Monday, February 9, 2009

Sound and Fury: individual practice in group settings?

I'm an experienced school string teacher. I've gone through loads of coursework and professional training over the years, and have seven years of full-time, professional school experience under my belt.

However, I think that being a parent is teaching me more about the processes of teaching and learning than I ever could have grasped through reading, practice, or any pedagogical training. Two of my three children have been studying with good Suzuki studio teachers for some time now (one is playing piano, the other violin), so I have a front row seat in watching the whole process unfold.

Sometimes things become obvious when you change your perspective.

That long introduction was intended to lead into a fairly simple point: one of my daughter's private teachers threw me for a loop a few weeks ago when she advocated for students to practice periodically with lots of distractions. She specifically mentioned playing pieces in one key while someone else in the same room practices an entirely different piece in another key.

This is something I would never allow in my lesson groups. Since the first time I started studio teaching well over a decade ago, I've always instinctively encouraged students to listen hard to what's going on around them. In the opportunities I've had to start or take over school string programs, one of the first things I've always done is to forbid students from practicing individual parts during lesson groups or rehearsals. I always try to have students in group lessons play either in unison or complementary parts - I have always tried to break the habit of students playing without listening.

Now, a very good teacher who I pay to help teach my own children has me thinking I may have done all those students a disservice. Did I discourage them from developing the skill of focusing in the midst of distractions?

Music teachers and musicians: any thoughts?

Here are some of the points that I've thought about. I've obviously come to no conclusions:

-The teacher in question got this idea while hosting Japanese Talent Education teachers and students years ago. As I understand it, Japanese families are used to living in very close quarters and don't share the same need for "personal space" that I do . . . I've noticed that many of my students (who, by and large, come from "inner city" backgrounds) are also accustomed to very close quarters and are not as leery about "close personal contact" as I . . . so, by not allowing them to be noisy or to work on parallel paths, am I "shutting them down"?

- I personally have a very high ability to tune out and focus on singular tasks with lots of noise and distraction when necessary. However, I find it impossible to focus specifically on teaching in the midst of any noise or interruption. So, ultimately, am I silencing the kids just for my own convenience?

- Many of my kids, for a variety of reasons, don't or can't practice outside of school. Should I let them have the time to do it during our scarce group lesson time? Is some better than none? Does anyone have experience integrating practice time into lesson time?

I'm looking forward to getting some input on this one . . .


Elaine Fine said...

I think that the best thing you can do for a student is to get him or her to listen to himself or herself and, at the same time, to teach him or her to listen to the way that lines of music relate to one another. Even two lines of counterpoint is enough to fill a person's head to the brim. Good musicians are not soloists.

Perhaps there are people who function better when surrounded by din, but I my experience as a teacher tells me that students have enough din going on inside their heads already. They don't need more distractions. And there is so much interpersonal junk going around between kids playing in musical groups that is much better to get them to focus on the music at hand rather than on the "noise."

I would encourage your students to practice their parts on their own, however, but I would encourage them to imagine the other parts in their heads while they are playing. Grown-up musicians create a context for their practicing, and so should new musicians. Maybe, if there isn't time in your group sessions, everybody could learn everybody's part, and the practice of individual lines could be a group activity.

Stan Haskins said...

everybody could learn everybody's part, and the practice of individual lines could be a group activity.

Excellent idea. I think it's time to redesign my curriculum.

Thanks for the wise words, Elaine.

David N. Olsen said...

Hello, I am a middle school (6-8) orchestra teacher.

I think that what the teacher is advocating "practice periodically with lots of distractions" is just that. Periodically.

Before class starts I encourage students to warm up and practice. This is a purely cacophonous sound. This takes about the first three minutes of class time. Students explore, socialize a bit, and also learn to focus on their parts (with distractions).

During class, like you it sounds, I can not stand ANY kind of out of order sounds or behavior. All students have the right to learn and it is our duty to be sure that this happens.

I don't see any harm in having students, at home, trying to practice with some distractions going on. This can help teach them focus. In this day an age with multitasking reaching new highs (I find myself typing on the computer, watching TV, and checking email on my iPod all at once) we are asking our students to "gear down" every time they walk into our classrooms. What we need to do is teach them the art of focus. To be able to filter out and achieve their goal.

In college we had a Broadway Pit performer give a master's class. She mentioned how she prepared herself for auditions and performances. Her roommate would put all of their pots and pans on the bed and then jump up and down on the bed, while she would practice her music. She was talking about learning to focus with distractions.

In short, there is a time and place for this technique. For the classroom?...maybe not, for home practice? times.

On another note (that I just thought of), I do a unit on small ensembles. The class will be guided in the art of small ensemble playing and rehearsing (duets, trios). They will choose their partner and then split up in the room to practice. Yet again, many things going on at one time. Some students do just fine in this environment while others get extremely bothered and ask if the others can play quieter. I tell them, do your best to focus on what you are doing. And that the ability to focus is a great skill to have. At the end of the unit the students give mini concerts to the class.

Anonymous said...

I agree that distractions may not be the best in the classroom, but at home, I think all musicians should at least explore the idea of focusing on their music when potential distractions are going on. Would we want a star performer to be thrown off the first time someone caughs or sneezes in the audience? I think not. Sometimes when I'm playing the piano, Mom will talk to me or otherwise try to distract me on purpose 9which I hate!), but she'll coach me on being able to play dispite distractions.

Anonymous said...

The idea sounds a little odd. But from what little I understand about the Suzuki approach, it uses lots of non-traditional techniques.

The closest thing that I've done to that is allowing students 30 seconds of individual practice during group rehearsal. This can sometimes be helpful if you're really in a time crunch or just don't want to check each player individually. This is also a helpful technique if multiple students are playing wrong notes and you trust they can work out the problems on their own. I might say something like, "Clarinets, saxes and trombones, you're missing notes in the key signature. I'm giving you 30 seconds to practice it now, then let's hear it corrected together."

You can also use this technique if you're pulled away from the podium for a minute to deal with an urgent administrative issue. "Class, I've got to take this phone call. Practice measure 33 until I come back."

The next closest thing to what you're talking about that I've heard of is having students play scales while they read a newspaper article. The idea being they need to know their scales so well that they can play them without thinking about them.

n8v said...

I'm not a teacher but am a Suzuki-practicing parent. Suzuki's core insight was that learning music is similar to learning language. You don't require silence to talk, right? But there are good or bad manners when you have a bunch of people together. Around a meal, it's polite to take turns talking. During a lecture, or when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, everyone should be either quiet or together. But a "cocktail party" where there are many conversations going on at once is fine too.

Maybe having students pair up to work on different (directed) things with a "buddy" would be a good way to encourage focused, social musical "conversation" amidst distractions.

Richard (of RBB) said...

Hey Stan, I've missed you.

Richard (of RBB) said...

I've got a new bass - a Chrissie.

Richard Edward Horner said...

I've always felt that developing a skill just adds to your tool set. I advocate the whole "practice under performance conditions" thing so that a gig is just another day and not some huge and/or disorienting deal that could make you nervous. That being said, the ability to play under any circumstances is extremely useful, especially for rock musicians who often have to play lame gigs that are too hot, too cold, too bright, too dark, too windy, too noisy with a crappy PA or perhaps without monitors.

Be prepared!

Anonymous said...

"She advocated for students to practice periodically with lots of distractions. She specifically mentioned playing pieces in one key while someone else in the same room practices an entirely different piece in another key."

This sounds like a bunch of hoop-de-doo to me. It may be a fun activity for outside of the classroom, but for formal training? It's good to learn to play amidst distractions, but I think the best way to do that is to play in isolation; to strengthen yourself there, first, then to learn to focus with "distractions." It would be harder to play with an ensemble if you aren't capable first of focusing on an individual part (that sounds like a no-brainer, but I guess the debate around it is heated). It's like learning a piano piece with separate hands before putting them together--always works for me.

David Motto said...

While learning to play with distractions may not be a high priority for middle school students, it is very important for advanced students who are preparing for concerts, auditions, or competitions.

Musicians need to be able to play and focus with both aural and visual distractions, in bright or dim lighting, in cold or hot conditions, in humid or dry environments, and in rooms with strange acoustics. Most aspiring musicians will encounter every one of these situations.

When I give presentations on practicing to both educators and to students, I see different musicians having success with different strategies. Try some new techniques with your students and see what's most successful.