Are Your Students Learning What You’re Teaching?

Study shows disconnect between what students and teachers think is happening in lessons

This past December, while exhibiting the Structured Practice Method at the Midwest Music Clinic in Chicago, I gave a talk about how to use the SPM to help your students get more out of their practice and lesson time.

As I was preparing for my presentation, I discovered an article from the Summer 2002 Journal of Research in Music Education. Written by Marilyn Kostka, Practice Expectations and Attitueds: A Survey of College-level Music Teachers and Students discusses the results of a study in which 127 college studio instructors and 134 college music students were surveyed on four subjects:

  • Attitudes about specific music skills
  • Expectations concerning use of practice time
  • Expectations for routines and strategies for practicing
  • Attitudes toward practice in general

The results of the study are fascinating:

  • While teachers expected, on average, 14.5 hours of weekly practice from their students, the students reported actually practicing 9.93 hours
  • 94% of teachers said they suggested a "regular practice routine" for their students, but only 45% of the students claimed to use one
  • All of the teachers indicated that they discussed strategies for "good practicing" with their students, and yet 41% of the students had no memory of these discussions

The first point, regarding practice time, doesn't really surprise me. I would even go a step further and say that, for the most part, I doubt those numbers are even meaningfully correct, considering how haphazardly students in the real world keep track of their practice time. Time-tracking numbers can also be tricky to interpret because different individuals require different amounts of practice to achieve the same result. I'm personally far more interested in the quality of practice, and the depth of thought my students (and I) exhibit during practice.

The second point above is more surprising. Taken at face value, this means that 48% of students who are being taught regular practice routines are actually using them. I don't expect all of my students to do everything I recommend, but that's definitely a larger percentage than I would expect, and I certainly hope my studio does a better job with this.

The final point above is the most disturbing one to me. 41% of students have no memory of discussing good practicing with their teachers. That is surprising, especially in light of the 100% of teachers who say these discussions are taking place. It's one thing to fail to implement something the teacher is discussing, but to completely forget about arguably one of the most important aspects of learning an instrument! I'm left a little bit speechless by this.

It's important to note that in this survey, the students and teachers were not matched. In other words, the teachers who were surveyed were not ​the same teachers the students were studying with. The teachers and students were to entirely separate groups.

Because of this, it's possible that it was simply the case that while all of the teachers in the survey discuss practice techniques and strategies with their students, the students in the survey might study with teachers who do not teach those things.​ I would love to see a study done with matched students and teachers to compare the results!

Double Down

My takeaway from reading this study is to redouble my efforts at helping my students consider practice strategies, and to be purposeful, mindful practicers on their instruments.

What are your thoughts? Do you teach your students about good practicing? If so, how do you do that, and do you think it's having an impact? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, below.

Practicing for Artistic Success – An Update

This is Part Two of a series of posts about my experiences with the techniques and ideas found in Burton Kaplan's book, Practicing for Artistic Success.

Click here to read Part One - Book Review: Practicing for Artistic Success by Burton Kaplan

At the end of part one of my book review of Practicing for Artistic Success, by Burton Kaplan, I said that I would be doing a project in my own practicing to try out Kaplan's Basic Work Process, and that I would report back in about a month. It turns out I ran into a little trouble getting that done.

Troubles from the start...

The first of my problems was the result of a tactical error on my part: I chose to undertake this experiment just before the Thanksgiving Holiday. The reason this was a tactical error is that Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the busiest season of the year for the freelance musician portion of my career. I typically perform between 25-35 concerts and rehearsals between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. In addition to that, this year I decided to exhibit the Structured Practice Method at the Midwest Music Clinic in Chicago, which meant I would be very busy prepping for the conference, then completely out of commission for a week while there. Oh, and I also volunteered to present a clinic about using the SPM in a private teaching studio in the Midwest Music Clinic Technology Presentations room.

Needless to say, this confluence of events had a negative impact on my ability to spend lots of time in the practice room.

The second problem I ran into was more a result of my misunderstanding how the Basic Work Process works.

At the time I was working on the first post in this series, I was in the midst of several students needing to learn Arban's Characteristic Study No. 6. This study shows up on a lot of college auditions, and I had a few students who were looking to audition for college music programs in the Spring. So, I decided it would be a great idea for me to work through the piece myself. I hadn't seriously looked at it since I was in high school, and let's just say that was a little while ago.

Here's my first journal entry on beginning the project:

​So, instead of learning about and evaluating the Basic Work Process, the next two weeks would be committed to becoming aware of and expressing the meaningful musical gestures implied by the notation. While I was a little disappointed to have to change course so early in the process, it's hard to argue with this. Of course starting out by developing a musical understanding of the music makes sense!

I took a video of my first run-through using my phone. Here it is, for your consideration. Please be kind. I've edited it so that it speeds through while I'm marking up the phrasing, but otherwise it is exactly the way I read through the piece for the first time. I also cut the video off at the recapitulation to save some time.

​Because of the extreme demands of my schedule over the next several weeks, I didn't manage to get two week's worth of practice in on the study until more than a month had passed! In fact, it took me about 50 days, as you can see from my stats below:

​Here are a few highlights from my practice journal entries...

After several sessions, I decided to start chunking out three phrases that were giving me particular trouble. At that point I began using a bit of the Structured Practice Method approach, starting with the problem spots each time, then pulling out for the bigger picture with a run-through, or sometimes alternating one session on trouble spots, then a run-through the next time...

Toward the end of the experiment, I noticed an interesting issue with how I was looking at the part. I love it when I catch things like this in my practicing... simple, actionable items that directly improve what I'm doing, and can also impact everything else I play!

It took me 52 days to build up the equivalent of two weeks of practicing in on the etude. I don't think it's necessary to practice a piece on an absolute daily basis to get good results. In fact, my experience has shown that it's beneficial to spread things out a bit. But this worked out to less than 1 in 3 days, which I think is spread out a bit too much, especially considering that some of the gaps between sessions were significantly more than 3 days. You can only retain so much when that much time goes by without refreshing things.

Even considering the above, however, I felt I had the piece learned too well for it to be a really great subject for trying out the Basic Work Process at this point. For that I have selected some new material to work on, which will show up sometime in the future, in Part Three of this series!

In the end, some positive takeaways

​I do think that for me, starting out with a clear focus on the music is a very useful way to approach a new piece of music. As I think about it, it seems so obvious I'm almost embarrassed to say it. But, the fact is, (and I'll bet I'm not anywhere close to alone on this) I tend to fixate on the technical issues when I start in on new music. It makes sense, how can you make beautiful music if you're missing notes and rhythms? But on a deeper level, what good are the notes and rhythms if they're not employed to a musical end?

I'll leave you with the video I made of my final run through. It's not perfect, but I think it is a good representation of what can be done in two weeks using a mostly musical approach to practicing.

Try it for yourself

​I highly recommend trying this approach in your own practicing. Pick something new and dive in!

As always, I'd love to hear what you have to say! Have you tried this kind of approach to practicing? Have you tried other approaches that work better? Worse? Let us all know in the comments below!

Happy Practicing!

Stress in the Practice Room

Serenity Now

There's a particular scenario that plays out pretty regularly in my studio this time of year. A student arrives for their lesson looking haggard and tired, and before their backpack hits the floor I hear the familiar words:

​I didn't really enter any notes this week. I did practice, but I was too stressed out.

​If I had a dollar for every time I heard that sentence in lessons. Oh, wait, I suppose I do; I am paid to teach, after all.

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