Foundational Principle #2 – Study With Proper Focus

With each passing day, I look more and more forward to the day when we can return to lessons in person.  But while doing lessons over Zoom presents unique challenges, it also offers a unique perspective on students that Kirby and I don’t normally get to see.  In particular, it can often be difficult to catch a students’ attention at precisely the moment that the aspect of what they’re playing that needs to be worked on comes up, and I often find myself waving and saying emphatically, “Wait, wait, wait, wait wait!  Right there!  Right there!  Right there!”  But unfortunately, the phrase or the entire section of the piece often gets completed before I can catch the students’ attention.

This has led me to wonder how much this in-lesson experience mirrors students’ at-home practice experience.  That is to say, if spots that should be practice spots are glossed over even with me trying to draw attention to them, is it possible – or even likely – that they’re glossed over as much or even more at home in individual practice?  I’ve found myself wondering what percentage of practice time is spent truly efficiently – 20%?  10%?  5%?  And how much of it is spent inefficiently – 80%?  90%?  95%?  I think if we were to be  demanding with ourselves in defining “efficiency,” we might conclude that only 5% of practice time is spent truly efficiently, while 95% of it is – unintentionally – spent inefficiently.  Theoretically, it’s possible to spend a lot of time practicing this way, while accomplishing very little, which is something none of us wants to do.

Students of different ages and levels of independence arrive at inefficient practice for different reasons.  For the young student who does all of their practice with their parents, their practice may be inefficient simply because it is difficult for them to settle down physically and focus mentally.  In those cases, it is up to the parents and teacher to do their best to create an environment that sets the child up for success, taking into consideration their sleep, meals, activity level, what time of day they’re most capable of focusing, etc.  It is certainly a daunting task, and one that will never have a 100% success rate in spite of all our best intentions.  But we can certainly move the needle in the right direction.

For older students, who do the majority or even all of their practice entirely independently, practice may be inefficient simply because they do not yet fully grasp what efficiency truly looks like.  This must be taught and demonstrated patiently, through frequent gentle reminder, until the student begins to “own” an understanding for themself of what truly efficient practice looks like.  This often means practicing only the two notes that form a shift, practicing only the two notes that form a string crossing, practicing only a single note for the desired tone, and so on and so forth before ever putting any of these “practice spots” back into even a single phrase, much less the larger section, never mind the entire piece!

It also means developing an ever-greater understanding of what quality really means – is that note truly, perfectly in tune?  Is that tone absolutely crystal clear?  Is that dynamic change happening exactly at the beginning of the new phrase, or a split second earlier or later?  Is every 8th note in that phrase actually being counted perfectly rhythmically?  By being progressively and consistently exposed to these kinds of questions and held to these kinds of standards, students can develop their own ever-increasing awareness of what to listen for and how to actually practice to make improvement in their playing.  This is what Dr. Suzuki meant when he said, “Study with proper focus on key points, do not practice wastefully.”  Learning to study this way is a lifelong pursuit, one that I am still in the process of making myself.  Let’s all learn to practice “with proper focus” together!