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Short Practice Bursts.

Posted by on 2011/04/08. 2 comments

The educational system in which I was brought up encouraged “cramming”; that is, waiting until the last possible moment before an exam and then trying to cram all the information into your brain in one sleepless night, usually fueled by coffee and sugar. At exam time you’d then vomit all this information back out, probably never to remember it — or use it, for that matter — ever again. Clearly, this doesn’t work in the same way with a musical instrument, or at least not very well. A professional could probably get away with it once in a while, but having to deal with students that try to practice this way is extremely frustrating.

The times I’ve had to cram like this for a concert have been pretty uneven. It worked for me with Gershwin, since it ended up being more improvisatory and spontaneous because the interpretation wasn’t too grounded and overly drilled. On the other hand, it was a complete disaster when I had to do it with Brahms. In both cases, the notes left my head almost as fast as they went in, I wouldn’t be able to play a single note of either of those pieces right now, even with a gun to my head.

Getting a student to practice consistently is a familiar problem for most teachers, maybe because this cramming habit is ingrained in many children. When I get absolute beginners in my class I recommend that they practice in short sessions of 10 minutes, two sessions per day. Every day. There’s the key: every single day. Even a single daily 10-minute practice session each day is better than skipping a couple of days and then undergoing a two-hour practice marathon before the lesson. Getting this practicing habit across is a recurring problem when teaching children, and a big headache for most teachers.

A typical method, making the parents supervise the kid and sign a practice sheet of some sort, doesn’t always work. And it doesn’t work because of one simple fact that anyone teaching children knows:  parents lie. They’ll sign knowing full well that the child didn’t practice, or they’ll do it without actually checking to see if he did; they’ll bargain with the kid and then, for some reason that I’ll never understand, lie straight to your face: “he practiced so much this week!”

Practicing in short 10-minute sessions was something that I thought was exclusive to children and beginners, to hold their interest. Gradually I would get them to add a bit more practice time to each session. However, recently I’ve found that practicing in short little bursts like these gives really good results for a professional as well. It makes it easier to conserve that one thing that is so important: enthusiasm.

Lately I haven’t had a choice, it’s either practice in short 10-minute bursts or don’t practice at all. With recitals and concerts looming in the horizon, the second one is not really an option at all, unless I want to quit playing completely — by the way,  is there a term for giving up the piano? (In Spanish I’ve heard it referred to as “throwing out the harp.”) In any case, I’ve been forced to practice in a dozen little bursts each day. Either between students, or in the little while in which my 8-month baby is absorbed with some particular toy and doesn’t demand my presence.


After a few months of learning some repertoire by almost exclusively practicing in this way,  I’m pleasantly surprised with the results so far. An obvious advantage to practicing in this way is in the increased focus on solving problem spots and going straight to the point each time I sit down to play. It also probably has to do with the way the piece grows in the mind between practice sessions.  However, the main reason this has worked for me is probably more subtle; I think it has to do more with the way I end practicing each time. By practicing in short little bursts that are suddenly interrupted with a pressing matter (either a student or a baby needing his dad,) I’m forced to stop whatever I’m doing. If the practicing is going well, then I am enthusiastic and can’t wait to get started again; if the music isn’t cooperating with me that particular day then I’m forced to stop before I reach throw-the-piano-through-the-window levels of frustration.

I’m not sure it would work with everyone, and I’m still unsure about recommending it to my older students, but so far it’s been working for me. At least much better than the 4-5 hour non-stop practice marathons I’d stupidly do back in music school.