Friday, September 5, 2014

How to Practice Music

[Note:  This was written as my final project for "Learning How to Learn".  We were given a very open ended project in which we were supposed to assimilate everything we learned in the course into our own lives.  I chose to write a document for my students.  Projects are anonymously peer reviewed.  I've kept the cover letter that I included with the project as it gives some background into why I chose to do it this way.  I cannot say enough good things about this class and the associated book (see the references at the end of the document).]

Dear Coursera Reviewer:

I undertook the Learning How to Learn Course for two reasons. First, I will be returning to grad school in the coming months. After not having taken any formal classes for 20 years, I thought this course would be a great way to jump start my learning (and it has been!). Second, I am a music teacher and as an educator, I am always looking for ways to help my own students learn most efficiently. I have decided to focus on this second reason as a basis for my final project.

All of my students come to me excited about music. Many of them have no idea where to start when I hand them their first songs to start working on. While we regularly discuss ways to approach practice, I have never prepared a handout for their reference. Please bear in mind that this document is written for middle school and high school aged kids (approximately ages 12 – 18). I did include a few references that I thought might be particularly interesting to them, but they won't get anything from an overly academic paper.

Everything taught in Learning How to Learn is applicable to learning music. Like math and science, music is a challenging field of study that some people seem to have a “head for” while others do not. I chose to focus this document on what I consider to be the basic habits you need to efficiently learn music, especially when you are busy with many other activities:
  • Scheduling – taking advantage of diffuse mode learning; learning the material in small steps; interleaving.
  • Approach – getting to know the “big picture” of the musical piece while picking apart individual sections; learning it through a variety of ways (inputs).
  • Memorization – creating a game plan.
  • Goal Setting – put a plan in place and work toward it; focusing on the process and not perfection; dealing with procrastination.

My academic year starts the week of September 8th. I plan to hand this document out to each student. As an assignment, they will be required to create their own practice journal where, in the very least, they are to track their weekly and daily goals. I expect that this will not only help them focus better on their learning, but it will also help me to understand how they spent their week when they are struggling.

Thanks for reading!

Learn Your Music!

I get it. You're busy. You have homework, sports, dance class, speech team, and rehearsals for your musical. You barely have time to sleep let alone spend any time on your lesson music. While I cannot help you find an extra hour or two in your day, I can help you use what little time you have to practice and learn your music.

You should practice a minimum of 15 minutes most days plus a few days with longer practice sessions sprinkled in. Why a little bit every day? Your brain needs time and repetition to put information into its long term memory. Spending an hour or two practicing your music the night before your lesson will not prepare you as much as a little bit of practice every day.

Your brain has two levels of learning: a focused mode and a diffuse mode. The focused mode happens when you are actively working on something like a math problem, your history reading, or your latest song. The diffuse mode is the background processing that occurs when your attention is focused elsewhere. This is when your brain is making connections with stuff you already know. The great thing about our brains is that it can work on learning your music while you do your math homework if you give it a gentle nudge in the right direction.

To take advantage of your focused and diffuse modes, try a practice schedule like this:
  1. Vocal Warm-ups for 5 – 10 minutes
  2. Do some homework for 15 – 30 minutes (or more)
  3. Practice your music for 15 – 30 minutes
  4. Do some more homework for 15 – 30 minutes
  5. Sing a little more for 10 – 15 minutes

Adapt the times to meet your needs and your schedule. Weaving your music practice with your homework allows your brain to process one thing while you work on something else.

Do you have a few measures of a song that you just cannot seem to get? Instead of repeating it over and over again, put down your music and do something else1 – practice another song, do your homework, or go check Facebook. Your brain will still work on that part of the song. When you return to it, you may find that spot easier to sing.

Why are warm-ups important to do every day, even when you had choir earlier in the day? The warm-ups and vocalises that we do during lessons are meant to help you focus on specific issues. Do these at home to strengthen what we learned during your lesson. Just like your songs, your brain and body need regular practice to get the hang of stuff like proper breathing and vowel placement.

How to Practice
Just like anything else, learning music has a multi-step approach.

Big Picture: Obviously, you need to know how the entire song goes together. Listen to your recorded vocal line, find audio recordings and/or videos on YouTube, and read through the text. If it's in a foreign language, look up the literal translation of it (or do it yourself with Google Translate). Also, practice speaking the words.

Nitty Gritty: When you sing through the line, pay attention to the places where you are having issues. Instead of starting at the beginning each time you sing the song, focus on only those few measures. (If you have multiple trouble spots, work on each section individually). Drill the section until you either you're feeling comfortable or until you feel like you've reached your limit with it and then move on to something else.

Other Options:
  • If you are having trouble learning the rhythm, clap the rhythm. You can do this independently of your rehearsal recordings or with them. Also, say the lyrics in rhythm.
  • If you are working on a character piece (show tune or art song), practice the lyrics as if delivering a monologue. This will help you with the emotion and delivery of the lines.
  • If you find yourself in a place where you cannot sing, listen to your rehearsal recordings in a focused way. Sing along in your head or listen to trouble spots, paying attention to what's happening in the accompaniment, the rhythm, and/or the notes.

When practicing, remember that the only way to eat an entire elephant is one bite at a time. Breaking a song down into smaller sections will make it easier for you to learn. Also, working on your music from a variety of angles will help you learn faster. Your brain loves getting inputs from all different directions!

As a performing artist, you will need to memorize music. Here are a few tricks to help you:

  • Keeping the verses straight. This is always my biggest challenge – keeping the verses in the right order! Pick out key points in the verses and associate them with something else, like the floor map of your house. Put each piece of the verse in a different room of your house and mentally walk through your house to find it. Put the first verse on the first floor; second verse on the second floor; third verse in the basement; and so on. An example (from “Art is Calling For Me” by Victor Herbert):
Momma is a queen - My mom dressed as Queen Elizabeth (mudroom)
Papa is a king - My dad dressed as Henry VIII (kitchen)
So I am a princess, I know it - I'm dressed all in pink with a big tiara (back hallway)
But court etiquette is dull, boring thing - My cat in my big tiara, asleep (office)
I just hate it all, and I show it! - I'm having a royal temper tantrum (family room)

  • Write out the lyrics. Studies show that writing something out by hand helps us remember2. Take a few minutes and jot down the lyrics – don't look at your music until you're done!
  • Find other hooks – Remember how I said your brain likes multiple inputs? Listen to your song frequently. Sing your song as often as you can. Work on the song without the music and focus on the emotion and storyline. If you have movements that go along with the song, practice those as well. All of these combine build stronger neural hooks which makes it easier for you to memorize.

Finally, it's important to have goals when you practice – especially when you're short on time! After your lesson, set weekly goals for yourself. These could be as simple as learning that new piece or memorizing verse one of your show tune. They could also be more focused like working on your deep breath support, or practicing a vowel sound that needs better placement.

Before you go to bed each night, look at this list and set smaller goals for the next day. If you're working on breath support, you might set the goal of doing three sets of breathing exercises throughout the day. If you're learning a new song, you could decide to focus on the section that's the most challenging. When you set your mini goal, also set how much time you plan to devote to it. If you know it's going to be a busy day, you might only set two mini goals at 10 minutes apiece.

It doesn't matter if you don't have an hour to spend. You won't accomplish your weekly goal in one sitting. What is important is that you devote a little time to your goals each day. If you have a hard time getting started, set a timer for the amount of time you had planned for your goal, put away all other distractions, and give it your best try for that amount of time. Don't focus on perfection; instead, focus on the process of practicing. Perfection will come on its own with time if you put your best effort into your process.

Lifetime Skill
It doesn't matter what you're learning, applying the general ideas above will help you learn more efficiently. If you are planning a career in music, it's especially important to develop these habits now – music school truly tests your ability to learn music quickly and efficiently. Talented music students sometimes fail because they lack a learning system.

A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin (2014) – This is a fantastic book for learners – it doesn't matter what topic you want to learn. Unless otherwise indicated above, the science behind the ideas in this paper comes from this reference.

Other resources:

  1. Anne Trafton. (July 21, 2014), "Try, try again? Study says no: Trying harder makes it more difficult to learn some aspects of language, neuroscientists find." Science Daily.
  2. Maria Konnikova, "What's Lost as Handwriting Fades," June 2, 2014, The New York Times

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