Susan Riley | October 2013
When I first started out my career as a music educator, I used to teach piano lessons privately after school as an additional source of income. For a 22 year old who had just purchased a home and working on a first year teacher’s salary, having a private piano studio wasn’t an option: it was a necessity. It was also one of my best opportunities to refine my teaching craft and to gain a deeper understanding of the learning process.
I will never forget any of my private students, but one shines brightly in my mind at all times. Her name was Halley and she was a perfectionist. She came to each lesson prepared not just with the assignment from the previous week, but with her own pieces that she had found laying around her mom’s old piano collection. She was a joy to have as a student, but Halley had a secret.
Halley didn’t practice. At least not the traditional way that I taught my students to practice. I always taught my students to work through a piece a phrase at a time, practicing each phrase until it was perfect and then piecing the phrases together until they could play the whole song fluently. Much like reading letters, words and sentences prior to reading a whole written piece. We practiced how to practice in my studio and I was proud that most of my students took this to heart when they got home. So I just assumed that Halley was dutifully following my instructions. Turns out, I was dead wrong.
Halley didn’t practice this way at all. To her, it was too disjointed and made practicing tedious. She didn’t like it. So she devised her own method of practicing. She would dedicate 5 minutes in her room to playing through a piece at a pace set by her metronome. When the 5 minutes was up, so was she. Even if it wasn’t perfect, she stopped playing once the time was finished. I asked her how she was able to play so beautifully for me each week with only 5 minutes of practice a day. She explained that she needed to practice practicing. She knew that it wasn’t what she was practicing, but rather the commitment and dedication of practicing for those 5 minutes every day that was teaching her how to get better with time and patience. Pretty good for a 9 year old.
What this taught me was that learning is not about practice. It’s about the practice of practice. Learning requires persistence, integrity and the act of “showing up”. What’s more, learning isn’t a singular, isolated event. It’s a global practice. When you are actively learning, you are using all of the prior knowledge, connections, and techniques you’ve imprinted along the way and using them to inform your process. Think of it as being able to rehearse globally. Showing up for rehearsal is half the battle. Showing up and then bringing your artful learning with you creates a 3D, global event for your mind. You are bringing intentionality to your practice and this enables you to make meaning faster and more deeply.
Rather than focusing on “drill and kill” with another set of math problems on a worksheet, we need to be providing ways that our students can show up to their learning in all classes. We need to intentionally seek out and implement those opportunities where all of the cylinders are firing together, creating a sphere of processing and practicing around our students. It won’t matter if you have 60 minutes or 5 minutes with your students. If you’re teaching them how to rehearse their understanding and knowledge globally, time isn’t the barrier. Your creativity and purpose are the only true limits to a student’s learning practice. Let’s commit to breaking the limits and showing up for our rehearsals. The Halley’s of the world will thank you.