 8, 2007 at 7:49 AM
Fabulous work Laurie.

These are indeed pearls of wisdom from the finest....

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 9, 2007 at 12:55 AM
Even though my students are beginners, I try to relate what the teacher said to my own teaching style. I also try to relate it to my own practice.

Each teacher's session has been so helpful. I'm especially benefiting from the differences among them. It is broadening my outlook tremendously. Thanks again, Laurie, for sharing all this with us.

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