Tips for how to practice well, or how to encourage students to practice

My old music teacher leaned over towards me, his frail and aged frame and old-fashioned dress sense reminded me of a character from a Dickens novel. “Here you go boy! This will help you with your sight-reading.” His outstretched hand held out a music book of Bach, his favourite composer. I had long feared the sight-reading test in my music exams. After playing the examiner my scales, with which my eighty-some-thing teacher was obsessed with, and then my pieces, next came the bit which was a complete and utter mystery to me! The sight-reading and aural (ear-training) tests. Dum, dum, DUM!!!! Now don’t get me wrong, I have a real passion and respect for Bach now, largely instigated by my wonderfully eccentric teacher but as a teenage boy, most of the preludes, chorales, inventions and selected dances in that book were simply too hard for me to learn let alone sight-read.

I had long feared the sight-reading test in my music exams. After playing the examiner my scales, with which my eighty-some-thing teacher was obsessed with, and then my pieces, next came the bit which was a complete and utter mystery to me! The sight-reading and aural (ear-training) tests. Dum, dum, DUM!!!! Now don’t get me wrong, I have a real passion and respect for Bach now, largely instigated by my wonderfully eccentric teacher but as a teenage boy, most of the preludes, chorales, inventions and selected dances in that book were simply too hard for me to learn let alone sight-read.

Fast-forward on, as a teacher myself now, I have been obsessed with helping my pupils over the years to be successful at reading at sight (as well as helping them to develop good musical ears!) Partly fueled by my own inadequacies and knowing that developing good sight-reading ability just helps students learn songs so much quicker. Also, good sight-reading skills enable them to fit into ensemble playing with greater ease.

I am a big fan of the Paul Harris series “Improve Your Sight-Reading!” so was very interested to stumble on a new series by the same author and publisher (Faber Music) with the extended title “Improve Your Sight-Reading! A piece a week (Piano).”

The purpose of this series is to give students a new piece to learn each week (or two weeks max.) so as to help them avoid the trap of just laboriously learning exam pieces my memory. Rather than merely sight-read the piece, the composer’s introductory comments encourage them to fully learn the piece but with the idea that a short new song each week will really build their music reading confidence. There is a lot of material. 26 pieces in the grade 1 book with a wide variety of styles designed to appeal to the modern student. The pieces are fun often featuring interesting techniques and the evocative titles. There are three activity pages (musical terms word search, crossword and some quite innovative “detective” activities involving analyzing the pieces that the student has been learning).

So what about the pieces? Are they any good? You’ll be glad to know that my sight-reading skills have significantly improved from those spotty teenage days of Bach and therefore I have “road-tested” this material for possible use in my lessons.

I have to say that although none of the songs are going to massive hits in my music studio, they are very well written from the perspective of a person just developing a little bit of confidence in reading music. They are very accessible which I like and give a real chance to teach the importance of a steady pulse and to incorporate dynamics and articulation as an important part of the storytelling. Overall I am quite impressed and I am seriously considering how to incorporate them into my students’ lessons. I think between exam preparation they could really help students build their reading skills in a gentle and imaginative way. I am sure that some of the pieces would be revisited by students. I think this series will be an excellent supplement to aid teaching students to enjoy the pleasure that reading music brings.

Oh well, I’m going “Bach” for more! (Sorry!)

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teaching music

The latest scientific research about mind vs body has huge implications for music teachers.  We are constantly working with the “body” to train our students’ ears and muscles to produce music.  Meanwhile, we continually work with the “mind” to manage egos, mental blocks, learning styles, and the basic disconnect between playing music and verbally describing it.

The bottom line in the new science is that there is no mind versus body.  The mind/body split, which has taken center stage in Western civilization for the past 2500 years, appears to be bogus.  Research now speaks of “embodied intelligence”.  The complex bodily systems are engineered to function and communicate so well with each other — electrically, chemically and physically, with whole-body signals taking place at a rate of about ten times per second — that the brain really functions more as a mediator and coordinator than as some kind of executive director.  One book likened the brain to being director of the choir, rather than the pilot of a machine.

I’d recommend the book I’m reading to anyone interested in this groundbreaking research.  It’s called Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks, by Guy Claxton.

One reason I’m excited about this book is that I’ve subscribed to its conclusions for some time now — I think my first Music Teachers Helper blog post relating to this way of thinking dates to 2008.  It is thrilling to see science support these ideas with detailed research, as described in Claxton’s very readable book.

You can read a few of my past posts* on this subject here in the Music Teachers Helper blog — especially Reversing the Learning Process.  In that post I suggest that while many people presume the brain tells the fingers what to do, and the ears decide if we got it right, the actual process is the reverse — the ears are in charge, and learn very quickly what is wanted; the muscles try to please the ears by testing and rehearsing their movements; and the brain takes notes on what has happened in order to provide help organizing and replicating it next time.

Science says next to nothing directly about the effect of “embodied intelligence” on music, and that’s not only true of Claxton’s book but also in many other areas of research, including work in linguistics and dyslexia.  I can’t explain this disconnect, but whatever the cause, it does free us musicians to explore the meaning and impact of this research on our field.

The research calls into question any teaching of a musical instrument that places music theory as its top priority.  Consider that perhaps the names of notes, chords, harmonic progressions, keys, and musical syntax are all ways of organizing and deeping our awareness of what we hear and play, and should be presented after listening and trying the music, not before.  Perhaps the physical relationships of half steps, whole steps, the “microballistics” of hitting a note are all more important than, or at least take precedence over, memorizing theoretical concepts.  Theory and practice are both important but what really comes first for the student?  That’s the question for a music teacher to consider.

Maybe a student should experience a G scale and arpeggio before being required to recite the names of the notes in the scale or its key signature.  The theory can then be presented as an exciting way of understanding what the ears and fingers are already experiencing.  Maybe our method books would be better off placing the section on musical notation and theory later on, after some physical work has already been done, rather than at the beginning of the book as if these technical details were the foundation of what is to follow.

The whole concept of what is right and wrong — what a mistake is — in playing music can change as a result of this research.  If you tell a student to play a C# and they don’t, is it really because they didn’t hear you or ignored you?  Or is the concept of a “C#” not as immediate to them as, say, the physical proximity of one finger to another, or the sound of the C# in relation to the surrounding notes?  Maybe the verbal description “C#” is lower down the pathway of perception than these other factors, and perhaps there’s a way to teach with a more immediate impact.  At minimum, allowing for this could be good cause for more patience and perception on the part of teachers as they try to figure out how students are feeling and thinking.

There is a large body of research on the subject but I’ll just mention one detail here.  There is a part of the brain called “Broca’s Area” which appears to control the syntax of language.  When it is damaged, people can still speak but cannot connect words fluently.  For example, instead of saying “the porpoise jumped in the ocean,” they might only be able to say “porpoise…ocean.”  Interestingly, there is a mention in the research that the same effect happens in the sequencing of music.

My question, however, is:  if a person with damage to that part of their brain can play or sing elements of music but have trouble sequencing them, what unit is being sequenced?  Nonmusicians might presume that the patient is having trouble sequencing notes — but the words “porpoise…ocean” are not single notes in a musician’s mind.  “Porpoise” could be written as a sixteenth followed by dotted eighth, and “ocean” could be a quarter note followed by an eighth note.  In other words, the basic units of music are not individual notes but relationships between notes.  The sequencing of music would then take place, not from note to note, but from one group of notes to another, or on a larger scale, from phrase to phrase.  Teaching someone to read a measure at a time would then prove to be an artificial and nonmusical way of learning the music, since often the last note of a measure is a pickup belonging to the next measure, much the way the word “guitar” could be written using an eighth note at the end of one measure leading to a quarter note at the beginning of the next.

I find the latest scientific research to be amazing food for thought in relation to music.  Teaching music particularly calls upon the science of learning and intelligence. In fact, since music is built on integrating physicality, emotion and thought into one act, the new science of “embodied intelligence” suggests to me that the playing or singing of music is one of the purest of human expressions.  It is up to us to find the best way to communicate that to our students.

*other related posts:  Beyond the Control Barrier, Mapify and Tonalize, Mind Over Muscle, Verbalizing the Work of the Ears, Muscularizing Music

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The six practice strategies listed below come directly from the cognitive psychological scientists at Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein hold doctorate degrees and have systematically applied current research on the brain and how it learns to the classroom setting.

I’ve taken their learning strategies one step further and applied them specifically to practicing an instrument. A good portion of the following paragraphs closely resemble their findings and I greatly appreciate their inspiration for this post!

The main point of their research is how the brain remembers best. It’s not through repetition nearly as much as through retrieval of information.

“Every time you leave a little space, you forget a bit of the information, and then you kind of relearn it. That forgetting actually helps you to strengthen the memory. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but you need to forget a little bit in order to then help yourself learn it by remembering again.”

-Weinstein from

You may find the list below validating like it was for me. I’ve encouraged most of these tactics for years and am thrilled that they are now scientifically proven to work thanks to Dr. Smith and Dr. Weinstein! Perhaps you’ll feel the same? Each strategy is first defined in the clinical terms found at Next, you’ll read how I relate them to practice. I’ve also connected visuals to each strategy to help practicers understand and recall each one. [···]

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