February 2015

Why is Practice Uncomfortable?

February 24, 2015 06:45

The last few weeks I have been reflecting on the issue of effective practice. As a teacher of beginners on the piano and violin, I am in a privileged position to understand and verify for myself how one can struggle to apply those same basic principles that we try so hard to instill our students. This obviously presents an opportunity for reflection. Interestingly, most of what I will comment on is as applicable to other subjects (eg math, that I also teach, possibly better than I teach piano and violin) as to violin.

Most practice methods (on various instruments, not only the violin) agree on a few basic principles. Practice should be mindful and goal-oriented (not mindless and undirected); new developments should be always practiced slowly first and only up-to-speed when the foundation has been set; and it is desirable for it to be efficient - not playing material that is already well learned over and over, but rather focus on improving steadly over time by tackling challenge after challenge. And there reigns the principle that in order for correct progress to be made, practice must emphasize and repeat the correct way of doing things, meaning a special attentiveness to flaws and mistakes is required, so that one is not crystalizing mistakes through practice (over time, they become bad habits and are hard to take down).

Now why do our students, and ourselves too, very often not follow this pattern of practice at all? One common pattern is that practice is viewed as a chore. Now, real practice does not feel like a chore at all. Most often "chore practice" is the result of not practicing effectively. If there is no purpose assigned to a specific exercise (eg. a scale), or if the material is already well known and is just being repeated for the sake of repetition, then practice is turned into a chore. Worst of all, into a chore that is of little to no benefit. So when students talk to me of their practice time as a chore, I always take it as a sign that they are probably not practicing in the right way.

Chore practice usually stems from one of two reasons. One, there is no guidance being given as what or how to practice. This can be a failure of the teacher to communicate this information to the student, or, in the case of our personal practice schedule, a failure to plan and establish practice goals. This failure is usually easily addressed: one needs only to formulate a plan. Most teachers or intermediate instrumentalists and above are reasonably able to assess their own or their students' shortcomings and use that to establish practice goals.

The second reason that leads to chore practice, and this is one uncomfortable truth to face, is that it can actually be a way to escape actual, effective practice. It is certainly my case and the case of most of my students. In order to obtain effective practice, following the traits I summed up earlier, one has to act as both teacher and student during the practice session, dividing attention between the material being studied and all other aspects of correct execution and performance.

The mental power required for the undertaking is mentally tasking (no less than playing out a chess game). Repeating often repeated advice, if you are not thinking, you are not practicing. Additionally, it can be frustrating, because even effective practice does not produce immediate results. And as competence rises, the gap between technical level and assessment level can rise too, leading to even more frustration (or in other words: you learn to recognize your shortcomings faster than you learn to overcome them). This is especially true in the violin, where so many variables need to be controlled in order to produce a good sounding note.

This means that there is a latent element of discomfort in effective practice, even for the most enthusiastic. One can definitely learn to enjoy it the same way one can enjoy analyzing a chess game; but it is definitely a taste that needs to be acquired, usually through discipline, encouragement, and of course, past results (a very strong motivator). Autodidacts have it hardest, as the pressure to present the material to a teacher regularly is by itself already a motivator for practice, albeit not a very strong one (depending on the personality). They can also lack the external encouragement given by a teacher (that already knows that a good martelé does not develop in a week of practice, no matter how effective).

Now that I have presented my reflection on why effective practice may be inherently an uncomfortable undertaking, the natural follow-up question is how to make it less uncomfortable, and therefore foster it. I touched a little on the subject on the last paragraph, but I think there is more to it. Naturally different personalities will react differently to practice time. I have found, however, that one surefire way to really dislike practice is for it to be the only contact with the violin. It is somewhat akin to perfecting a perfect meal without getting to ever tasting it. In fact, what I find is that what is called as "practice time" is often a mixture of material being played for enjoyment/contact with the violin plus some scales as a sacrifice to the violin gods. What I propose is that wherever you can, find ways to provide both practice time and a separate time to enjoy and play the violin - be it in an orchestra, a band, a group of students, or even alone. If the time to play and enjoy the violin is separated from practice, then we benefit from both getting to enjoy the violin and play music without the (difficult) practice mindset, and also of justifying the practice time and enabling actual effective practice. In fact, which is better? Playing 50 minutes of violin for enjoyment/contact with the violin in one session, and then dedicating 10 minutes of focused, mindful practice on another session, or a single 60 minute session of a mixed activity that is actually neither and provides neither the enjoyment of playing the violin nor the benefits of actual practice?

Please share your thoughts and comments on the issue!

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