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Christopher Gotzen-Berg: Blog

Practicing

Posted on November 23, 2010
The last thing I say to my students as I finish a lesson is "Make sure you practice this week!" I'm sure if you are a teacher you have said this to your students more times than you can count, and if you're a student, you've heard it as many times as well. For students and teachers this can cause some amount of stress. To avoid this in my lessons, I make sure to explain as clearly as possible how I would like my students to practice.

First- I assign all my students with an important task within the first few lessons, and that is to make me an outline of a weekly schedule, and I ask them for their parent's help (if they are younger students, this really helps!) I tell them to include all their activities, such as school, time for homework, sports, after school clubs, video game time, dinner time, bed time, etc. After they have their schedules complete, I tell them they need to pick at least 3 days throughout the week where they can add some time to practice. I also make each student a monthly calender where they can mark off days that they practiced, and I ask to see this each week. This helps the student develop some responsibility and helps them remember to practice as well!

Second- As Scott Tennant (Author of "Pumping Nylon" and member of the Grammy Award winning group "The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet") said, "Always Practice WIth a Purpose!" As students progress through their lessons, the amount of material they need to work on increases. This can become overwhelming and frustrating. Therefore, I show my students my checklist of things to go over when I practice.

1) Sight Reading. I always begin my practice session with sight reading. It helps wakes up the mind and the fingers, and it's a great way to discover new music.

2) Repertoire. I feel that it is important to start working on whatever repertoire is chosen or assigned as early in the practice session as possible, so that you have the energy to focus on the "Music" in that piece of music. Many musicians work on technical exercises, such as scales, early in their routines and find that they are tired by the time they come around to working on whichever piece of music they want to go over for the day.

3) Technique. This is the time in the routine where a musician focuses on strengthening and improving various aspects of their technique. Just like in exercise, where it is recommended that an athlete focus on different muscle groups each day, I suggest that different exercises be chosen each day.

4) Fun. The main reason why anyone chooses to study music is because it is fun! So I tell all my students, the last thing they should do before packing up their instrument is to play a song or piece of music that they really enjoy, and have fun!

Now getting back to the idea of "Practicing with a Purpose". For younger students, it is very common for them think that practicing is simply the act of sitting down and playing whatever song, scale, exercise, etc., once and then they're done. Naturally, that won't be enough to make a song sound better or to make slurs clearer. I explain first that repetition is the key to practicing, and tell them to follow the 10-Time rule! Each exercise should be played at least 10-times to see improvement, and if a particular phrase or passage in a song is proving tricky, focus on just that part and play it 10-times in a row with care so that section improves. Also, it is not always necessary to play a piece of music in it's entirety, especially if particular sections are easier than others. The goal, or purpose, is to improve!

Lastly, and I get amusing looks from students, parents, and fellow musicians alike when I say this, "I don't care how long a student practices each session." I am asked many times by parents about how long their child should practice each day, and that is my response. It isn't necessarily a bad idea to place a time value on practicing, like 15-minutes or an hour, but it is much more important to follow a well thought out and organized routine as opposed to checking in with a clock.

A well thought out routine, with focus on repetition, is the key to success in practicing and improving as a musician. Also, you'll find you get much more done in less time, and possibly have some fun along the way!


Christopher Gotzen-Berg
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