Efficient Practice: Why Improvisation is Your Best Option!

Practice time.  It’s either the bane or joy of each teacher & student’s existence.  In my studio, I always am looking to teach efficient practice techniques to my students.  Otherwise, I know it won’t happen.

Practice excuses

How many times has a student or parent told you that practice didn’t happen because there wasn’t time?  Or, they weren’t sure what to do?  Or [fill in the blank]?

There are ways to reduce this with:

  • Repertoire your student loves
  • Variety in what students do
  • Teaching how to practice during lessons
  • Guiding parents in setting up practice routines at home

But, anyone who has tried to lose weight will tell you this.  Knowing Häagen-Dazs non-dairy chocolate salted fudge truffle “ice cream” (I refuse to call it “frozen dessert”) has no nutritional value pales in comparison to the decadent balance of slightly bitter chocolate, salt & sweetness that creates a moment to be savoured.  Not that this was a highly specific example in any way.

Practice time can feel like focusing on nutritional value.  Important, but there are other things that become more important at the moment.  

We need to create the Häagen-Dazs version of practice time.  Not an easy task.

Empathizing with parents

Part of the problem with practicing an instrument is it can seem like it will take for-ev-er.  We know that once students start, all the things we did to reduce practice excuses will kick in.  But, how do we get our students to the piano to start with?  Typically we ask the parents to step in.

As a parent myself, I don’t want to spend the hours from when my kids get home to when they go to bed making sure they get everything done.  When our twins were younger, we practiced morning & afternoon routines so things went smoothly (for the most part) & they could become independent.  Now that we have tween twins (so much fun to say!), they have checklists to go through independently.  I’m all about finding efficient ways to support my kids in taking ownership of their day.  And, that means choosing my battles.

When parents say they forgot to get the kids to practice, they choose not to fight this battle.  And as frustrating as that is for us as teachers, we need to respect that parents may not want to spend the few hours they get with their child moving them from task to task.

We need to make things efficient & easy for families.

Efficient practice

Back in 2018, there was a Columbia University study into who were the better musicians when it came to musical substitution.  Improvisers or classically-trained musicians?  

“It turns out that the degree to which we can predict how musicians respond to different types of musical substitution has nothing to do with how much they practice, but the way they practice.”  – Paul Sajda

Paul Sajda, the study’s senior author, explained that musicians who regularly improvised were able to make musical substitutions faster.  

Practice is about substitution!

Practicing an instrument is all about making musical substitutions.  Should I play:

  • Closer to the quiet or louder end of the mezzo-forte spectrum?
  • With my fingertips or finger pads to create a specific mood?
  • With slight rubato or really embrace it in this section?

This doesn’t even begin to cover the myriad of ways to change our playing to create an interpretation of a piece.

Improvising is one of the most efficient ways to practice.

Why Improvise?

Lots of reasons.  It trains your students to:

  • Listen carefully
  • See, hear & understand the patterns that are integral to the music
  • Make split section decisions
  • Be open to the options & possibilities available

In performance, it gives your student the tools to adapt in the moment when a few notes are badly out of tune, the keyboard moves when you press a pedal, or the felts have muffled the piano’s sound.  All of which I experienced when I was younger.

It also makes practice more fun & enjoyable.  And, that means students will be heading to the piano on their own!

A homework tale

Over the years, we have seen many different approaches to teaching.  And, we have seen our children’s interest in homework also ebb & flow.

Scenario 1: 

Some teachers had our children complete worksheets.  Those years were tough.  It was frustrating as a parent to spend that limited time making sure they were completed.  It felt like repetitive busywork & didn’t seem to have any real-life application.

Scenario 2: 

Some teachers had our children explore ideas & topics that interested them.  Those years were easy.  Our kids would come home & say, “I have to start on my homework right after snack.  I need to …”  Through these projects, our kids learnt video editing, programming, & so much more.  We can easily see how they can apply these skills to the real world.  And, there was no need to set up homework time because our kids wanted to do the work.

Improvisation takes our students’ practice time from scenario 1 to scenario 2.  And that means you have both student and parent on board!

Using a Structured Approach

You can use a structured approach to improvisation that guides & inspires students each week.

One of the ways to improvise during practice is to give students simple ideas on how to change the way they play.  Using a simple PDF with eye-catching visuals, students can choose which approach will help them reach their practice goals!

To find out more (or purchase) the “5 Ways: Practice Strategies”  please click below.

Practice Strategies

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