My students have more fun!

Practicing:
the key to mastery!


My general expectation for adult students is that you will practice at least the same amount of time as your lesson length, each day.  If you have a half-hour lesson, you should practice at least 1/2 hour each day, five days per week.  If your lesson is an hour long, you should practice at least an hour each day.  That is the normal minimum expectation of most instrumental music teachers, and it is the minimum needed to develop a useful level of skill.  If you desire to pursue true excellence, you should spend 2-3 hours per day practicing.  If you spend much less than 1/2 hour per day practicing, music lessons are pretty much a waste of your money because the return on investment will be quite low.

I am by nature a "softie."  I would much rather praise a student than scold him or her.  I hate being the bad guy.  I will always try to make your music lesson a positive, fun experience that you look forward to each week.  The downside of that personality trait is that I tend to not be demanding enough.  The purpose of this page is to communicate my expectations for practice and to try to convince you of how important it is, so that I don't have to be the bad guy and chew you out for not practicing.

We are all busy.  Adults in our society run, run, run.  Every hour of the day is filled.  How can we possibly find time to practice?  There are two keys to successfully practicing.  One is motivation and the other is habit.

MOTIVATION

What determines how fast a student progresses and how good he or she becomes?  Is it primarily talent, or is it something else?

Educators from all disciplines have studied this question for many years.  They call the results of education "KSAs" (Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities) and they try to measure the things that improve KSAs.  When I was a professor at USU, I researched and published several articles on this very topic.  I found that talent had a smaller effect on outcomes than might be expected.

Time for a lesson in algebra.  If A is musical Ability (musical KSAs), then:

A = T x I x P2

where
T is innate musical Talent of the student,
I is quality of music Instruction (topic, curriculum, teaching style, instructor attitude, etc), and
P is student Practice time (quantity and quality of students' practicing)

In other words, Talent x Instruction x Practice squared is what determines results.  If any of these factors are low, then results will be low.  If any of these factors is zero, results will be zero.  And Practice is the most important.

None of my students has zero talent.  I do not accept students without musical talent.  It would be unethical for me to do so.  Some have more than others, but I assure you, you have sufficient talent to succeed or I would not be teaching you.

It is not for me to judge whether I provide quality instruction; that's for you to decide.  You need to make sure that your teacher is a good match for your personality, musical interests, and and learning style.  If you don't feel that is the case with me, discuss your concerns with me and I'll help you find another teacher who will be a better fit for you.

But no matter how musically smart you are and no matter how good of a job I do teaching, none of that will matter if you don't devote sufficient time and energy to practicing.  It is the only variable that is in the your immediate control on a daily basis, and it is the most important variable of all.

Malcolm Gladwell has written a fascinating study, "Outliers: The Story of Success" (Little, Brown & Co., 2008), in which he says it takes about 10 years, or 10,000 hours, of practice to attain true expertise.  (10,000 hours over 10 years is 1,000 hours per year.  That's about 3 hours per day, 6 days per week).

"The people at the very top don't just work harder or even much harder than everyone else," Gladwell writes. "They work much, much harder." Achievement, he says, is talent plus preparation.  Of the two, preparation seems to play the bigger role.

For example, he describes The Beatles: They had been together seven years before their famous arrival in America.  They spent a lot of time playing in clubs in Hamburg, Germany, sometimes for as long as eight hours a night.  Overnight sensation?  Not exactly.  Estimates are the band performed 1,200 times before their big success in 1964.  By comparison, most bands don't perform 1,200 times in their careers.

Neurologist Daniel Levitin has studied the formula for success extensively and shares this finding: "The emerging picture from such studies is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.  In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and what have you, the number comes up again and again.  Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do.  But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.  It seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

As Gladwell puts it, "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good."

Consider these thoughts from successful folks in all walks of life:

ē "No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent; work transforms talent into genius." - Anna Pavlova, ballerina.

ē "I know the price of success: dedication, hard work and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen." - Frank Lloyd Wright, architect.

Do you detect a theme here?  The abilities these people possessed were far-ranging, yet the formula for success was the same: hard work and lots of it.  I don't know anyone who has succeeded any other way.  Some people may make it look easy, but it wasn't easy.  It never is.  If it looks easy, that just means you didn't see the first 9,999 hours of hard work.

When I was a teenager, there was a song by soft rock mega superstar Richard Carpenter entitled, "Piano Picker".  Here are the lyrics:

Everybody always asked me
How I got to play so fine
And friends, I'm gonna tell ya
It really did take some time

Yes, after years and years of practice
And a case of real bad knees
While the other guys were out playin' with the football
I was home bangin' on the keys

And it got me right where I am
This is me playing the piano
Hope ya like what I do, it's for you
And I'll try and sing right, too

I guess I'm really very lucky
That I've got this thing to play
'Cause it can really make me feel good
Even when it's cloudy and gray

Yes, after years and years of practice
And awful allergies that made me sneeze
Now the other guys were out playin' with their girlfriends
And I was still bangin' on the keys

And it got me right where I am
This is me, playing the piano
Hope ya like what I do, it's for you
And I'll try and sing right, too

Perhaps your goal isn't to become Richard Carpenter.  But obviously you must have some goal in mind or you wouldn't be taking lessons.  Whatever that goal is, it's going to take practice, and lots of it.  There is nothing I can do each week during the lesson that can circumvent the rule of nature that expertise is gained by doing.  There is no other way.

OK, so hopefully you're now motivated.  Here's the other key:

MAKING IT A HABIT

1.  It has to be enjoyable

You need to enjoy playing your instrument and love making music.  If you don't, you'll never want to practice.  My goal is to make practice time your favorite time of day.  I strive to make every lesson and musical experience fun, enjoyable, and positive.  You need to enjoy the pieces you are learning.  I am open to teaching you any song or any style of music you want to learn.  Just say the word and I will do my best to make it happen.
  If you are not enjoying practice time, please talk to me.

2.  It has to be routine

I highly recommend making practicing a routine -- something that you just do, like brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, or going to work.  You donít have to think about it or decide if you should do it or not, or if you have time today or not, or if there's some other excuse for not doing it.  You just do it because that's what you do every day at that certain time.  I suggest scheduling practice time in advance, preferably the same time, every day.  That helps tremendously!  If not, we all are busy, and itís so easy to use the time to do something else.

3.  It should be tracked

Itís important for you to track your practicing.  I recommend using a practice chart.  Write down the time you started and ended practicing each day, and how many minutes it was.  Bring your chart each week to the lesson so that I can help you be accountable.  In my experience, just knowing that your teacher will look at the chart at the lesson improves the amount of practicing substantially.  No student wants to come to their lesson the next week with an empty practice chart.

4.  It helps to be rewarded

Finally, set a goal, and when you achieve it, reward yourself.  "As soon as I can play this song all the way through without mistakes at the right tempo I'll ________" (you fill in the blank.)  Or "If I practice every weekday for 1/2 hour for a month, I'll __________"  After a while, you will no longer need to bribe yourself to practice.  You'll have much more fun, will learn more challenging pieces faster, and will progress rapidly.  Over time, having more self confidence and feeling great about what you are doing will become a much higher level motivator than external rewards.

5.  Never miss

Try to not allow a day to go by without practicing.  Even if it's just for 15 minutes.  Once you skip a day it becomes easier to skip the next day.  No excuses: "I had a sick kid today."  "I had to work late."  "We're going out of town next week."  Make yourself do it anyway.  Rationalizations are easy to come by, but people who pursue excellence don't use them.

6.  Remember the larger goal

We all are more likely to put an effort into something if we are reminded how it will take us where we want to go.  We need to see where practicing will take us.  I have found it helps me to find someone I admire musically to be a role model that I want to be able to do what they do, and to regularly expose myself to their music.  (For example, my personal musical hero is Paul Mirkovich, the pianist and musical director of The Voice band.  He is the most amazing all around musician I have ever seen, and I want to be able to do what he does.  Watching him on The Voice every week gives me motivation to practice!)

We don't live in a perfect world, and you won't be able to do this perfectly.  But the closer you can get to making it enjoyable, making it routine, tracking it, rewarding it, never missing, and reminding yourself of the larger goal, the more success you'll have and the faster you'll progress toward your goals.

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