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Practice Technique: Never Again!

by Jeremy Hanson Hanson.Jeremy@MacPhail.org

As teachers, we’ve probably all heard a student exclaim, “I always make that mistake!” or “I always screw that up.”

I don’t know if you have this reaction, but for me, this is as bad as fingernails on a chalkboard.  We know that what students repeatedly do, they remember (and scientists tell us that it’s about three times as difficult to change a habit once it has been learned).  So the real effort is to help students to practice as perfectly as possible.  I use a technique called Never Again to guide students into this mode of practice.  Here’s how it works:

When a student makes a mistake during practice, it could just be an accident.  They know what to do, but missed a note or rhythm.  No problem.  They just have to do it again correctly.  If, however, they make the same mistake again, they must write something in their music to help them to never make that same mistake again.  It could be as simple as a circle, an arrow, a finger number, or a note name.  (I joke with my students that I should sell “magic pens” to piano teachers on e-bay for hundreds of dollars – all I have to do is circle their note and they play it perfectly!  I’d be rich!)  Once they write something in their music, they need to then repeat the section correctly three-five times in a row to solidify the corrected version.

Many times, students assume that they will just remember to play something correctly after fixing it.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.  There are too many details to keep track of and too long between lessons to remember everything.  A student this week shared a quote with me that I really like:  “A short pencil is better than a long memory.” 

Why it works:  when students write something in their music, they are taking ownership of the music and the learning process.  They generally remember the corrections if they are the ones to write it in their music.  It helps students to look ahead and plan mentally and physically for what is coming next.  The idea is to short-circuit a mistake before it happens, so that every repetition is a correct one.  Of course, if a mistake keeps happening, perhaps the section needs to be shortened or other practice techniques need to be used to solve the problem. 

I am delighted when a student comes to a lesson and their music has all kinds of marks in it – this tells me that not only are they practicing, but they are practicing intelligently and carefully. 

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