On Practicing

A few tips how to make practice easier:

 

1) Keep the cello out of the case (put it in a corner or a cello stand- see image)

 

2) Set up your little "practice corner". The less time you need to spend on setting things up the more likely you are to practise.

 

3) Listen to your repertoire regularly, listen to at least 3 different interpreters.

 

4)  Make sure you take the tuning of the cello seriously. 

 

5) Make sure you follow your teacher's instructions precisely (follow the notes you have taken during the lesson)

 

6) Be sure you always listen to yourself!

 

7) A good tip is to record yourself once in a while. Listening to your own recording can be quite a surprise- but it is the best "teacher" for sure!

 

8) Rehearse your piece with a pianist. If you don't have a pianist play along to the CD by using the "speedshifter" app by the ABRSM. With the app, you can play any track on your device at any speed you like. If you are planning on playing in a concert or doing an audition make sure you have at least two rehearsals with your pianist before the dress rehearsal. It is important that you know the piano part well enough: for example, you need to know when the piano has the tune and you are just accompanying and when you have the leading part. In other words, you have to learn to follow the piano as much as the piano follows you.

 

9) Make sure you pick the right speed for you. Do not try and play faster than what feels comfortable and doable to you as it could ruin your technique.

 

10) Don't just wait for your weekly lesson and group lesson to take your bow! Take a bow before your practice session and when you finish. To master a beautiful bow you need to practice it as much as anything else to do with the cello!

 

11) Always buy the piano accompaniment part for every book or piece you play. A lot of Suzuki courses/workshops provide piano parts which make parents believe this is a service which is provided everywhere. But that is NOT the case! It is your responsibility to have your own piano accompany part.

 

12) Be wise with regards to "getting ahead in the book": 

It is not about what book the student is on or what piece in the book he or she is studying, but how well it is played, what the sound quality is like, the intonation, the musicianship and not to forget the posture, the bow hold, and the left-hand position.

To the classic question from peers or other parents: "What are you working on?" your ONLY reply should be: "Good posture, good tone, and perfect intonation. What are you working on?"

 

 

Tips regarding playing a concert:

 

1) Dress code is usually:

black skirt/trousers (no leggings!), white shirt/blouse and black (polished) shoes (no trainers!). (If you take part in an LSG (London Suzuki Group) concert you will be asked to wear an LSG sash/tie. To order go to http://londonsuzukigroup.co.uk/sash-or-tie/ or call: 020 3176 4172)

 

2) Make sure you attend the last rehearsal before the concert AS WELL AS the seating rehearsal on the day. Failing to attend one of those rehearsals mean you can't participate in the concert.

 

3) Ensure you bring your own cello chair and spike holder to the concert venue

 

4) Bring your own piano part for the accompanist

 

5) Be sure you have rehearsed performing your piece to family and friends before you play it in public

 

6) Always let your teacher know well in advance if you plan to perform a piece somewhere, whether it is school or any other public performance.

How to practice - a Guide for Parents:
 

-       Establishing a consistent practice routine

-       General motivation and stimulation

-       Outline of a practice session

-       Becoming more independent

-       Recommended books

 

To start up the progress successfully, a parent needs to, first of all, establish a consistent practice routine:

-       That means, the parent needs to find a regular time slot during the day for practice

 

-       The parent sets the tone, time and the tempo of the practice

 

-       The parent must NOT skip days as getting out of routine is detrimental

-       We will also talk more specifically later on about motivation for younger students and motivation for the older students

 

-       Practice time needs to happen BEFORE whatever else entertainment is planned (whether it is playing or TV time or iPad time etc.)

 

-       If practice takes too long due to not being focused it needs to be clear to the child that it will eat into its entertainment and reward time.

 

-       In case the child refuses to practice, entertainment time and reward is not on the agenda anymore.

 

-       If practice becomes too difficult, forget about moving on in the book but give following instruction: reassess your practice routine and make it your primary mission to find a time of the day which parent and child can stick to. Make it consistent and the same time every day (best in the morning before school). That may be challenging for a few days but it guarantees success.

 

-        The most important factor- but very often underestimated- is GROWTH:

a lot of parents are of the opinion, that as long as the child spends a bit of time some of the days of the week on the instrument and goes to the cello and group lesson, it should be fine since they feel it is just a light-hearted after-school activity. Unfortunately, since playing an instrument is a skill, which requires regular and daily practice, this usually slows the progress down considerably and the result is that the child feels it is not good at playing the instrument.

This is the best recipe for failure as most kids will give up their instrument as soon as they get a little older (usually around 11 years old).

 

General motivation- a challenge which requires the parent’s and teacher’s real effort and imagination:

-       Let’s start off with the easiest and smallest motivation boost: the short -term goal in practice:

Parent and child need to plan their practice session BEFORE they start practicing.

I always advise parents to draw up an outline for the next practice session right after practice. Anything which needs attention is still fresh in memory and it makes sense to write it down for the next practice in order to save time.

Especially for the older child (5 years and onwards) I advise that it should be the child’s decision (together with the parent’s help) to decide what needs attention at the next practice session and in what order the various bits should be tackled.

 

-       Motivators at a younger age are games, rewards like stickers or other treats and especially the group. The group is immensely important as it provides stimulation: like-mindedness, games and fun and support as well as getting motivated by the peers.

 

-       As mentioned already, progress (meaning growth, not progress in the book!) is the best motivator.

As soon as a child, or anybody for that matter, realizes that they are progressing and feel that the success is boosting their confidence, they will want more.

It is human nature to feel that you are a good person and loved if you are good at something.

It is the parent’s and teacher’s task to provide the student with this feeling of success and to lead and guide him or her to achievement and accomplishment and thus to fulfillment.

 

-       The most popular motivators are workshops and courses:

The influence of other teachers will keep things fresh and interesting and stimulate the student. Often a different teacher will give the student the same feedback as the student’s teacher at home, but he or she will say it in a different way and it can resonate better with the student either due to the different choice of words or due to approaching the issue from an entirely different angle.  So sometimes the penny suddenly drops with regards to a certain issue after a course or master class with a different teacher.

 

-       Another important point is the like-mindedness the student will find when attending a course: I know it from my own experience, growing up attending a grammar school where music was not considered important and therefore there weren’t many children for me to exchange myself with on a music-related level, who also played an instrument and who were interested in classical music and I felt quite isolated and in fact embarrassed about playing an instrument.

 

When I started to take part in courses and music camps though, everything changed. I was thrilled to find that I was “normal” and the fact that I loved classical music and making music was not something weird.

 

I felt incredible relief that it was not just ok to love classical music but that there were really cool kids who were brilliant at their instruments.
 

Fortunately Suzuki kids have the advantage of the weekly group lesson and therefore don’t have to feel isolated anyway but any additional socialising on music camps is an extra boost and whereas the weekly group is only a small number of kids, the amount of kids attending camps and courses is big, making the child realise that it belongs to a big network.

 

The network of Suzuki musicians and parents with their kids and their approach to music making is extraordinary.

 

A great motivator: Concerts:

There are concerts, put on for students to perform and there are concerts played by professionals, for students to attend:

 

I always try to organize as many opportunities as possible for my students to perform since I know from own experience how much it spurs me on:

 

1) It is a short-term goal to work towards

2) It provides me with real progress

3) A successful performance boosts my confidence

4) A successful concert gives me the drive to plan another performance

5) In case I was not happy with my performance I ca n’t wait for the next concert to redeem myself!

6) The appreciative audience boots my confidence

7) I love the feeling of giving pleasure to other people

8) I can learn so much from watching my peers perform

9) I love supporting my peers and being motivated by them.

 

Then there are concerts, performed by professional musicians:

 always a fantastic experience for the student to observe the pros in action:

1) How do they behave on stage and present themselves?

2) How do they start a piece and end it?

3) What atmosphere do they create on stage?

4) How do they communicate with the audience?

5) How do they deal with the situation when things go wrong?

6) How do I feel as the audience, listening to the performer and how can I try and recreate this in my own performances?

 

I now would like to come back to our previous point made, of parent and child drawing an outline of a good practice session in advance to the next practice:

-       The following format is just a general outline but works well and helps as a guide to an effective practice session:

1) Tonalization

2) Review (at least 3 pieces)

3) Exercise for the latest piece

4) Play the latest piece

5) Repetitions

6) Play best piece

 

It is a good idea to stick to this format until it becomes a habit and is internalized. Then one can also, of course, vary it a bit, depending on the individual student’s needs.

 

-       Revision is one of the most important “musts” in the Suzuki method and actually in general but sadly is mostly underestimated and often neglected.

Partly because the student doesn’t have enough guidance how to revise without getting bored.

So it is vital that parent and child understand that the house can only be built with a strong foundation and that, without reinforcing the foundation on a regular basis, the house will simply crumble and finally collapse.

 

The Suzuki pieces are built in a certain way, where one piece adds to the other and supplements and completes it. Therefore, ticking a piece off and throwing it in the bin will result in gaps in the technique due to lack of reinforcement.

It is paramount to explain this strategy to parent and child as they need to understand in order to follow the principle of revision.

 

-       For most effective revision always stick to ONE POINT only, for example:

1) Posture

2) Technique (tone depends on playing the instrument correctly)

3) Notes (correct fingering and bowing)

4) Musical performance (which develops through listening to examples of great performances and through repetition, evolving the student’s interpretation)

 

-       From book 2 onwards we need revision of earlier repertoire, according to the technique needed in the more recent pieces and the top piece.

 

-       Review concerts are another good idea to get students polish an old piece from an earlier book to the best he or she can: in a review concert every child has to play a piece from the second previous book before and make it sound like the current book player he or she is.

 

 Effectiveness:

-       Focus is key to a successful practice session. However, focus is the biggest challenge for every young student and the amount of time often being wasted during practice sessions is staggering.

Therefore, it is important to establish an understanding for parent and especially child right from the start.

 

-       To avoid mindless repetitions and reinforcing of mistakes it is necessary to make it a habit to immediately correct mistakes. If mistakes are not corrected, unfortunately, the child reinforces the mistakes and it will take 5 times as long to override the habitual mistakes. 

-       A good tip is to give the child points for stopping just before a habitual mistake, then focus and take the necessary time to get it right.
 

-       One of my most favorite practice helps is a recording device: I know out of own experience that a student will ALWAYS be more prepared and willing to change things when he or she can hear or see it for themselves!
 

-       Also, play along to the Suzuki recording with speed-shifter. Listening to the CD alone is not sufficient. Only playing along can give the needed point of reference truly.

It is more tricky to play along to the recording or the accompaniment in advanced pieces but it is still possible as long as the student really listens to the piano.

-       From book 4 onwards sitting down with the sheet music and following the score while listening is very advisable.

-       Latest from book 4 onwards the student should know more interpretations than the Suzuki CD. The teacher will point in the right direction what cellists are worth checking out but the student should be adventurous and browse through Youtube or iTunes.

 

Becoming more independent:

-       From book 4 onwards, depending on the student, it is possible to give the student more responsibility and allow him or her to do some practice on their own, not on a daily basis but for example at the end of practice:

I would not suggest the review necessarily as it takes maturity and supervision to review effectively old pieces but the student can try and figure out the new piece. The parent can check the next day whether notes, fingerings, and bowings are correct.

-       The student can use the recording device (as it is the best teacher!)

 

-       The student can play along to a video, recorded and filmed by the teacher.


Recommended books:

Sue Hunt:'Review - Making it Fun, gets the Job Done' on her website: http://www.musicinpractice.com/

Who the book is written for:

  • Parents who feel that they are progressing too slowly
  • Parents and children who are bored with the old easy pieces
  • Parents and children who don't understand the point of review
  • Teachers who are having trouble with parents not understanding instructions
  • Parents who need help with specific review tasks for each piece
  • Anyone whose children rush thoughtlessly through review
  • Everyone who is fed up with review charts
  • Parents who don't understand what the teachers want them to practice

Or other suggestions: https://www.thecellocorner.co.uk/shop/books/

Distributing Practice Over Time

 

Michael Griffin, author of ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ on practicing.

 

Sir, when should I practice? Practice only on the days that you eat.”

-Shin’ichi Suzuki

 

An amateur stops repeating when he gets it right. The professional repeats well after to consolidate the myelin coating of the axon sheath.”  -Michael Griffin

 

An amateur practices until he gets it right. The professional practices until he cannot get it wrong.” -Stephen Hillier

 

 

Memory is more effective when learning is distributed over a period of time rather than in one hit. This process of memory consolidation is known as the spacing effect and was first recognised more than a century ago. The benefits of the spacing effect apply to so-called ‘muscle memory’ as well as cognitive memory. Hence, musicians should practice regularly for shorter periods (distributed practice) rather than less regularly for longer periods (massed practice). For example, one hour per day for six days a week is more effective than six hours one day per week, and two forty-five-minute sessions per day is more effective than one ninety- minute session.

 

Massed practice, like cramming, might be effective for tomorrow’s examination or performance, but a considerable memory loss occurs over the days and weeks that follow. Memory formation takes time to make the transition from short-term recall to long-term memory. Pioneering psychologist, William James considered cramming a poor way to study and incongruent with how the brain functions.

 

“Cramming seeks to stamp things in by intense application immediately before the ordeal. But a thing thus learned can form but few associations. On the other hand, the same thing recurring on different days, in different contexts, read, recited on, referred to again and again, related to other things and reviewed, gets well-wrought into the mental structure. This is the reason why you should enforce on your pupils habits of continuous application. There is no moral turpitude in cramming. It would be the best and the most economical mode of study if it led to the results desired. But it does not.”

 

Distributed practice is more successful for the longer term because between each practice session, what has been learned is forgotten at least partially, and must be retrieved. Paradoxically, forgetting is the friend of learning. Forgetting requires relearning, which sets memories more securely. The more times we are required to retrieve or generate answers, the stronger the neural circuitry of the learning becomes. Therefore rest times between practice sessions are not only important for mental regeneration but also to engage us in the ‘forget and retrieve’ process. The efficiency of distributed practice means that students should need less total practice time to achieve the same long- term learning results as those yielded by massive practice. Similarly, within a given practice session, passages can be targeted in a blocked or spaced manner- we’ll get to that shortly.

 

 

Repetition for Music Skill Development

 

The inflexible and automatic knowledge gained through repetition is the foundation of expert performance, but be warned- repeat carefully! The learning brain does not distinguish between good and poor habits, but learns whatever we repeat. Repetition creates permanence and habits are difficult to correct, in particular pay attention to rhythmic accuracy. Rhythmic patterns are robustly set in the memory and difficult to alter once in place.

 

Inexperienced learners struggle with the discipline required for repetition and get lulled into a false sense of mastery when they judge themselves as having played a passage reasonable well. Without sufficient repetition, however, the learning soon will unravel. Teachers should practice in front of students, modeling the ‘how’ of repetition. It is advisable to give young musicians who have not yet reached the metacognitive stage a quantifiable number of repetitions to aim for in their practice, perhaps a number not less than six. As students become more mature learners they regulate repetitions, depending on the complexity of the passage. Experts repeat short passages of music again and again.

 

Most musicians stop repeating when they play a passage correctly, but it is crucial that they keep repeating after this point. Brain connections strengthen and consolidate with myelin, a substance that insulates the axon of a neuron; it is known as the white matter of the brain. Myelin development seems to be a key for learning and maintaining skills because it increases the speed and accuracy of data transmission. Myelin formation is more important than the number of neurons in the brain. Albert Einstein’s brain, for example, had no more neurons than the average brain, but it had twice as much myelin. Experts have more myelin build-up on the neural circuits pertinent to their domain than do non-experts.

 

In 2005, a Swedish professor found a positive correlation between myelin development and the number of hours professional pianists practiced. Myelin is a product of activity and is one aspect of brain plasticity, a term that refers to physical changes in the brain. Brain plasticity includes an increase in myelination and an increase in the number of connections between neurons. In musical learning increasing repetition of a phrase after one plays it correctly builds myelin, which supports consistent and accurate performance.

 

It is common to confuse temporary performance effects with long-term learning. The teacher or parent may mistake the phrase “But I played it better yesterday” as a white lie, and the student might be disillusioned because he or she thinks the blocks of repetition should have been sufficient for more permanent learning.

There are two issues here. First, even with spaced repetition the consolidation process takes as long as it takes, and then some more for good measure. We cannot predict how much repetition it will take to master a skill but human nature almost always underestimates this.

 

If a passage a student thought he or she learned yesterday is a muddle today, the student must repeat the repetition process. Try not to be despondent. This is a natural part of acquiring skill. Memories do not just form at the point of learning so it may take several sittings for neural connections to become strong. Some people seem to learn more quickly than others, but learning is not a race, and we are all capable of complex skill development through repetition. It may take one person six hundred repetitions over two weeks to consolidate a phrase, while it may take someone else only three hundred repetitions in one week. Students must learn to be patient and trust in the power of repetition.

 

Repetitio est mater studiorum!

 

 

 

Blocked and Spaced Repetition 

 

Recently, I was watching television when a commercial break interrupted my program. Commercials are annoying at best, but this set of five commercial spots really got under my skin. This is because one of the commercials played three times, not in a row, but with a different commercial in between. Just when I had forgotten it, back it came to haunt me. And I thought rondo form was just a musical concept!

 

 

 

ABACA

 

The repeated commercial A was deliberately interspersed with other commercials. The arrangement was cleverly designed to make me forget and retrieve, and I found it difficult to dislodge the commercial from my attention for some time afterward. I had to acknowledge that this marketing technique was really successful. I had ‘learned’ the commercial. Maybe I can turn this irritant to my advantage.

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus famously revealed the forgetting curve, proposing that students forget 90 percent of what they learn within thirty days. Further to this disheartening finding, the most significant memory loss occurs within the first hour. A memory becomes more robust when the information is repeated in timed intervals. The more repetition cycles, the better for learning, and the more spaces between the repetitions, better again.

 

Imagine you have thirty minutes available for practice and have decided on three passages on which to work. How would you distribute this amount of time? You could practice the target passages in three blocks consecutively:

 

Passage A – ten minutes

Passage B – ten minutes

Passage C – ten minutes

 

Or you could practice them in the following manner:

 

Passage A – four minutes

Passage B – three minutes

Passage A – three minutes

Passage C – four minutes

Passage B – five minutes

Passage A – three minutes

Passage C – six minutes

Passage B – two minutes

 

The first method is referred to as blocked repetition. The second, like the television commercial example is known as spaced repetition. Blocked repetition refers to sticking to a single practice task until it is effectively learned then progressing to the next learning task. Spaced repetition switches between different tasks during the course of a single practice session. In both methods, one encounters the same material for the same amount of overall time, but as with the distributed practice concept, spacing the repetitions exposes one to learning the task repeatedly over a longer time span.

 

Blocked repetition is a useful technique for introducing new skills to create a foundation. It is effective for beginners as it allows them to concentrate on a single task. Even for advanced musicians, very difficult passages require a single focus and attention that might be disrupted if one switches frequently between tasks. However, blocked repetition requires the intense engagement of the learner. If concentration wanes during blocked repetition, progress can stagnate and possibly deteriorate. It is essential to remain attentive and fully alert during practice.

Provided that the practice time is not restricted and that the learner has the metacognitive ability to determine practice goals, spaced repetition is more effective than blocked repetition. Varying practice tasks frequently creates interference, which leads to a degree of forgetting. As with distributed practice, the benefits of spaced repetition relate to stronger memory formation due to the principle of forgetting and retrieving. When one revisits learning material a neural reconstruction takes place leaving a deeper impression on the brain.

 

Spaced repetition can be frustrating because it involves more frequent failure and more mental effort, but the rewards are worth this extra effort.

Marketing teams and musical learners use spaced repetition, as do professional athletes. For example, golfers are required to play shots of varying distances. Whereas blocked repetition drills require a golfer to hit many consecutive balls to one distance marker before practicing another distance, spaced repetition alternates distance, replicating the real demands on the golf course.

On one occasion at the British Open Championship, I witnessed Tiger Woods practice in this manner. In skill-based endeavors, drills can provide an illusion of competence. Most teachers have heard their students say, “But I could play it yesterday!”

 

Spaced repetition can work in concert with blocked repetition, so music teachers should model how a practice session might alternate between the two. Practice technique also should be modeled to students in ensemble rehearsals. In any given rehearsal, I aim to revisit the passages that require the most attention at least three times throughout the rehearsal. I answer initial squawks from students (“But we’ve already practiced that piece!”) by explaining the rationale behind spaced repetition. Teachers cannot expect students to integrate these learning concepts if they do not exhibit them in their own methodology.

 

I have known some music students to successfully apply the principles of spaced repetition to other school tasks. Students love to learn how to learn better.

 

An excerpt from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

 

Available Amazon stores or contact griffin@musiceducationworld.com