My students have more fun!

Practicing:
the key to mastery!


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 all have sufficient talent to succeed.

It is not my place to judge whether I provide quality instruction Ė that is for you to decide Ė but  it is an important factor.  You need to make sure that the teacher is a good match for your child's personality, musical interests, and and learning style.  Although feedback from most of my students and parents is positive, that does not necessarily mean I'm the best teacher for every student.

But no matter how musically smart a student is and no matter how good of a job I do teaching, none of that will matter if the student does not devote sufficient time and energy to practicing.  It is the only variable that is in the student's immediate control, and it is the most important variable of all.

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 always try to make music lessons a positive, fun experience that students 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.

How Much Practice is Needed?

The simplest answer is, "It depends on how good you want to get."  If you want to become excellent, the answer is, "a lot."

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.

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...  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."

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

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."

Do you detect a theme here?  The formula for success is always 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 asks 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

I know a family in this valley with some of the most amazing young instrumental musicians I have ever seen.  Yes, they are talented.  But honestly, they are not more talented than are many other students.  The difference is that the parents require their children practice their musical instruments for 2-3 hours per day.  And it pays off.  As far as I know, none of the kids in that family plans to pursue music for a profession.  But all of them will get scholarships to anywhere they want to go.  And they will enjoy their music throughout their lives.  More importantly, they are learning the value of self discipline and hard work and dedication that will serve them well no matter what they pursue in life.  They are also developing their minds; researchers have found no other activity that simultaneously engages more areas of the brain at a higher level than playing a musical instrument.

So it really bothers me when my students don't practice, or merely go through the motions of practicing.  It results in wasted potential.  They are missing out, and don't know it.

To a lesser extent, lack of practice also affects me.  My goal is to have all my students become excellent.  If a student does not practice regularly, I can't achieve that goal.  Students who don't practice regularly run the risk of losing the privilege of having me as their teacher.

Minimum Expectation

While the ideal amount of time spent practicing will vary depending each studentís age, maturity, and ability level, my general expectation is that young students in primary school will practice at least 1/2 hour per day, 5 days per week.  That is the normal minimum expectation of most instrumental music teachers, and it is the minimum needed for reasonable progress.  For students in middle school, 30 minutes is OK but I would suggest perhaps 45 minutes would be better.  By the time they are in high school, students who are serious will be spending an hour most days.  Perhaps that may be too much for students who are involved in multiple activities such as dance, sports, etc.  But no matter how busy they are, 1/2 hour should be the minimum.  (Keep in mind that 1/2 hour is only a minimum expectation, and that if a student wishes to pursue true world class excellence, they should be spending 2-3 hours per day practicing.)  In any case, if a student spends much less than 1/2 hour per day practicing, you're probably not getting your money's worth for your investment in music lessons.

How to Get Your Child to Practice

As a kid taking piano lessons, I LOVED practicing!  I spent so much time practicing that my parents had to pull me off of the piano to come to dinner or go to bed.

I realize that is not always the case.  While some of my students are naturally inclined to practice themselves, like I was, others are not.  Let me share some thoughts on ways to get your children to practice.

1.  It has to be enjoyable

Your kids need to enjoy playing their instrument and love making music.  If they do not, they will never want to practice.  I try very hard to instill into each student a love for the songs and for the instrument.  My goal is to make practice time their favorite time of day.  I strive to make every lesson and musical experience fun, enjoyable, and positive.  If for any reason your student is not enjoying his or her lessons, you should talk to them to find out why.  Then talk to me and let me know whatís happening.  Sometimes students seem happy during their lessons, but express things differently with their parents.  If I know what's going on, perhaps I can make changes to improve things.  If not, I will help you find another teacher who will be a better match for your child's personality and musical interests.

Not only does the student need to enjoy music and lessons in general, they also need to enjoy the pieces they are learning.  I am open to teaching my students any style of music or piece they want to learn.  All they need to do is ask, and I will do my best to make it happen.


2.  It has to be routine

I highly recommend making practicing a routine -- something that your kids just do, like brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, or going to school.  They donít have to think about it or decide if they should do it or not, or if they have time today or not.  They just do it because itís whatís expected of them.  I suggest scheduling practice time in advance, preferably at 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 students to track their practicing and for parents to monitor it.  I recommend using a practice chart.  Have the student bring the chart each week to the lesson.  This will create accountability.  In my experience, just being asked to mark down when you practice 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

If youíre willing to reward your kids as they reach certain milestones, this can work wonders.  For instance, each time they practice at least 5 days a week without being asked (and mark it in their practice chart) for a month straight, theyíll get something special.  If they do it for three months in a row, you could take them out for a special activity that they love.

After a while, your kids will no longer need to receive an external reward in return for their practicing.  Theyíll have much more fun in their lessons, will learn more challenging pieces faster, and will progress rapidly.  Having more self confidence and feeling great about what they are doing will be a much higher level motivator than external rewards.

5.  Never miss

Never allow a day to go by without your child practicing.  Even if it's just for 15 minutes.  Don't let them make excuses, and above all don't make excuses for them.  "She's tired today."  "It's getting dark and her friend wants to play before dark."  "She's got to get up early tomorrow." and so on...  Rationalizations are easy to come by, but people who pursue excellence don't use them.

6.  Make it part of a larger goal

No one wants to be forced to do something they don't want to do.  Children are more likely to put an effort into something if they can see how it will take them where they want to go.  They need heros and models.  They need to see where practicing will take them.  Show them why practicing will be worth it.  Find someone they admire musically to be a role model and encourage your child to to gain that same skill set so that your child can eventually do what they do.  (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 practicing enjoyable, making it routine, tracking it, rewarding it, never missing, and making practice part of a larger goal, the more success you will have in getting your child to practice.


Finally, there is one more factor that makes a huge difference in practice time and effort, but this one is directed at parents rather than students:

7.  Get a quality instrument

I've seen it over and over and over, with instruments ranging from harp to saxophone to flute to guitar to piano and everything else: the more money the parents spend on an instrument, the more serious the children are about practicing.  I almost always see a huge jump in love of music and in time spent practicing whenever a child obtains a higher quality instrument.  I think there are two reasons for this.  First, having an expensive instrument sends a message to the child that this is important.  Second, a high quality instrument makes practicing MUCH more enjoyable.  A high quality instrument becomes an extension of the child and part of his or her identity.  (One of the reasons the children in the family I spoke of earlier are willing to practice for 2-3 hours per day is that they play on world class instruments.  There is a Steinway D grand piano in the home, and the violins and cellos are similarly of professional concert quality.  Playing their instruments is a thrill for them.)

Obviously, not every family can afford to spend $125,000 on an instrument.  Fortunately, the biggest difference happens at the low end of the price scale.  (The difference between a $50 pawn shop electric guitar with broken knobs and bad wiring versus a brand new $300 Agile guitar is greater in a child's mind than the difference between the $300 Agile and a $3,000 Gibson Les Paul.  The difference between a $50 Deseret Industries acoustic guitar with a bad neck, high nut, worn frets, and crappy strings versus a brand new $300 Fender or Yamaha acoustic guitar is greater than between the $300 guitar and a $4,000 Taylor or Martin.  Pianos are more expensive, but the same principle applies.)

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