file000277911635Do you judge yourself as you practice? Those negative inner thoughts are human nature. Sometimes voices from the past echo in our heads. Sometimes, the thoughts have nothing to do with the task at hand at all. Every good book, that I have ever found, on practicing anything—from tennis, to a musical instrument, to public speaking—advises working positively without judging.

Evaluate. That’s the ticket. You don’t have to beat yourself up. Judging when learning is negative and it’s outcome is negative. Evaluating is positive. When you evaluate, you look at where you were, where you are, and what will help you get better. A stereotypical example is:

Judging Inner Voice: Don’t mess up this run. Result: The run goes totally wrong. Judging Inner Voice: Don’t play Cs or miss the last note. Result: Missed C#s and last note.

Positive Evaluating Inner Voice: That run isn’t working. Maybe it’s fingering. Put 3rd finger on the C#s. Result: The fingering worked but I missed the last note.  Positive Evaluating Inner Voice: Aim for the high A. Result: A totally successful run.

In the first example, the brain has not been given anything to shoot for and the only things it remembers is play C and miss the last note. In the second example, the brain has been given exact instructions on what to do (put 3 on C# and aim for A) with a positive result.

The other thing common to all good advice about practice is to be present and in the moment—to practice creatively. To take things apart, change them, put them back together. Of course, part of being totally present is not being distracted by judging, i.e., I’m so bad at this, I never get this part right, or I’ll never be good enough.

So, I started thinking about these things in regard to my student’s practice. So many times, despite how I have modeled practicing in the last lesson, when I ask how their practice went during the previous week or how they practiced a specific passage, I am given a job list. I practiced the third page ten times everyday, but it’s only a little better they say. I worked on getting the fingering right in the LH part, but I’m bad at fingering they say.

I decided to make a new kind of practice log—an anti-practice log. I wanted it to focus my students on the quality rather than quantity of their practice. I wanted it to reward them for the good decisions that they made. I wanted to help them silence the judging voices. I wanted it to work no matter what the person’s style of learning.

The result is the sheet you see below. I printed it 2 per page on 8.5″ by 11″ colored card stock so that it looked as little like a practice journal as possible. I left the back blank to provide extra writing room.

My  Smart Practice Choices:

Name: _________________________

Dates: _________ to _________

Write down each smart choice you make during each of your practice sessions this week. 

Did you take a troublesome spot out and work on it with rhythms or make an exercise out of it? Did you practice your scales creatively using dynamics and rhythms? Did you stop yourself from just reading through the entire piece and work on small sections with repetitions? Did you stop and change the way you were working when you were unsuccessful? Did you take a problem and make an exercise out of it? Did you record yourself? Did you stop negative thoughts and instead state what you wanted to do in a positive way? 

The above are just examples. There are lots of other smart choices you can make. You should have a goal of 3-4 smart choices per practice session. Include dates, piece names, measure numbers, and what you did. Be prepared to discuss your choices at your lesson and studio class.

© 2012 Gail L. Fischler

It was hard going at first. One student gave me a mileage log (I practiced 45 minutes Tuesday). Presumably they felt that just getting to the piano was a smart choice. And, although it was, it wasn’t really the kind of choice I had in mind. Another told me they had practiced the 3rd page and then gave me a laundry list of things they needed to fix. Going over the Smart choice card was the first thing we discussed at every lesson.

Little by little, students started to dig deeper and think about practicing differently. For several, it was like pulling teeth. But, once they had a repertoire of smart choices they could make, they began to be more creative and come up with new strategies on their own. I was very happy when I began to read entries such as, I practiced for about 15 minutes and couldn’t focus at all, so I stopped and had a snack and a nap and then everything worked so much better, I took tiny sections and worked until I was comfortable and then stuck them together, I took those broken chords and practiced my arpeggios in lots of keys with that pattern, and  I told myself to aim for the first note in every group.”

Smart Choices? Indeed!

Please feel free to use the Smart Choices card with your students or in your own practice. If you do use it, please include my copyright and do not share printed or digital copies via email or at meetings, conferences, or presentations. I would love to know how it worked for you. You can comment on this post or use the Contact tab. 


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