Before you start reading this article, just pause for a few moments and have a really good look at the illustration. What do you see?
Someone has obviously been practising typing the affirmation ‘PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT’. This person has gone to a lot of trouble to make an impressive presentation of the results of this effort.
Look more closely and you will notice that there are 18 repetitions of ‘PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT’.
But look again. How many of these repetitions are correct? Yes, the last one is perfect. But, isn’t that what we are aiming for?
Think again. 17 repetitions are incorrect, which makes the odds against replicating any of these 18 attempts is 17 to 1, let alone guaranteeing a perfectly correctly spelt, ‘PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT’.
I call this way of practicing, the ‘Stop When Ya Got It Method’.
Isn’t it strange that so many of us use this ‘Stop When Ya Got It Method’ for learning a complicated task or skill, even when there is a chance of being asked to perform it in public, in potentially stressful conditions.
Going back more years than I care to disclose, my piano teacher used to send me home from lessons, with edifying instructions such as, “Get the mistakes right.” Of course, this was complicated by the fact that, although she showed me how to get it right in the lesson, she didn’t have the patience to teach me how to practice playing it correctly, apart from screeching, “Slower, slower!” at regular intervals, but this was so regular that I didn’t pay any attention. So even though I was a good little girl, and practised every day, except for lesson day, the ‘Stop When Ya Got It Method’ made progress frustratingly slow. Rare performances were often awkward displays of musical stuttering, with a muttered accompaniment of, “Sorry. Oh sorry. Oops. Sorry.” Since this was the way I always practiced, what more could I expect. Practice makes permanent!
Nevertheless, I did make it to music college, where I had one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life. By then I was getting very good at the ‘Stop When Ya Got It Method’ and was sitting in a practice room, in the zone, absorbed in bashing away at Beethoven Sonata, happily getting to grips with repeating and internalizing fistfuls of wrong notes. Unfortunately, there was an advanced musicianship class in progress across the corridor from my practice room. The eminent professor saw the noise I was making, as a useful opportunity, to make an edifying example of bad practice technique.
“What a horrible din! A mockery of Beethoven! Unfit to be called a musician!” exploded from her as I thundered on, oblivious of my impending fate.
The first thing I was aware of, was the entire class jostling outside the practice room, to see this disgrace to the college.
The awful thing about this experience, was that still no one took me aside and showed me how to practice. All it taught me, was to practice very quietly and certainly never to show my face on a concert platform, for the rest of my student career.
Many years later, after my own children had started having Suzuki lessons, the penny suddenly dropped. One of the teachers wrote on the blackboard in front of the group class, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” She went on to explain that everything that you repeat will be learnt and that you would up your chances of getting it right if you slowed down.
It was as if she had dropped the perfect gift right into my lap. At last I understood. Slow down and give yourself a chance to play the notes right in the first place. You have to be able to play the notes, before you can speed up the tempo.
Now this is very important. When you and your children listen regularly to the music that they are learning, one of the things that you will internalize, is the speed of a concert performance on the recording. This can get in the way when you are trying to learn the notes.
This is the clincher which is going to make all the difference for your children: I don’t know anyone who enjoys being told, “That was wrong, play it slower.” Don’t do that. Ask for Practice Tempo, the speed at which it cannot go wrong. If you allow them to experiment, your children will soon discover that Practice Tempo is actually a slowness, that allows them to pause and think of the best outcome for every single note they play.
At the famous Meadowmount Music Camp, campers are told that if the practice monitors can guess a tune that is being practiced, it is being played too fast. You might think that this is a bit extreme, but with true Practice Tempo, the odds are 100 to 1 in favour of getting it right. Just imagine it – never having to undo another mistake!
What are you waiting for? Come and practice your repetitions at Practice Tempo and notice an immediate difference in your progress.