Independent Musicians: How Important is Practice Anyway?

Norman Wika

As music educators one of our main goals should be to “teach ourselves out of a job” by creating independent musicians who love play- ing their instruments and can solve most any musical problem on their own. In addition to teaching the technical skills of music making, we must strive to teach practice skills, giving each student a stocked “toolbox” of strategies for overcoming difficult passages and more im- portantly, the knowledge of how and when to use those tools. Undoubtedly all music teachers talk about practice and many even make it a required part of the curriculum, but how much time is spent in class teaching skills necessary for students to become independent, effective practicers? In 2002, Marilyn Kostka published a study that looked at that exact question. In it, she surveyed 127 college applied studio in- structors and 134 music majors. While 94% of teachers suggested a “regular practice routine”, only 45% of students report using a regular routine. 100% of teachers surveyed reported discussing specific practice techniques, yet 41% of students reported that no practice techniques were discussed in lessons.1

To help students

become independent musicians, teachers must teach them the skills to become effective prac- ticers.

What is effective practice? Effective practice is deliberate practice. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson writes that deliberate practice “requires the generation of specific goals for improvement and the monitoring of various aspects of per- formance. Furthermore, deliberate practice involves trying to exceed one’s limit, which requires full concentration and effort.”2

To be

effective, deliberate practice must be goal-ori- ented, effortful, and structured. Tis seems logical to most advanced musicians, but is not necessarily intuitive to young students.

In a 2001 study McPherson and Renwick looked at seven children, age 7-9, over the first three years of their formal musical study.3

found that students’ natural practice ability varied widely. Tey stated, “Our results lead

7 Tey

us to conclude that a majority of our learners possessed the will to learn their instrument, but not necessarily the level of skill required to ensure efficient and effective practice.” Further- more, “Our preliminary findings suggest that the skills of knowing how to self-monitor, set goals, and use appropriate strategies take time to develop in most young children.” Tis sug- gests that students must learn how to practice deliberately, but more importantly that teachers must teach students the skills required to do so. To return to the ideas of Ericsson, teachers must teach students to be goal-oriented, effort- ful, and structured.

To be goal-oriented, students must have a solid idea of what the final product should sound like. A mature musician will have the ability to audiate a new piece of music and work towards producing that sound on his or her instrument. Young musicians need a high-quality model (recording) to which they can compare their performance. Te younger the musician, the more important that model is, as in speech development, young children must hear sounds repeatedly before they can begin to produce those sounds. In Hewitt’s 2001 study, he con- cluded that the group provided with the model showed more improvement in tone, technique/ articulation, rhythmic accuracy, tempo, inter- pretation, and overall performance.4


students who use a model to compare their per- formance will make faster progress than those that do not. It is not suggested that students use models as a substitute for learning to read notation, but rather that the model is used as a tool to help students learn how to improve their own performance.

Deliberate practice is effortful, but not time- based. It is much more important how music is practiced than the number of clock min- utes logged. Students who learn to plan their practice session, strategize problem solving, and self-evaluate will progress faster than those who simply start at the beginning and play to the end. Duke, Simmons, and Davis looked at

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