Up Your Practice Game

We all want to get better at what we do. How we do that is the challenge. This month I have three words for you: specificity of learning.

Say what?


Time to get nerdy! The specificity of learning hypothesis is a 1968 chestnut from the field of motor learning.  I can already see your eyes glazing over, but bear with me a minute!

To shamelessly over-simplify, the specificity of learning hypothesis proposes this: For best result, your practice should look like your performance.

Motor learning is more complicated than that (1968 was a long time ago, and we’ve learned a lot since then), but I think specificity of learning is worth revisiting because it speaks to a phenomenon I’ve observed time and time again in my years as a performer and teacher:  

Most of the time, we get better at exactly what we practice- and we don’t get better at what we don’t.

Sure, there’s some carryover. Practice the alto and you’re in a better position to pick up the tenor.  Practice one sonata by Handel and you’ll have a better understanding of his style when it comes to tackling the next one.

But more frequently, in order to make efficient progress, you need to think in a granular way about the specific skills you want to rehearse.  If you don’t do this, and decide that practice is practice is practice, you’ll likely become frustrated when you happen upon a gap in your skill set.  

If you’ve never practiced sight reading with a whole note beat, for example, you’re going to be hard pressed to do it under pressure, even if you’re a quarter note ace.  I find that students who encounter a difficulty like this often over-generalize: they decide they are bad readers, or that playing with a whole note beat is inherently too difficult.   

In fact, this is a lesson in specificity of learning: in order to improve reading with a whole note beat, you need to practice reading with a whole note beat.  Students who decide a whole note beat is too hard are. forgetting about the years of practice they’ve already put in reading music with a quarter note beat- practice that worked! 

In my own playing, I’ve found that I’m much weaker in sharp keys than I am with flats.  After almost thirty years of practice, four or five or even six flats is not problem.  But five sharps? Run! This is a direct result of specific practice: recorder music tends to be written in flat keys, so over the years I’ve put in infinitely more hours with flats.

The payoff to thinking about specificity of learning is that you’re empowered to improve your skills. I spent a lot of time in sharp keys this summer- and I definitely improved my facility!  My students who have trouble with a whole note beat get more assignments with a whole note beat- and they improve!  Trouble with bass clef?  Practice bass clef. Trouble performing?  Practice performing.  Trouble finding your place again when you get lost? Practice finding your place again when you get lost.

Becoming a better recorder player isn’t a straight shot. It’s a million small -and marvelous- journeys.  Happy traveling.

The Game-Changer You Already Own


What's the one thing you can bring to a lesson or practice session that is guaranteed to make you a better musician?

It's not magic.  It's not even high-tech.  It's the score!

One of the first things I teach new students is to always, always cart along the score.  Unless you're playing an unaccompanied solo, showing up with only your part is like bringing a serving dish to a potluck but forgetting to fill it with food. 

Seriously, folks. The score is essential.  The score is your lifeline.  You need to sleep with the score under your pillow.   You need to carry it next to your heart.  No, you don’t necessarily need to play from it (although I like to whenever possible), but you do need to know it backwards and forwards.

But why?  What’s so important about that junk for the keyboard or all those other consort parts anyway?  Especially if you’re not planning to play the piece with anyone else in the immediate future?

Here's the thing: the score is your boss.  You may think your part is your boss, or that you are the boss.  No and no. The score is your boss.  It shapes, colors, and dictates how you play your part.

Take any single note in your piece. Here are five things the score can tell you about it:

1)   Are you the main event? You have four quarter notes.  Do you invest them with a soloist’s emotion, or do you play them as a graceful accompaniment?  Take a look at the baseline- if it has thematic material or fast moving notes, chances are you’re not the big cheese.

2)   Are you a crunch or a release?  The more technical terminology for this is dissonance or consonance.  Is your note crunchy, or dissonant?  If so, you need to play it up and connect it to its release note.  If your note is consonant, you most often play it with less propulsion, sometimes taking a comma or breath afterward.

3)   Where are you in the chord?  If you’re the third, you’ll place the pitch of your note somewhere different than if you’re the fifth, e.g.

4)   Which notes will work in your ornament?  If there’s an E Major chord underneath your note, you’re not going to be happy leaping to a G natural as you decorate.

5)   What’s your tempo?  Say you’ve got a half note, but the bass part is all sixteenth notes and the whole movement is marked “adagio.”  Those sixteenth notes have to sound adagio, not just your half note- which means you may need to play the movement slower than you think.

This is only the beginning!  Bring the score!

What I Really Think of Your Playing


I have yet to find an adult student who isn’t nervous when they play for me, at least the first time. And I get it- I really do.  Any time you’ve got someone’s undivided attention, particularly when that person is analyzing your actions, it’s natural to feel a little exposed.  Add in the fact that you are by definition undertaking something outside of your comfort zone (the bravest and best part of taking lessons!), and sweaty palms make sense.

But I want to put a nail in the coffin of one common student fear.  Make that tens of nails.  Hundreds of nails.  A nail-gun-gone-berserk number of nails.

It is never, ever a burden to listen to you play.

“You must get tired of listening to me,” I’ve had students say.  Or, “I hope we're not ruining the piece for you.”   “Can you really stand to listen to the repeat?” “I didn’t want to make you listen to any more of this.”

There are dozens of variations, but the core concern is the same: a sizable minority of students worry their playing is a chore.

I can’t think of anything further from the truth.  Listening to a student or students play, no matter what the level is profoundly engaging and uniformly enjoyable. Because every time I listen, I’m confronting a fascinating challenge: How can I help this particular student or group of students make progress, both now and in the long term?  

Working that out is pretty much the most captivating puzzle I know, and I immediately busy myself with a host of subsidiary questions. What knowledge or skills do students possess that I can build on?  What should we select to work on?  What can I say or do to best communicate the goal?  How can I motivate the student toward the selected goal?  How can I check for understanding of the improvement process? How will I develop the student’s ability to self-monitor?  What personality or time or technical constrains might stand in the student’s way, and how can I mitigate them?

Listening to great music is pleasurable, sure. But it’s far more fun to dig into the challenge of helping you get better.  And we can always improve- each of us, from the greenest beginner to the most virtuosic professional.

So please know this: Your teachers don’t get tired of listening to you play.  We genuinely feel that it is a privilege to hear you.

And If I ever stop feeling that way, I hope I’m smart enough to take a break.

What Does Success Look Like?


The first time my student R attended a workshop, she spent most of the day in tears. 

I was distressed, but not surprised.  At that point in her playing life, R had a strong negative reaction to every playing mistake she made, allowing each error to derail her progress through a piece.  Whenever she made a mistake, she became so flustered that it was almost impossible for her to hop back in.

Just a few years later, R was attending workshops throughout the region, making mistakes and finding her part again with aplomb. 

Mostly, this is a credit to R’s perseverance. Not everyone would stick with playing after an upsetting experience, but R was impressively determined.

But helping R also required me to use one of the most powerful tools any teacher’s arsenal- the power to define success.

What does defining success mean? When you define success, you identify, shape, and shift the parameters by which students measure their own performance. You help students choose -and use- the success metric that best suits their abilities and needs at any given time.

If you don’t define success, your student will do it for you.  The fact is that students come to lessons with all kinds of pre-determined success metrics.  Some are explicit- students know what they want to achieve.  But some are implicit- hidden definitions that can cause trouble along the way.  In addition, students’ success metrics can also be static- they don’t change over time as a student grows.

In contrast, a good teaching success metric is explicit and dynamic- both student and teacher know what success means at any particular time, and the definition of success shifts to match student needs.  One lesson, success might mean playing all the notes in time.  A year later, success might mean playing all the notes in time and in tune.

When she attended that first workshop, R carried with her an implicit and unhelpful success metric: Success, to R, meant not making mistakes.

What I needed to do was to give R a more constructive definition of successAfter that first workshop, we debriefed and made a plan.  From now on, 10 minutes of every lesson would be devoted to sight reading duets.  And R’s only goal during these sessions was to get back in.  No matter what.  No mater how long it took

She could exclaim, she could sigh, she could spend most of the piece trying to figure out where she was, but if she got back in by the final cutoff, even partway through the last note, R would have succeeded.  Later, we took the same definition of success into group playing sessions.

It worked.

Slowly, but steadily, it worked.

I moved out of state and no longer teach R, but I saw her recently at a workshop and asked permission to tell her story.  The workshop featured a student performance and I watched as, during the last movement of her piece, R lost her place- and quickly hopped back in.  It was a splendid moment-  over in a few blinks of an eye. 

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© 2016 Anne Timberlake