Most of us have problems with children who make a mistake, get frustrated, and play the passage again faster, with even more frustration and more tension, which starts the vicious cycle of mindless fast practice.
When we try to stop them, by breaking the passage down into the smallest steps (2 -3 notes), they listen impatiently, then usually attempt to play the whole passage even faster than the last time, instead of doing just what we demonstrated.
Here are two tips to discourage mindless fast practice and encourage the ability to work on trouble spots rather than crashing through the piece at breakneck speed.
•1 The first thing to do, before things get out of hand, is to insist on practice tempo, the speed at which it can not go wrong. Explain that practice tempo sometimes has to be very slow indeed and that you can even stop and think between notes, in order to get them right. This will not be the same tempo for every passage. Most of our little speed demons will slow down just enough to avoid mistakes, so doing this will help to keep a student focussed, at the edge of his ability (the sweet zone where the most learning takes place). Practice tempo also makes it much easier to start in an unfamiliar place, something that almost all students complain about.
•2 Stopping is surprisingly difficult! As adults, it would seem that knowing where to stop, is all the information that we need to stop. Not true! The student will have been practicing this passage, or more probably the whole piece, in the above manner. Practice makes permanent! He will have learnt, unintentionally to put his head down and race for the finish line, so you will have to help him to learn to start and stop at unfamiliar spots. I remember from my childhood, that playing isolated chunks of music, was very frustrating. We tend to learn music in phrases and starting in the middle of a sequence requires extra mental energy, especially when it doesn’t make musical sense.
Show the student exactly where the stopping point is. To help him stop exactly where you want him to, calmly and gently drop an index finger onto the bow or fingers to stop them from moving. It’s essential to stay super calm here, as the student will be rather sensitive and poised to dive into a vicious circle of agitation. You can turn it into a game. Use a stuffed toy or a hand puppet to do the dirty work for you. Announce a race to see who is paying the most attention. Keep a record of who won and reward the winner.
I also recommend “Add a Note:” Demonstrate how to play the trouble spot, playing only the note before the mistake and the wrong note (correctly of course), at practice tempo. Ask your student to copy you. After a perfect repetition, add an extra note before. After the next good repetition add the note after the notes that you have just played perfectly. Continue till you have the whole phrase played perfectly at practice tempo. Point out that at true practice tempo, he will need to do far fewer repetitions, because each one will be correct.
Each time the student has played the passage, check with him if he thought that he really played at practice tempo. This will encourage him to stop and assess, instead of rushing back to the beginning and repeating at a fast mindless practice tempo. If he played the passage correctly, congratulate him, not for getting it right, but for paying good attention.
Before repeating the passage, ask him:
•1 Does he know what practice point is he is looking out for and what practice tempo he needs to use?
•2 Does he know where is the stopping point is? Will his practice tempo allow him to stop right on the dime?
Give it a try this week. See how many of your students improve their practice tasks by using practice tempo while practicing their trouble spots. If you are really serious about stamping on mindless fast practice. please remember to follow it up in the next lesson. Your students will know that you mean business. Consistency wins the day.