When are you over-preparing for your lesson?

Edited: August 29, 2017, 8:45 AM · I confess that I tend to over-prepare for my lessons. Often I practiced enough to have the piece memorized by the time I go to a lesson. This means I have to unlearn a lot during and after each lesson. Some unlearning can be hard because my brain has to reorganize something it has settled into somewhat an automated performance. Such frequent unlearning may also lead to inconsistencies that will show up during performance.

My guess is, ideally, a student should bring a new piece that they’ve only looked at a few times and then explore it together with the teacher. At such a stage, the student may not be fluent but have greater mental flexibility to explore, consequently, they will progress faster.

What do you think? How do you recognize the point beyond which the amount of preparation/self-teaching before lesson is unproductive?

Replies (28)

Edited: August 29, 2017, 12:20 AM · This is the very reason I don't intentionally memorize anything before I've had it looked over - using a camera, a coach, or a teacher. Of course you can't help accidental memorization - it just happens through repetition. I find this is especially a problem if you've come from an instrument where reading is more difficult. Switching from reading multiple independent lines to a single line makes memorization very quick for me and it has caused this very problem before. I consider this 'soft' memorization, compared to 'hard' memorization - where I have intentionally made an effort to commit it to memory. I find soft memorization doesn't really 'stick' very long - maybe a couple weeks without touching it.

The only solution I've found is to be mindful in your practice. Even though you've got it memorized, still read and play each and every note off the paper. It also depends on how frequent your lessons are, if you're meeting every week there is less time to do damage than if you are meeting biweekly or monthly.

As far as over preparation goes, I'd say the only way to really 'over-prepare' would be to exhaust yourself right before the lesson by having a marathon session or some such, or perhaps reaching a little too far past where you and your teacher mutually agree your boundary is.

Edited: August 29, 2017, 12:48 AM · Michael, I memorise what I work on partly because I repeat enough they stick and partly I want to feel the notes kinesthetically, eyes closed. Your suggestion on keep reading and playing every note off the pape even when they are memorized is a great one. For some reason I tend to be reluctant to read anything once memorized. Not sure how common this is among students. Another bad habit to correct:)
Edited: August 29, 2017, 2:13 AM · Very common Yixi. Reading the notes instead of playing from memory is more work and requires you to slow down.

Students of all instruments are resistant to that! I am always telling some of my guitar students: 'Please use the score!'

August 29, 2017, 5:32 AM · Michael and Yixi, you nailed it. I am not a great sight-reader, and when sight-reading at a lesson I sound and feel extra clumsy.

Conversely, I have a very good musical memory, so I feel more comfortable doing work on a piece at lessons when I don't have to focus intently on the notes on the page. Unfortunately (as Yixi mentioned), it's easy to memorize wrong, and difficult to un-memorize and then re-learn it the right way.

Edited: August 29, 2017, 6:50 AM · Hi,

Speaking from the performing and teaching side, I don't think there is something as over-preparation. Also, relearning (rather than unlearning) is something that we do all our lives; it is how we improve and progress. So accepting that as part of the process makes it easier.

IMHO, one should always practice with the score, though you can play and check the memory if you need to play a work from memory. The visual needs a constant up-keeping, even more so if your tendency is to be kinetic of aural. Ideally, all three types of memories should be worked on constantly to have good skills.

Just some quick thoughts this morning...


August 29, 2017, 7:11 AM · I wish I had memorization problems! I have a very, very, very hard time memorizing music (always have), so much so that my new task is to learn how to play a new piece without referring to the sheet music.

August 29, 2017, 8:04 AM · I generally memorize automatically. If I don't have it memorized at least somewhat memorized, I haven't practiced it enough. :-) (I have noticed that I cannot memorize the way that I could when I was in my 20s, though, much less my childhood.)

I usually work on a piece for a week to get the general lay of the land -- a first pass at fingerings, bowings, etc., knowing that when I see my teacher he'll probably make significant modifications. Changing after a week of practice is pretty straightforward, though.

I'm currently reworking a concerto from my childhood with new fingerings and bowings and that is really a giant pain, because once upon a time it was solidly memorized.

August 29, 2017, 8:44 AM · Which concerto, Lydia?
August 29, 2017, 9:14 AM · My first impulse is to say that a student SHOULD "over-prepare" and work the hell out of a piece of music before bringing it in. They should have it fingered and bowed, understand the rhythms, and hopefully use common sense (like pick up notes should usually be up-bow), and use good bow distribution, or work out fast passages where things tend to break down. They don't use their metronome. They don't bother to listen to their piece, either themselves on a recording, or on youtube.

So objectively, I'd say most students are woefully underprepared.

In the case of the OP, I'd ask: what types of things are you having to unlearn at your lesson? Are they simple mistakes that you should have caught the first time and for which you shouldn't even need lessons? Or are they subjective things that are in the mind of your teacher and for which you couldn't plan for anyway? Such as fingerings their teacher taught them?

Depending on the student, I will generally bow a piece for a student if I want something very specific, or give them fingerings when I know that a very certain combination will solve a thorny problem and the student is very unlikely to hit upon it themselves. That way, less time is wasted in lessons. I don't want them memorizing poor bowings or fingerings.

Another issue for the teacher is to be aware of what edition the student will be using. Many of them are terrible, and unfortunately downloaded. I want to see what it is first. I don't send them off telling them to just get whatever random edition they can and learn the piece. That could be a big waste of time.

Sometimes I will ask a student to come up with fingerings and bowings to see if they can apply the principles I've been teaching them. But not always. It depends on the student and the situation.

Edited: August 29, 2017, 11:06 AM · Scott, the types of things I usually have to unlearn at my lesson are fingerings, bowings and interpretation. I always read, listen, watch and compare difference versions of a piece first I work on. I would have my fingerings and bowings worked and reworked by the time ready for lesson, but my teacher would always find things that don't work or don't make overall sense and need to be changed. She often tells me to keep it simple as I tend to overthink and make things too complicate. But I believe there's nothing simple about simplicity; it comes with experience and mastery.

I've been with my current teacher for nearly 10 years so before a lesson, I'd have pretty good idea what basic issues she wanted me to fix without her input, but I could never figure out ahead of time which direction/version a new piece she would want me to go for. With all the unlearning and relearning, I think ultimately she wants me to find my own voice, hopefully in good taste :)

I'm very encouraged to hear that there's no such a thing as over-preparing for a lesson.

August 29, 2017, 9:48 AM · I agree with Christian that there is no such thing as over-preparation. It is okay to memorize music extra early. In fact, for people who are unable to read music, or at least read and play at once, they must memorize all the notes, bowings and fingerings before moving on.
August 29, 2017, 9:52 AM · I'm never upset with students who come "over-prepared"! Occasionally it means that a small mistake has been woven a little too well into the fabric, and that makes it hard to get out. But generally that's not a frequently-occurring problem because those who practice a lot tend to also be conscientious about it!
Edited: August 29, 2017, 10:48 AM · I agree with Laurie and Scott about the value of being over-prepared. We have all heard that saw about preparing 200% because you lose half when you get on stage.

But I also fall victim in my lessons to an attitude that I'm going to go in there and "perform" my piece for my teacher and that he'll be "so impressed" with my playing thereby. As if that could ever possibly happen. Sometimes my teacher even gently scolds, "Paul, you're performing..." Don't get me wrong -- he's a very encouraging and inspiring teacher. I think his concern is that by trying to "make it happen" like a performance, I tend to fall back on old crutches -- for example generating tone with my left hand instead of my right, or bowing too much from the shoulder. And yet somehow I'm drawn into that "performance" trap again and again. Yixi -- is that partly what you're experiencing too?

Edited: August 29, 2017, 11:01 AM · Paul, so true! I know I shouldn't ever try to impress my teacher -- that's not the point of having a lesson! But then, is there any other way to be prepared for lesson?:) Once in a while, my teacher would say she was happy for me when she saw some break through. That's the sort of thing I'm living for.
August 29, 2017, 10:58 AM · Yixi, that's not a bad problem to have. I find it tough to not give at least something short shrift in my practicing leading up to a lesson, even though I practice about 3 hours most days. But I've been taking two lessons per week for the last few months, so while it gets me more immediate feedback and direction, things don't always get as polished as I would like. Memorization is a fairly slow and deliberate process for me.

I find that I usually have a good understanding of what I'm trying to get at, but usually I just haven't quite worked it out fluidly in the practice room. Then there are old habits (bending my left wrist in, bowing from the shoulder) that seem to come out randomly, but are probably symptoms of insufficient care in the practice room.

August 29, 2017, 11:13 AM · Jason, it's the Tchaikovsky.

My teacher sometimes does and sometimes doesn't have a strong feeling about certain fingerings and bowings. He may object to something as likely to be unreliable in performance, or to be overly romanticized (too many audible shifts or audible shifts in places where he feels they're not musically justified), or to not project adequately, or to have what he feels is an incorrect articulation, for instance. These things don't always get changed at the first lesson, but he also has a strong opinion that players should be able to change fingerings and bowings on the fly without it totally screwing them up.

August 29, 2017, 11:13 AM · Funny, I once had a teacher tell me that I should consider everything I do in lessons to be a performance, and if I made more than 3 mistakes that meant I was unprepared. I know that may seem harsh, but I think maybe he didn't want lessons to be just him listening to me fumble around and practice for an hour. It certainly got me to practice a lot more. This could be where my tendency to overprepare came from :-)
August 29, 2017, 11:51 AM · Karen, I think it makes perfect sense for everything in a lesson to be played as a performance. That's what our lessons are preparing us for, after all, and having someone there changes the dynamic, in that it bridges the gap a little in terms of there being an audience. I think it can be taken too far, and that the 3 mistakes is maybe a little blunt (Not to second-guess), but I think it's imperative for the student to make the connection that a lesson isn't just for playing the notes, as it were.
August 29, 2017, 1:08 PM · You might be over preparing when you practice a sonata movement by yourself when you may have better spent some of that the time rehearsing that same movement with a pianist.
August 29, 2017, 2:23 PM · Hi again,

Yixi, although it is hard for all of us, I don't think that playing to impress anyone makes for a successful goal. I think one attempts to do their best, the best for the music and improve.

I also think that relearning rather than unlearning is a more positive way of looking at something. Unlearning sends yourself the message that you should have known better, and although that is sometimes true, learning is a process where mistakes will happen, and improvement happens as you correct them.

The same goes for changing habits. Someone mentioned bowing from the shoulder. Thinking of bowing from the elbow or forearm (whichever works better for your mind) will succeed far more than trying not to bow from the shoulder, which will probably give you exactly what you don't want.

Just a thought...


August 29, 2017, 3:58 PM · Yixi,

Can you detect patterns in what your teacher is telling you, and apply them proactively? 90% of it isn't rocket science or black magic. Students tend to do the same things, such as staying in one position and crossing strings when they should be thinking in higher positions. Or using blatantly poor bow distribution. Or patterns of efficient shifting.

Eventually you'll leave your teacher. Is he/she taught teaching you to think for yourself?

August 29, 2017, 3:59 PM · Lydia, I suspected that was the one, just seemed like the next logical step in your latest period of playing. Congrats on getting back to it, and good luck on the preparation. I'm looking forward to hearing a recording of it here one day=)
Edited: August 29, 2017, 10:56 PM · Christian Vachon, thank you for putting things (relearning and changing habits) in new perspective. With positive outlook, we'll get better results -- self-fulfilling prophesy.

Scott Cole, teaching me to think for myself is all my teacher does:) Things that I'm getting from my lessons these days are not something one would say "You should know this by now" or "Remember what I've been telling you?", etc. Rather, they are chiefly about how to approach a particular piece of work. As different works come with different traditions, sound, styles, in addition to their particular technical demands, each artist has his/her take on a piece. While I can guess generally what my teacher would not like to hear (e.g., novel interpretations, distasteful use of certain technique or alter tempo for certain effect, etc.), there's no pattern I can detect as to how she would like a particular piece to be put together in a way that makes the best music sense by applying the appropriate techniques.

We don't talk much about basic rules that we know or can find in technical books. We mostly work on the application of certain technique (including bowing and fingerings) to achieve certain music ideas in a particular piece or phrases. I would work them out based on my limited understanding of what a piece is about. My teacher may or may not agree with my interpretation, but as a well-respected violinist, a seasoned teacher and adjudicator, she will always have something to suggest, line by line or even note by note, for improvement. True, eventually I'll leave my teacher, but I think I'll probably always take lessons/masterclasses from someone, one way or the other, as long as I'm learning.

Edited: August 30, 2017, 10:10 AM · Raymond, good point. Playing with other is different skill set that I don't think I can get much from violin lessons. I find it frustrating playing with others who are under-prepared, as so many amateur chamber players I met just like to sight-read through a whole bunch of music in each given session. But you are right, when working on a sonata, I should play with a pianist as soon as I am ready.
August 30, 2017, 10:36 AM · If I learn a song before I know the tempo, it always throws me off during the lesson.My teacher asks me to slow it down,but I've already memorized it faster. Even with a metronome it's more difficult to go back to where the teacher thinks I need to be.

I have been attempting to use my inner metronome ( tapping my foot) and this helps me to get closer locked in. Since I'm new at doing this I sometimes get thrown off trying to coordinate everything. I have been told in classical settings you shouldn't tap your foot, so I never did until recently. In folk music I think they encourage it more.

Just one area where trying to prepare ahead of time has caused me needless work.

August 30, 2017, 2:56 PM · Yixi, you need to find chamber-music partners who are good enough to sight-read at a satisfying level. :-)

August 30, 2017, 3:06 PM · Lydia, I'm in a smallish city here in Victoria BC. I would have to travel to Vancouver BC to find such chamber musicians.
Edited: September 1, 2017, 10:53 AM · I agree with Laurie. I'm not teaching private lessons at the moment, but when I did (which was for many years), I don't believe I ever once thought to myself "I wish this student had practiced less." I most certainly wished that students had practiced more *carefully*, generally on a weekly basis, but never did I wish they had done less preparation.

Edited because I do have one remaining student. She is retired and busy not being busy, and I am in graduate school with a two-year-old, so I see her when our schedules permit, and this works for both of us right now. I didn't want her to think I had forgotten her, should she ever stumble across this post. :)

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