The Power of Practice: the pupil’s perspective

Last week I saw  a young brass player taking part in the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016.

I was struck when his Mum said that he was always in his bedroom playing his instrument and that she never had to tell him to go and do his practise. What a joy such a youngster must be for both parents and teachers!

But not all pupils are like that – here’s a different, probably more familiar, scenario:

‘Mum is within calling distance when Maureen shouts, ‘Mum, do I have to keep playing?’ The answer, ‘Yes, a bit more’, is followed by some repetition of earlier pieces and a good deal of shuffling…a few minutes later, the following exchange ends the session:

Maureen: Now have I done enough, Mum?

Mother: Well do you think you’ve done enough?

Maureen: Yes, I think I’m pretty good at it.

Mother: Okay, that was great’ [1]

Today’s post is about practice from the pupil’s perspective and focuses on what pupils really get up to during their practice time according to the research.

THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS

There is some strong research that suggests it takes on average 3,300 hours to reach and achieve Grade 8 level, regardless of whether a pupil goes on to be a high musical achiever or not [2]. What’s more, the same highly respected research team estimates that to achieve Grade 1 level takes ALL LEARNERS approximately 450 hours of practice!

Everyone has to do about the same amount of deliberate practice to progress – there are no shortcuts!

The study had 257 children participating, split into 5 groups. The top group were pupils at a specialist music school whilst the bottom group had ceased lessons. The remaining three groups represented the intermediary stages between. The research lends:

strong support to the theory that formal, effortful practice is a principal determinant of musical achievement’. [3]

So, next time a parent asks ‘how long does it take to reach Grade 1 level?’ tell them ‘it takes about 450 hours of purposeful practice’!

A VIEW INTO THE PRACTICE ROOM

Music in our Lives [4] gives us a view into the practice rooms and habits of 157 children learning a band instrument. When lessons commenced at the start of the study the teachers recommended 20 minutes a day for 5 days but the reality was students did 15 minutes a day for 4 days. As time went on though things got worse:

3 months: average = 16 minutes a day x 3.5 days

9 months: average = 17 minutes a day x 3 days.

7.5 minutes was the average daily practice time over the nine month period.

With that kind of daily average it would take at least seven years to reach the 450 hours that appears to be needed to reach grade 1 level – no wonder so many students lose heart and give up!

Practice is more than just quantity of course; the quality of practice is critical and this also came under scrutiny. It was found that children and the parents focussed on the amount of time spent practising rather than what the practice session consisted of. The extract given at the start of the post is a good example of this. Appearing to practice was a common feature for a significant number of observed sessions.  But, as the researchers point out:

‘Treating practice in this way is an attitude unwittingly perpetuated by teachers and parents, and one that fails to connect with children’s intrinsic motivation or to provide them with goals that are attainable’. [5].

BAR 1 PRACTICE

We know that for practice to be powerful it has to be purposeful. This again was something that most of the youngsters in the research study struggled with. The common scenario was that practice consisted of:

  • a small number of scales
  • maybe some technical exercises
  • pieces

I am sure that you won’t be surprised to hear that students:

typically had no practice strategies other than simply playing pieces through from start to finish’. [6]

Hardly any of the children played around with their pieces, notation dominated all areas of the practice time and pupils rarely engaged in any meaningful musical activities.

This is in complete contrast to the high achievers from the Sloboda research [2] who were able to generate their own productive practice strategies from an early age. Furthermore, these youngsters also spent time engaged in more informal playing.

SO WHY DON’T PUPILS PRACTICE?

Research into homework shows that children are more likely to do it if they feel comfortable with the task. What’s more a clear image of WHAT needs to be achieved and HOW to achieve it is vital. The situation is the same for instrumental learners.

According to our Curious Expert Lucinda Mackworth-Young:

In order to feel like practising, the pupil must feel able to do it, or feel enough inner resource to be able to sit with the “not knowing” and try’. [7]

She suggests that students of all ages need to leave the lesson knowing how to practise, having been explicitly shown the necessary steps during the lesson.

For students to feel comfortable with the idea of practice they need to know what they are listening for and be able to tell whether their playing matches the desired result. Unfortunately, it appears that many students just play on either ignoring the sounds they produce, or getting discouraged and disheartened and giving up.

As teachers we have a significant role to play as we need to give our pupils practice strategies and teach them how to think about and self-evaluate their playing.

Do join me next week when I will be looking at practice from the teacher’s viewpoint.

[1] p. 33. Music in our Lives, rethinking Musical Ability, Development and Identity. 2012. Gary McPherson, Jane W. Davidson, Robert Faulkner. OUP
[2] The role of practice in the development of performing musicians. 1996. John A. Sloboda, Jane W. Davidson, Michael J.A. Howe and Derek G. Moore. The British Journal of Psychology. Vol. 87, issue 2, pages 287-309.
[3] Sloboda et.al
[4] Music in our Lives, as above
[5] p. 29 ibid.
[6] p. 27 ibid.
[7] p. 40 Tuning In, Practical Pyschology for Musicians. 2000. Lucinda Mackworth-Young. MMM Publications

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder & Director at The Curious Piano Teachers

4 thoughts on “The Power of Practice: the pupil’s perspective

  1. Sarah Erskine

    Thank you for this helpful reminder about practice! I will certainly be letting some parents know about the 450 hours. I am fortunate to have some highly motivated students but for some I know that has only come because parents have supported and encouraged and listened in to the lessons and the practice times. Then the achievement/ feeling of playing well becomes its own reward.

    Reply
  2. Fionagh Bennet

    Sounds like my practice sessions as a child! I don’t recall ever being taught how to practise. I do give my students solid practise guidelines, remembering my own experiences!

    Reply
  3. Pia kruithof

    Thank you Sally, very interesting, yet not surprising!
    I have one intelligent, very musical but young boy, and asked him after playing a piece how he would rate his playing between 1 and 10. He rated about 7. I asked him how he thought he could make it to 8 or even 9, and he shrugged his shoulders saying, just play it again!
    I was pleased with his response, because now we had fertile ground for talking about productive practise!

    Reply

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