My interest in getting students to practice effectively was born in 2006 when I was an undergraduate and new studio teacher.
As a violin performance major, I had become an excellent practicer and would often spend four hours a day deeply engaged in productive, joyful work. My hope as I set out teaching was twofold: to teach excellent technique that would allow for musical expression, and to slowly equip my students to become their own teachers. Though I was a natural teacher in many ways, I quickly hit a wall with getting them to concentrate on their technique, identify errors, and problem-solve. A few motivated students got it and immediately excelled, which reassured me that I wasn’t crazy. However, most didn’t seem to retain the practice techniques I carefully taught them; some even had the irritating habit of coming back the next week sounding worse! I suspected that much of my students’ potential lay untapped because they were not practicing effectively. I entered an educational psychology graduate program with this question: how could I, a young teacher with only a little Suzuki training, get my violin students to take charge of their own learning, both in the lesson and at home? Though I’ll be asking this question for the rest of my life, I have learned much so far. Here, I’ll overview the rich interaction that I found when I combined research and practice. Then, I’ll share how it is working so far, through a condensed two-year case study about one of my young students.
Experts are great learners: they have spent years becoming successful at their discipline through effortful, goal-oriented work known as deliberate practice or deep practice.
I have read widely to figure out what goes into excellent teaching, learning, and practicing. I was immediately drawn to the study of expertise: it is the result of successful learning and, I hoped, also a hint at the secrets of great teachers. Experts are great learners: they have spent years becoming successful at their discipline through effortful, goal-oriented work known as deliberate practice or deep practice (Coyle, 2009; Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). Deep practice and deliberate practice are quite similar, and I’ll use the term “deep practice” for this paper. Experts don’t just have more content knowledge than novices do; they organize and represent it much differently according to the deep underlying principles of their discipline (M. Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1981). Thus, when solving a problem, experts can more accurately gauge its difficulty, then understand and track their own thought processes as they go about solving it. This controlling and monitoring of thought is called metacognition (M. Chi, Feltovich, & Farr, 1988).
It’s no surprise, then, that expert musicians practice much differently than novices do. Expert practicers systematically identify and solve errors (Duke, Simmons, & Cash, 2009). Interestingly, Duke noted that the expert practicers in the study didn’t necessarily make fewer mistakes, they just dealt with them more intelligently. It makes sense that the expert practicers in the study had higher performance outcomes the following week: through productive repetition and error correction, they forged strong and rapid pathways between neurons. These pathways are insulated by a rubbery white substance known as myelin, which many scientists now believe is a key factor in skill development and retention (Ullen, 2005). In contrast, novice school-aged musicians spend up to 95% of their unsupervised practice time doing run-throughs of the piece with little regard for error (McPherson & Renwick, 2001). This lack of self-regulation slows down effective learning for even the most enthusiastic students.
Coyle says that deep practice such as this occurs when we enter “that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp.”
The gap between expert and novice practicers seemed like a hopeless chasm, until I found that novices can, and do, engage in deep practice. In the opening pages of The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle (2009) gives a rich description of a participant from one of McPherson & Renwick’s studies (2002): a young clarinetist named Clarissa who, without realizing it, accelerated her learning speed by ten times over six minutes. She was not an exceptionally good or motivated player, and didn’t often practice productively. However, in the key video excerpt, she is seen working toward a clear goal, a blueprint of the piece, using a “highly focused, error targeted process” (p. 4). Coyle says that deep practice such as this occurs when we enter “that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp” (p. 92). Errors are crucial to this kind of learning, and skill is built through repeated firing of neural pathways, which get stronger and faster through myelin insulation. So, deep practice is possible for all students. But, I wondered, can it be taught? Most music practice research studies end with the suggestion that teachers coach their students in effective practicing strategies. I agreed wholeheartedly, but was curious about how to actually do that.
I knew that teaching students to practice would take immense skill. Indeed, expert teachers must not only have a deep knowledge of the discipline itself, but also of how to teach it to others. They “know the kinds of difficulties that students are likely to face, and they know how to tap into their students’ existing knowledge in order to make new information meaningful plus assess their students’ progress” (Bransford, 2000, p. 49). Dorothy DeLay was one such expert teacher who challenged her students to look for their own answers (Sand, 2000). In addition to creating a nurturing environment where students felt comfortable taking risks, she probed her students’ frames of reference, which allowed her to understand their internal state. From there, she was able to give specific, targeted instruction (Gholson, 1998). Simmons & Duke (2006) studied three other expert music teachers and agreed that a key trait was an ability to elicit positive change in students through specific, targeted instruction. These “lesson targets,” or “proximal goals” are one step above the students’ current abilities; the student is able to achieve the goal quickly and with audible results. This idea of “proximal goals” has its roots in Vygotsky’s sociocultural learning theory (1978). His famous Zone of Proximal Development describes the space between what the student can do independently and what they can do with guidance. The teacher’s job, according to Vygotsky, is to carefully “scaffold” a sequence of instruction that will lead the student to the next level of development. Slowly, I began to understand how I needed to approach my teaching.
I came to think of deep practice as a sort of “mental muscle” that can be trained in the individual lesson, provided that there’s a foundation of listening, practice, and motivation.
As I tried to get my students to take charge of their own learning, I realized that deep practice doesn’t happen spontaneously for most students: I first needed to create an environment that supported it. Thankfully, this answer lay in the basic principles of Talent Education. As I took Suzuki courses, I didn’t just clarify the nuts and bolts of how to teach technique and repertoire, I also learned how to better run my studio. I began to insist that my students listen to the CD daily. My emphasis shifted to more posture, repetition, tone, and review. To make sure that my students were practicing five days a week, I started a practice chart. During lessons, I took the time to write more detailed lesson notes and asked students and parents to read them daily. I got the courage to ask more of parents and soon most practiced with their children. My expectations rose, many students improved, and I realized that all students can engage in effective practicing if given the right support.
I came to think of deep practice as a sort of “mental muscle” that can be trained in the individual lesson, provided that there’s a foundation of listening, practice, and motivation. Here’s how it can work under ideal circumstances: the student has listened to the new piece for months, creating an auditory blueprint of the piece in their mind. Next, I kinesthetically teach them the piece unit by unit, making sure they know all the skills that go into the piece. Then, we engage in productive repetition of a small section or skill. Often, I motivate young students with stickers, pennies, or a dice game. I give them one or two specific targets, such as remembering a sharp or bowing. We go through several rounds of repetition where I give them feedback on whether they got the target; this feedback should be clear and concise, otherwise the target wasn’t small and clear enough. Once I’m sure they are beginning to grasp the passage, I let them do repetitions alone and ask them to say whether or not they got it each time. Here, deep practice often begins. The student engages in independent, focused, and error-targeted work. Concentration shows on their faces and in their careful playing. We hear an immediate difference in the passage. The wheels in their minds are turning; they are struggling just enough to be productive, but are not overwhelmed since the target is carefully placed one step above their current abilities. If they make an error on the target, they immediately know and correct it without much prompting. Each repetition forges stronger pathways in their brains, resulting in quicker and quicker ability. As I work to instill this kind of work in every lesson, I realize that this must have been what Dr. Suzuki was talking about when he encouraged repetition.
The wheels in their minds are turning; they are struggling just enough to be productive, but are not overwhelmed since the target is carefully placed one step above their current abilities.
Deep practice is very exciting when it happens in a lesson, but I found that some students needed more support to get there. Two years ago, I began my research study by getting ethical permission from my university and permission from students’ parents. I began keeping regular field notes and video tapes of seven students’ lessons, mostly looking for how I got them to engage in self-regulated learning and metacognition. My research gravitated toward the students who needed more support in order to engage in deep practice. “Jeff,” who was six when I started him, is one student with whom I have learned a great deal. He has all the necessary elements to be a successful Suzuki student: he wants to learn the violin, has a wonderful mother who practices carefully with him five or six days a week, he hears the CD daily, has an older brother “Nick” who plays the violin well, and the family values classical music. The complexity increases because of Jeff’s temperament: he is bright, spirited and energetic, with a strong-willed, independent streak. At times, he exhibits challenging behavior during lessons, from mischievous restlessness to open defiance. His mom has told me that his high energy and strong will affect other areas of schooling and development, but that the family is steadily working to support him. Thanks to excellent parenting and careful teaching, he has made steady progress in the past two years and has almost finished Suzuki Book One. He knows how to play with beautiful posture, tone, and accuracy, and can do that under careful guidance. A bright boy with a good memory, he often recalls things I have told him months later. However, if left unchecked, his playing tends to be breakneck, inaccurate, and scratchy. Despite his mother’s and my efforts, he is most interested in learning new pieces and doesn’t always seem to care about playing accurately. As I set out collecting data and studying the videos, I suspected that Jeff was capable of learning to engage in deep practice but wasn’t exactly sure how to help facilitate that.
I began recording Jeff’s lessons in May 2009. He was finishing the Twinkles, which he had learned beautifully in about six months. As we moved on to different pieces, however, things got challenging. The core issue was clear: Jeff needed support in developing the self-regulation necessary to playing more complex pieces with beautiful intonation and tone. He could learn the notes to a new piece almost instantly, but if left unchecked his playing was riddled with poor intonation and sloppy technique. The early lessons in the data set have many drawn-out episodes of my trying to get Jeff to set up in a good posture or play an excerpt carefully. Once, it took about four minutes for me to get him into a good playing position. Before I could give him further instruction, he launched into a fast, ragged version of Lightly Row. In another lesson, what I had intended to be a 30-second warm-up exercise on finger spacing turned into a six-minute ordeal. You can see that we are on totally different wavelengths:
L: OK, Jeff. Time to get to work. [I pick up my violin.]
J: I only need one line on Minuet 2, and then I know the whole thing. [points at the music with his bow] That one line.
L: Let’s do our warm-up. [I begin playing the 3-2-1-2-3 pattern on the E string that we have been working on for the past few weeks.]
J: [He makes a face, gets into sloppy posture, and rapidly begins playing Minuet 2.]
L: [I stop playing and close his book.] OK … so … [I wait.]
J: [continues playing, then stops]
L: I see your fingers going back to that old pattern.
L: No, it’s bad! [I get an hourglass out.] For this timer … we’re going to do a couple of timer sessions on that finger spacing exercise.
J: Can we do dice?
L: Maybe later we’ll do some dice. But when you get your violin ready in playing position I’ll turn it over and start the timer.
J: [Begins to play Minuet 2, rapidly and out of tune]
L: No playing…. No playing.
When I finally got him to play the exercise in tune he had played it dozens of times carelessly, and we had frustrated each other for six minutes. Fortunately the rest of the lesson went more smoothly.
Many times what I thought was “teaching” didn’t result in Jeff’s really learning.
Watching the data was both sobering and enlightening. Sobering, because when I was in the moment I didn’t realize how long some of these episodes lasted, or how much counter-productivity really happened. Though I was doing my best possible job, many times what I thought was “teaching” didn’t result in Jeff’s really learning. Yet, I was also starting to figure out why these struggles existed: I noticed that Jeff often interrupted my instructions, looked elsewhere, spoke off topic, or launched into a piece, which let me know where his mind was. Video excerpts where I tried to get him to slow down and focus were filled with his fidgeting, restlessness, and frustration. Clearly, he didn’t want to engage with all the detail I was trying to teach him; he just wanted to play the pieces. Slowly, painfully, I kept adjusting my teaching strategies and learned to communicate with him.
I devised various strategies to engage Jeff, with mixed results. I stopped asking him to play the entirety of new pieces, but rather gave him only small excerpts. I learned to avoid announcing the name of the piece, since he’d inevitably launch into a ragged play-through that I’d then have to interrupt, which fed the frustration. I introduced an effective reward system with jelly beans and pennies. A thoughtful fellow Suzuki teacher gave me dice, marbles, and mini hourglasses. These invaluable tools gave me more focus, limited how long I spent on a task, and got Jeff excited about the “games.” Rolling the dice to find out how many times he had to play a measure was a lot more fun than being nagged to do it over and over! Hoping to make him aware of how he was playing, I gave demonstrations where I played with poor posture or intonation and asked him to be the teacher and correct me. He was immediately able to identify and correct each of my posture and intonation mistakes. However, when I asked him to play, he proceeded to made the very mistakes he’d just identified in me. Sometimes he really didn’t know what he was actually doing; others, he just didn’t want to address it. For example, when I asked him how his intonation was, he’d often yell, “GOOD!” and start running around—no matter how it had sounded.
It wasn’t that I started asking for dramatically different things of Jeff; it was when, how, and in what order I asked for those things.
Though Jeff didn’t always respond perfectly to my enhanced instruction, the overall trend has been one of improvement. It wasn’t that I started asking for dramatically different things of Jeff; it was when, how, and in what order I asked for those things. The most important skill I’ve been working on is how to give those clear lesson targets that Jeff can easily get. A lesson from the fall of 2010 shows our progress. We are working on a common pitfall for Book One students, often known as high and low second finger. Though I had carefully taught Jeff the new finger spacings, and he could do it under supervision, he had rushed through learning the Minuets and had an out-of-tune second finger. Previous attempts to address the issue had only caused frustration. I suspected that if I could get him to engage in deep practice, he would finally learn it correctly. After some scale practice, I announced that we were going to play an exciting new game: for each second finger, he was to stop before the note, say whether it was “high” or “low,” move the finger to its correct place, and then play it. The prize? A dime per correct target. Ignited by the idea of winning up to two dollars in a single piece, Jeff began. At first, he couldn’t quite remember all of the targets, so I coached him through each note and gave him feedback on how he did.
J: [plays the first four notes of Minuet 2, plowing into the 2nd finger note without stopping before. It is correctly positioned and in tune, but he didn’t quite get all of the instructions.]
L: You have to stop before you play it.
J: [Plays and stops correctly before]
L: And then say it. Is it low or high?
J: [fidgets feet, thinking] Low
L: And then get your finger ready.
J: [plays, stops before the next low 2nd finger] low. [continues, stopping and naming the note correctly] … low … low … low …
When I asked him later where he wanted to practice extra, he immediately identified the difficult triplet and described what he had to do to accomplish it. This showed evidence of his growing metacognition: his ability to control and monitor his own learning.
As he went through the piece, he began getting each target. He played carefully and precisely, immediately recognizing errors. Excitedly, he realized that he was winning money and playing in tune. There was one spot where he struggled with a triplet, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to criticize him and distract from the target. However, when I asked him later where he wanted to practice extra, he immediately identified the difficult triplet and described what he had to do to accomplish it. This showed evidence of his growing metacognition: his ability to control and monitor his own learning.
L: What are the two toughest lines?
J: I’m already good at it! What are the toughest spots? I think the slurs are. [pointing to triplet]
J: ‘Cause I need to slur it, and stop, and say it!
J: That’s the hard part. [practices it carefully and eventually gets it]
Jeff continues to make exciting progress. The technique he’s been practicing deeply is becoming a permanent feature of his playing. I have changed too: though I am asking for the same good posture, tone, and intonation, I have honed my ability to use effective sequencing, timing, and feedback. As a result, Jeff and my other students are better equipped to engage in the error-targeted, self-regulated learning that is deep practice. My belief in human potential and the mantra that “every child can” continues to grow.
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