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Going Without Goals: Utilizing Non-Structured Practice Time

Creativity | Day 108For the last few months of the school year, I’ve been pushing my students towards getting ever better results in festivals, auditons, recitals, and exams. I was proud of how well many of my students had done when the results started rolling in. Then last week I read Ed Pearlman’s Whose Side Are We On? and realized that students need time for the pendulum to swing the other way, for periods of exploration and discovery in addition to the quest for ever greater achievement.

Central to the idea of exploration at an instrument is the notion of practicing as pure play, as opposed to practice as rehearsing, working, or merely repeating. All students (and professonals too!) need some emotional distance from their goals once in a while in order to fully take the time to pursue where their imagination is taking them. Children already know this innately – are we doing our best to enable this wonderful human quality?

Here are four things that teachers and parents can do to re-start student creativity:

1. Wean students away from constant parental involvement. The creative impulse often requires silence and solitude. From time to time, leaving a young student to their own devices at their instrument is an excellent idea. What they lose in the achievement of daily practice tasks they may gain in understanding, exploration, and fun. If they enjoy this time spent privately at their instrument, it might just pay big dividends down the road when they eventually play at an advanced level, enjoying the rich rewards of both trusting the responses of one’s own body and the practice process.

2. Encourage students to play rather than work at the instrument. It’s no accident that the English word for “operating a musical instrument” just happens to be “play”. The notion of practice as play is all too often forgotten, and rediscovering it will help to animate one’s creative self.

3. Enable students to learn new repertoire and new styles. Several of my students have an interest in playing both ragtime, jazz, and gospel music, and since they have the time over the summer to pursue these styles, I’m more than willing to oblige. Of course, there’s a lot of self-interest on my part in encouraging this exploration, as my students’ discovery becomes a prime opportunity for me to uncover a lot of new and interesting music that will be beneficial to my entire studio over the long run.

4. Encourage students to improvise. In spite of the rich compositional legacy of the European, jazz, and popular traditions, very few teachers ever encourage or teach their students how to improvise at their instrument. Of course, any six-year-old can make up songs without any encouragement, and free time spent at their instrument will increase the chances of crrating their own musical works.

Once students are comfortable in their own skin in the practice studio, discovering new styles and imorovising, there’s a big chance that they might end up creating their own compositions. Next month I’ll look at ways that you can encourage and assist students eager to make the jump into composing.

About the Author

Chris Foley
Chris Foley is a pianist, teacher, examiner, adjudicator, and blogger based in Oakville, Ontario. He currently teaches at the Royal Conservatory of Music where he also serves as head of the voice department at the Conservatory School. As a member of Toronto's Tapestry New Works Studio Company, he has coached and performed in numerous workshops and performances of contemporary opera. In 2005, he ... [Read more]