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Jody Kruskal

What is Focused Practice? My New Student!

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Posted (edited)

I recently took on a local new Anglo concertina student. K and I just did our first lesson today and such fun we had! She claims to know nothing about playing music but out of the blue, bought this cute little red 20 button Anglo from a shop here in New York City. It has no brand but sports shiny silver bits and wooden frames in the bellows. German make, or a Chinese knock off, I suppose. Amazingly... it actually works and cost only $200. The straps needed attention and one note was wonky but we got that sorted, for now at least.

 

When I asked her why she was inspired to purchase this sparkly object, she admitted with a laugh that she admires gypsy punk and has heard some awesome accordion playing... but told me that those boxes they play are too big, heavy and expensive for her... so she thought this pretty thing might make a better introduction to playing instrumental music. She took the concertina home but was at a complete loss about what to do with it. So, after gazing at it for a few months, she found me on the web.

 

She's a go getter, my new student K. To prepare for our session, she went on-line and looked at youtubes about music theory. She self-educated herself with knowledge and vocabulary about scales, keys and rhythmic values. When we went through some of that material at our first lesson, she was already half way there. As for playing, she was a blank slate. Then, when we got to work, she made amazing progress, going from zero to Um Pa with Melody in under two hours! I attribute this to my expert teaching (ahemmm), her impressive native ability and a budding love for her new toy and with any luck, resulting in a life long concertina adventure.

 

K is a very focused lady. She worked hard and I had the gratification of watching her eyeballs float off into concertina gaze... probably for the very first time. What a thrill for us both.

 

Tonight, I wrote her with some post-lesson advice: "Sometimes busy, active people like yourself find it hard to make the time to practice. The best schedule is highly focused practice for 20 min. 3 times per day. That’s an hour. If you can do that five days per week, you will make rapid progress. Short and frequent practice routines make for speedy learning. Playing for one long 5 hour binge, once per week might be fun! Still... while it takes you the same amount of time, it gives you less value".

 

So, what would you say to my new student K about the meaning of focused practice?

 

Edited by Jody Kruskal
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3 hours ago, Jody Kruskal said:

...The best schedule is highly focused practice for 20 min. 3 times per day. That’s an hour. If you can do that five days per week,

you will make rapid progress. Short and frequent practice routines make for speedy learning. Playing for one long 5 hour binge,

once per week might be fun! Still... while it takes you the same amount of time, it gives you less value".

 

May I ask why this is so?

 

I tend to fall somewhere in the 1-hour-per-day-5-days-a-week and the once-a-week-5 hour-binge range of that practice 'spectrum'.

I could do the 20-minutes-3-times-per-day, no problem  - it just never occurred to me. Why is it better? I need all the help I can get...

 

Thank you.

 

Roger.

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I bet your new student doesn't need advice on this, based on what's happened so far. 🙂

 

Somewhere recently--maybe here--I read a practice schedule that I'm trying to follow in a rough way which is sort of like five minutes of fun playing what you like, then 15 minutes of mixed work, then five more of fun. Fortunately I like exercises and such, so I dig in first by running through a few more familiar scales (I'm playing EC), and I'm also trying to learn parallel octave scales, with no particular objective in mind except to learn to reach distant buttons out of the air better, so I do that. Then practicing sight-reading from an Irish tunes book, then some more intensive work on the parts of that day's piece/s that twisted my fingers in the sight reading. But I am not doing this to learn the tune--it's for sight reading combined with looking for new interesting music. Then I do some metronome work with a couple of tunes I am trying to re-learn after 20 years of not playing. Then finally I work on working out some additional of the more obscure scales that I don't know yet. I also throw in a minute or two of trills, because I understand that they won't happen on their own. I suppose that as I find more little things I can't do I will bring them in to work on as well.

 

I guess my point is that very little of what I'm doing is playing for fun, but it's doing work that is enjoyable for me but still work, and jumping around a lot in one session among the various things I need to learn, rather than grinding away for hours on one thing, and I try to do this twice a day. Most surprising to me was how well some of the things I don't spend much time on stuck for next time, like the parallel octaves, and how much I'm improving in sight reading speed.

 

Actually, if anyone has recommendations of changes for me to make to this routine, I'm all ears.

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The point of practice is to build up memory - both muscle memory and knowledge of the music. Short bursts help that by simple repetition of moves before you get tired - mentally or physically. Focused bursts mean you have a specific aim - a skill or phrase to master - you have to avoid practicing mistakes so you focus on getting it right - first time., every time. The important part is not the actual practice but the reflection on what you were doing and how to achieve your goals - that's the focus that allows the practice to seep into the subconscious and become a skill.

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12 hours ago, Jody Kruskal said:

Tonight, I wrote her with some post-lesson advice: "Sometimes busy, active people like yourself find it hard to make the time to practice. The best schedule is highly focused practice for 20 min. 3 times per day. That’s an hour. If you can do that five days per week, you will make rapid progress. Short and frequent practice routines make for speedy learning. Playing for one long 5 hour binge, once per week might be fun! Still... while it takes you the same amount of time, it gives you less value".

 

So, what would you say to my new student K about the meaning of focused practice?

 

kind of a funny question, Jody... since YOU gave her the advice, it should be your interpretation of focused practice, so to me it would be a tough call interpreting your term for her, no (especially since I don't even know her)? 🤔

 

Anyways, if this is supposed to be a discussion about whether several short sessions of practice or one longer is more effective - I don't know, I think it depends a lot on the personality sitting behind the instrument.

 

For me personally, I'd agree with you about more and shorter sessions for several reasons, but all of those are closely related to the way my brain works, and I'm sure other people's brains work differently. I tend to use the shorter sessions for in-depth practicing of new material or new techniques and the longer ones to refresh older material.

 

Another thing that works well for me (but very likely not for a number of others) is stick to a "work flow" for each piece. For most pieces I go through stages, namely a) memorizing the tune and its walk across the fingerboard, b) adding left hand harmonies, c) playing both against a metronome, d) speeding up to full tempo, e) (fairly recently added step) studying the bellows reversal places within the piece, f) recording the piece and adding it to my Karaoke set so I can g) play it in a session with myself. At any given point there are several pieces I work on in different stages of the pipeline.

 

I always like to make the point that practicing music is not at all limited to the time spent with the instrument. For example, listening to songs on the radio with a musical ear can give the ear an excellent practice session when focussing on questions such as "what does the bass do in this piece and what exactly is the groove on that one?" Also, tasks such as memorizing a piece on the fingerboard can be done completly independently of the instrument.

 

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4 hours ago, RAc said:

Also, tasks such as memorizing a piece on the fingerboard can be done completly independently of the instrument.

 

 

How would that work?

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29 minutes ago, Jody Kruskal said:

 

How would that work?

 

for me, rather melody plus harmony (and/or counterpoint, bass runs), seldom buttons

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Posted (edited)
On 6/10/2018 at 12:17 AM, Jody Kruskal said:

 

How would that work?

 

Typically I do this kind of thing in bed before dozing of to sleep, but sometimes during extended compilation runs or other short times that can't be utilized otherwise. What happens is that I hum the melodies in my head, and with a free hand, I tap the corresponding buttons on an air concertina. For stage e), I may move my hands apart from or towards each other while silently humming (it is safe to assume that I do this only when I am sure nobody is around to watch me). The main purpose of all of this is to counter attack the "groping for the next thing to do in real time" syndrome, and it helps to associate notes with finger positions.

 

Again, this is something I found to work well for me, but only because of the way my brain works. Others may not relate to it at all. Needless to say, doing this is only one piece of the puzzle, and it won't help me doing things like developing muscles or putting expression in the playing (that must of course happen at the instrument), but I believe it helps me use (limited) time at the instrument itself - well - more focussed.

 

Edit: I realized that my phrasing was misleading - I shouldn't have written "independently of the instrument" but something like "away from the instrument." Sorry for that!

Edited by RAc
Clarification

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I have two students at the moment.  I encourage them each to play a bit each day, even if it's only 10 minutes.  A few minutes' practice a day is far better than one long session every few days.

 

Structured and focussed practice is easier when you have a bit of a repertoire.  Early in a player's career, I'd suggest they play their basic scale(s) then play the tune(s) they're learning and to stop when they start to make too many mistakes.  "Ear fatigue" is a thing, as is "finger fatigue".

 

Once the student has a small repertoire, I'd say:

 

Warm up with a tune you know well.

Spend a few minutes on the one you're just learning.

Play another tune you know well, and maybe some scales.

Spend a few minutes on one or more tunes that you can play but are still trying to get "up to speed" and smooth.

Finish with something you enjoy.

 

Think of the tunes you know well/enjoy as a sorbet to clear the palate between the more nutritious courses of hard practice on difficult stuff.

 

The definition of "difficult" will change as the player improves.  There should always be something they regard as difficult, however good they get.

 

I'd say 3 x 10 minutes, or 2 x 15 minutes is always better than 1 x 30 minutes.  Eventually, they may do 2 x 30 minutes, which is better than 1 x 60 minutes.

 

The ideal situation is that they struggle to put the instrument down, rather than having to make time to pick it up.  For that, they need a nice instrument, and some tunes they enjoy playing.

 

I'd also encourage them to sit properly on an upright chair and play as well as they can.  Lounging in an armchair can easily lead to slow and unstructured nurdling and poor technique.

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Such wonderful comments! So insightful.

 

Of course... how you direct your intent during practice, will have a strong impact on achieving your practice goals. Really, it's all in your minds eye and ear as you try to memorize the sequence of patterns that are needed to play these amazing button driven instruments!

 

Still, there is great value in simple repetition. I suggest that you train your fingers to know what to do with a goal of 10,000 hours at the job.

 

If my fingers can be on automatic, then my mind can wander on to more important things.

 

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9 hours ago, Mikefule said:

stop when they start to make too many mistakes.  "Ear fatigue" is a thing, as is "finger fatigue".

 

Yes, all true and helpful - just adding that there is the ordinary tiredness as well - I usually avoid after-work practising (as much as I‘d have liked to) as it is leading to not playing well, even messy (or just playing myself to sleep, which isn’t beneficial either).

 

So I‘m trying to get up early every day (easier in summer times of course) and play for about half an hour - it‘s fantastic, completely different thing!

 

Best wishes - 🐺

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1 hour ago, Jody Kruskal said:

 

 

If my fingers can be on automatic, then my mind can wander on to more important things.

 

I work towards getting my right hand/melody on automatic so I can think about the left hand.  I tend to ring the changes a bit with the left hand, and the timing and emphasis of the left hand are what gives life to the piece.  But back to the original question of practice for a new player, just learning to play the tune confidently on autopilot is a good objective, so they can then add techniques and variants in their next lesson.  The student has to do most of the learning between lessons.  A teacher in a lesson can show and explain, but only practice in the time between lessons can develop and embed the skill.

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