Every music teacher understands and emphasizes the importance of regular individual practice for students’ growth and development. There is a particular joy that comes from working with a student who is consistently well-prepared, demonstrating steady and sometimes rapid growth. Lessons with these students go quickly and feel effortless for the teacher, as the quality of playing seems to generate more ideas to promote further growth. On the other hand, there is a particular disappointment that comes from working with a student who is consistently unprepared. Here, the lessons are marked by frustration and repetition of previously unheeded suggestions, and time moves excruciatingly slowly for both teacher and student.
Even though those two types of lessons are polar opposites, they are both in one sense simple to teach and to evaluate. One has little difficulty figuring out how to best approach working with both well-prepared and ill-prepared students. The challenge comes from the student who claims to be practicing regularly—and perhaps can even prove this by means of practice logs or even recordings—but is not exhibiting the kind of improvement that such practice should engender. What does the teacher do to help this type of student?
Obviously, the first step is to make sure that the claimed amount of practice is actually occurring. Students sometimes overestimate the amount of practice that is taking place, or confuse “time in the practice room” with “productive time in the practice room.” In other cases, the practice is unproductive because of some kind of technical deficiency, perhaps from an incorrect fundamental approach or even failure to engage in daily and systematic practice of playing fundamentals. Such issues, once identified, are often simple (though not always easy) to address.
A very common issue with practicing-but-not-growing students is a lack of internal musical concept. I have sometimes called this concept “how it goes,” and wrote about this at some length several years ago. I’ll not repeat all of the material from that article here, but I will suggest a way to identify students who may be having difficulties in this area. Students who lack a solid internal musical concept will struggle when playing alone, as they engage in a constant “play and evaluate” process, always waiting until after the note sounds to determine whether or not it was correct. These same students, though, will show immediate improvement when playing along with the teacher—and not just because the teacher’s sound is covering theirs. Rather, these students have practiced enough that when the teacher is providing a musical concept for them to emulate, they can do so with relative success. Removal of that external concept usually leads to a partial or total relapse to the prior level of playing. Such students should be advised to follow a process like that outlined in the article linked above.
Amusingly, this concept bears a passing similarity to the “Think System” promoted by the fictional conman Harold Hill in the musical The Music Man. In the musical, the “Professor” aims to defraud the citizens of River City, Iowa, of their money under the pretense of forming a boys’ band, and goes so far as to order instruments for them. However, having no musical training whatsoever, Hill does not hold rehearsals but rather encourages the boys to “think” the Minuet in G, and plans to skip town with the money before the first concert. I’ll leave it to the reader to watch and find out what happens. Suffice it to say that while the “Think System” absolutely cannot work as a standalone approach to learning music, even the most diligent and systematic technical practice will not yield satisfactory results until one “thinks” about “how it goes.”
“Think, men. Think.”