Teaching Practicing

This morning I was working to polish the Mozart Quartet with a student.  The piece is full of tricky, finger-y passages, and we had spent the first 20 minutes using a range of practice techniques to solve some of them.

Can you tell where the problem is?  OK, let’s just play that bar.  Just that beat.  Just that interval.  Play it faster.  Play it backwards.  Play it slower.  Change the articulation.  Change the rhythm.  Etc, etc.  We’ve been working together since last September, and we’ve solved a lot of technical problems in lessons, using lots of approaches.

Eventually we started a run-through of the piece.  He got about half-way through and bumped into another touchy section.  And before I could say a word, he played it again, fast, then more slowly.  He correctly diagnosed the problem – “I’m not putting that C# in!” – and fixed it.  He played the beat in question, at tempo, and then added one note before it.  Then two notes, then three.  He ran the measure slowly and made sure he could get all the way into the next bar.  Then he backed up, reset his tempo, and zipped over the previously problematic area.  Within two minutes we were back on our way.  Without a word from me.

I just about fell over.  That is EXACTLY the kind of work I do and teach, but I’ve never seen it in action.  No one ever practices in front of me – oboe lessons are pretty structured.  Usually I only hear the playing I direct, and although I talk ALL THE TIME about ways to approach a technical passage on your own, I’ve never watched it happen.   This student showed me that that he’d been listening, and paying attention, and learning, and I LOVED it.

I constantly talk about practice techniques when I teach, and frequently use lesson time to work through examples.  Honestly, learning how to break down a difficult passage, diagnose a problem, and find an approach that solves it is much more valuable to your average student than learning how to turn a particular phrase of Mozart.  We learn pieces so that we can learn HOW to learn pieces.  In a single hour a week I cannot make anyone a better player, but I can give that person the tools to fix himself, and that is my mission more than any other.  

Today’s lesson was a great validation of that approach.   Thank you, Seth, for closing out my teaching week JUST RIGHT. 

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