This article continues on from the article How to Prevent Road Blocks in Musical Progress.
The main reason some piano students succeed and others fail is largely down to the amount of practice they do. No surprise there.
But just how large is the impact of practicing less than your teacher recommends? And what are the long term benefits of following your teacher’s advice regarding the amount of practice you should do? Why do some gifted students “burn out”?
There are two essential ingredients required to produce a successful music student.
- A teacher that understands the learning process enough to be able to help their students to achieve their full potential.
- A student that follows the teacher’s advice and practices for the recommended amount of time.
Let’s try and understand just how important consistent, regular practice is and how our entire progress as a musician can be massively impacted by our attitude and approach towards practice. The negative effects of doing minimal practice over a long period of time may surprise you. It is often true that those students who go for long periods of time practicing very little find it difficult to progress even when they do start to practice more. Why is this the case? This article offers an explanation. For the purposes of this article I will use the word “he” to mean either “he” or “she”. We are going to take a look at the progress of two students – Student “A” and Student “B”. We will consider the progress made by these two students over a period of several years. We will take a look at the different experience of practice these students have and look at how this impacts their progress.
Students “A” is a motivated student who loves to spend time practicing the piano and has always practiced for the full amount of time recommended by his teacher every day. If he does need to miss the occasional practice session he always tries to make up the lost time.
Student “B” likes the idea of being able to play the piano, but he finds it difficult to find practice time with his super busy schedule. He usually gets round to practicing a few times a week but rarely spends more than 5 or 10 minutes at the piano on any given day. We will consider 5 various levels of achievement. For the purposes of this article we will assume that all other aspects of the learning experience are the same for both students. They both have a gifted piano teacher, a nice piano to practice on and plenty of parental support and encouragement. <strong>The 5 levels of achievement</strong>
- Level 1 – This is a beginner student after just a couple of month’s lessons
- Level 2 – This level measures progress after the first 2 years of learning.
- Level 3 – This level measures progress after the first 4 years of learning.
- Level 4 – This level measures progress after the first 6 years of learning.
- Level 5 – This level measures progress after the first 8 years of learning.
Your brain is like a computer – it needs to process musical information to produce music.
In order to be able to play any piece of piano music the brain must be able to process all the information contained in the music. Beginner pieces of music are very short and contain only a few notes which means the amount of musical information the brain needs to process to produce a successful performance is relatively small. Advanced pieces of music can be many pages long and contain thousands of notes and other information that the brain needs to simultaneously process. Concert level pieces may contain tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of notes. Not only are there more notes in more advanced pieces of music but the notes happen much faster in a shorter period of time. 10 seconds of music in a beginner piece of music may contain only 10 notes but 10 seconds of advanced music may contain hundreds of notes. This means the brain needs to process not only more information but it also needs to process the information much faster. A much larger amount of the brains “processing power” is needed to handle this amount of musical information. A large part of the information that needs to be processed is to do with the “mechanical” side of playing the notes. This involves controlling the hundreds of tiny muscle movements required to place the hands and fingers into the correct positions to be able to correctly play the notes. The amount of musical information the student’s brain needs to process during the performance of a piece of music increases considerably over the years as the music becomes more complex. The student’s experience of practice during the early years and the way they prepare themselves for more advanced music later on is critical for long term success.
What do we need to do in the early years to prepare music students for long term success?
The answer to this question is simple. We need to encourage students to user their brains in the correct way when they practice. If the student’s brain is not processing the musical information in the correct way they will not be prepared to move on to more advanced levels.
How do we make sure students are thinking about their music in the right way
The key to success is the balance between the use of the conscious brain and the subconscious brain. This may sound “out there” for some people but this is actually very simple to achieve. Another way to think about this is that the student needs to find the correct balance between “thinking” about what they are playing and making certain aspects of their playing “automatic”. Automatic playing occurs naturally when the student practices a piece of music enough that he “gets to know it” to a high level. If a student regularly practices their pieces of music to a high standard and follows the teachers practice time recommendations this automation is almost guaranteed to happen.
How do we know when a piece of music has been studied to the correct standard?
This is not easy for the student to assess for themselves as there are many aspects of the performance that need to be evaluated. In the early stages of playing students need to follow their teachers advice. Eventually the student will develop their own ability to make an accurate assessment; however it could take years rather than months to reach this level. The natural tendency of most students is to believe that the music has been fully learned before it has actually reached the highest standard they would be capable of achieving. Through careful guidance the teacher helps encourage the student to play the music to a higher standard. It is this final aspect of the work where the student stretches their skills and abilities thereby preparing themselves for more advanced music. Let’s take a closer look at what happens to Student “A” and Student “B” during their first few years of lessons. We will explore the reasons why student “A” is using his brain correctly to play his music and Student “B” is not. We will find out why Student “B” becomes musically paralyzed and reaches a point where he is unable to progress and why Student “A” reaches great musical heights with ease. We will discover the crippling effects of failing to follow this simple piece of advice – “Follow your teacher’s practice time recommendations and practice every piece of music to the highest standard you can”. When the brains ability to process musical information is interrupted during a performance the music will immediately go wrong or stop. If there is not enough brain power available to process all the musical information in a piece of music the music will go wrong or stop.
How much information is there in a piece of music at each of these 5 levels?
In order to understand what the brain is doing when it is playing a piece of music it is helpful to have a chart that shows how the different types of information in a piece of music are handled by the brain. First let’s get an idea of how much information is contained in a piece of music at each of the 5 levels. The diagrams below represent the total amount of musical information contained in a piece of music at each level.
The Level 1 piece of music contains only 10 music notes in total. The below graph represents the total amount of musical information contained in a level 1 piece of music.
The Level 2 piece contains a total of 100 notes. As there are more notes in the music the brain needs to process a larger amount of information to be able to successfully play this piece of music.
The Level 3 piece contains 400 notes. Not only does music at this level contain more notes but the finger movements required to play this music are now starting to become quite complex. The brain has to process the information required to move every finger very precisely and then send this information down the arms to the fingers.
The Level 4 piece contains 800 notes. This music is significantly more complex to play than the level 3 music. The brain needs to function at a high cognitive level in order to play this music.
The Level 5 piece contains approximately 2000 notes. This music has reached a level of complexity that only very few students that originally start to play the piano manage to achieve. A significant amount of “processing power” is required by the brain to process all the musical information in this piece of music. If the student has not been prepared correctly to attempt level 5 pieces of music during their study of the first 4 levels, they will encounter difficulties that they are unlikely to overcome.
Let’s take a look at why this is the case and examine why some students seem to reach this level of ability with relative ease (the students considered to be “talented”), and why some students never manage to reach this level no matter how hard they try. If practice is approached in the right way, <em>from the beginning</em>, most students will turn out to be “talented”. Every note in a piece of music equates to one piece of musical information that has to be processed by the student’s brain as they are playing. We learned from the last article that a good musical performance has the correct balance between using the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind controls everything the student “thinks about” as they play. The unconscious mind controls all aspects of the performance that happen “automatically”.
A comparison of the experience of practice between two students
Let’s take a look at how Student “A” and Student “B” make use of their conscious and subconscious minds when playing a piece of music at each level. By understanding this, we can understand why one student is successful and the other is not. In the below charts the blue area represents the subconscious mind and the white area represents the conscious mind.
At level 1 there is very little difference between the way student “A” and student “B” use their minds to process the musical information contained in a piece of music they are studying. For a beginner student the “thinking mind” does most of the work. This is as it should be at this stage. Some cognitive processes will happen automatically without any assistance from the teacher. Achieving this correct balance is something that every student will achieve with any teacher no matter how much or how little they practice. The contribution of the subconscious mind at this level is relatively small. This is to be expected as we have not yet begun the process of extending its capacity to handle larger amounts of musical information and there is only a small amount of musical information that needs to be processed at this level. The students are both able to comfortably process all the necessary information contained in the piece of music without any issues.
Level 2 By the time we reach level 2 we start to notice differences between student “A” and student “B” in the way they are using their minds during a musical performance. When a student first starts to learn a piece of music the conscious brain does most of the work. The conscious brain learns new information quickly but forgets information just as quickly. The subconscious mind takes time to learn new information but once information has had chance to be digested into the subconscious mind it sticks for a much longer period of time.
Student “A” has always learned each piece of music thoroughly over the last two years and he has always learned his pieces of music to the highest standard he could achieve. Student “A” has always completed the full recommended amount of practice time. Because Student “A” has spent enough time practicing he has “absorbed” the music at a much deeper level. This means that the subconscious mind has had chance to take over many of the mechanical aspects of playing the music involved with the movement of the fingers and the mechanical side of playing is happening automatically without the student needing to think so hard about every note. Because Student “A” is used to practicing each piece of music to such a high degree that many aspects of the performance become “automatic” the subconscious minds ability to handle information has grown considerably. Even though a lot more information needs to be processed by the mind to successfully perform a piece of music at level 2 the conscious mind only needs to grow by a small amount in its capacity to handle the additional musical information. This is ok as the mechanical side of playing is now controlled mainly by the subconscious mind. Student “A” feels a great sense of achievement with each piece of music mastered and feels confident to explore new areas of music such as improvising and making up his own pieces of music.
Student “B” has not practiced very much over the last two years. He can only get round to practicing a couple of times a week and even then he is looking at his watch after practicing for 3 minutes. He plays through his pieces of music once or twice and declares that his practice is over for the day. He does not yet have the ability to make a sound judgment about when a piece of music has been learned to a high enough standard. Even though his teacher gives him specific tasks and goals to achieve in his practice he usually “forgets” to do what his teacher asked. When the teacher writes the instructions clearly in the music book he still does not “notice” them in his book. If pieces of music are assigned out of two or three tutor books he rarely remembers to look in the other books. Theory assignments are never completed. He can’t wait to get back to the Xbox. He is quite intelligent though so he is able to “get through” his lessons without raising any concerns at this point. As the music is not being practiced very much the cognitive processes involved in playing the music do not get chance to be absorbed by the subconscious mind and none of the mechanical aspects involved with moving the fingers around the piano have been automated. This student is now using his full conscious mind to play the music. As his full attention is required just to play the notes he is unable to think about any other aspect of his performance. When he plays a wrong note he does not notice it because there is no brain power left over to process any of the information that is being received by his ears. He finds it difficult to think about making areas of the music either loud or soft as all his attention is required just to get the notes right. As none of the music he has practiced has been thoroughly learned the subconscious mind has not increased very much in its capacity to handle more musical information. As he can still manage to play his pieces of music ok his teachers and parents do not see any cause for concern. After all, he seems to be doing just as good as all the other kids who are learning the piano. If he is particularly intelligent he may even be doing better than his friends who have been playing about the same amount of time and have been following their teachers recommended practice times. If he is “gifted” he may still actually be outperforming Student “A” at this level as he has an advanced ability to use the conscious “thinking” part of his brain. Even though both students can play the music there is already a large difference in the way each student is processing the musical information with their brain which, at the moment, is still able to compensate for the fact that the subconscious mind is not being utilized in the way it should be. Student “A” is fully prepared to move on to the next level. To the untrained eye it may appear that student “B” is also prepared to move on to the next level, but he is not. He is about to find out that relying solely on his conscious mind to control all the notes in the music will only get him so far.
At level 3 the difference in the way the students are approaching their music practice becomes noticeable in the results and the progress of student B starts to “slow down”.
During the performance of a piece of music the conscious brain is required for listening, including processing the information received from the ears and controlling the dynamics and shape of the musical performance. The conscious brain is also used for navigating the piece of music (i.e. thinking about which section of music comes next) and monitoring the overall success of the performance. The conscious mind also occasionally intervenes to ‘guide’ the flow of information from the subconscious mind should there be a momentary interruption in the flow of information from the subconscious mind. If there is any interruption in the flow of information from the subconscious mind the conscious mind can step in to help cover the cracks. For this to be able to happen there must be “spare” brain power left over, i.e. the students thinking mind must not be bursting at the seams with information. By level 3 student “A” is fully in control of all the pieces of music he is playing. His ability to “automate” mechanical aspects of the playing, i.e. the physical movements involved with playing the music, has grown considerably because he has made sure to practice every piece he has learned to a high level. Student “A” is performing a large number of the pieces his teacher assigns to him by memory. This has been achieved by playing pieces of music that gradually increase in difficulty making sure that every piece of music is played to a high standard. Each piece studied in the correct way increases the subconscious minds ability handle more and more information. As the subconscious brain is taking care of most of the mechanical workload the conscious area of the brain can easily handle all the additional things the student needs to think about as he performs. As he is working efficiently and practicing well he even has spare capacity in his conscious mind which means he can control anything unexpected during the performance without the flow of the music becoming interrupted. Because student “A” has been able to achieve the correct balance between using is conscious brain and his subconscious brain he is starting to learn new music quickly and progress through this level is happening at a rapid rate.
Student “B” is now struggling considerably with each new piece of music he attempts at this level. The combined total of the student’s conscious brain and his subconscious brain does not have enough capacity to process all the information required for this piece of music. The difference in the amount of information that the brain is required to process to perform this piece of music, and the amount of brain processing power this student has available is the “Shortfall”. The larger the shortfall the more the student will struggle to play the music. His ability to control mechanical aspects of the performance with the subconscious mind has hardly grown at all due to lack of sufficient practice. The musical information that should have been automated by this level has never had chance to be absorbed into the subconscious mind due to lack of practice. The conscious brain is working at full capacity but this is still not enough to handle the increasing amount of information in the music at this level. At this point it does not matter how hard the student works on the music, his thinking mind is over taxed and will be unable to process all the information required to play this piece of music without the necessary assistance from the subconscious mind. Under these circumstances it is very unlikely that the student will be able to produce a good performance. The music will sound insecure and be prone to errors. Due to lack of available brain cycles in the conscious “thinking” mind, the student will not have full control of the notes, the dynamics or the physical movement of his hands and fingers. There will be interruptions in the timing and rhythm of the music as the students has to “think” about every note individually as he moves through the music. He will also have limited ability to listen to what he is playing as his entire available brain power is being used just to try and play all the notes. To make things even worse, because he has never learned his music thoroughly enough his note reading skills have not advanced to the standard they need to be at this level and he still has to work out what the notes are as he goes along putting even more strain on the minds ability to process all the information required in this piece of music. A common issue is that students think they are a level 3 player but at the same time they struggle to play every piece. They use only their conscious minds to play the music and no aspect of their playing has ever been successfully automated. Even though the student thinks they are a level 3 player they are not. Unless more automation, i.e. the ability to use the subconscious brain is introduced soon this student will begin to struggle more and more with each new piece of music they attempt to study as they progress through their regular tutor books.
As the student refines his playing skills the subconscious brain assumes responsibility for more areas of the performance. The conscious brain is being used very effectively and even though the music contains much more musical information than the pieces at level 3, student “A” has more “spare” brain capacity left over when playing this music than he did at level 3.
Student “A” is having a lot of fun by the time he reaches level 4. He looks forward to the challenge of each new piece of music. This student finds that it is quite easy to memorize pieces of music and he has a track record of absorbing the music at a deeper level. Even though the conscious mind has grown in its capacity to handle musical information only in the same way as student “B” this is not an issue as the subconscious mind is handling the bulk of the mechanical workload required to play the music.
Student “B” will be discouraged at level 4 and will be unable to learn a level 4 piece of music successfully. The shortfall between the amount of musical information that needs to be processed and the brains ability to handle all this information has now widened due to the increasing complexity of music at this level and the lack of growth in the subconscious minds ability to process musical information. By this time Student “B” has established a routine of only “half learning” each piece of music which means he can play it so far and then stops working on the piece without mastering it. At this point student “B” is likely to pick out the easy sections of the music to play and either neglects to practice the difficult passages of music or fluffs his way through them lacking accuracy and control. The conscious mind has grown only slightly in its ability to handle the complexities of the musical information at this level. This is an issue now because the subconscious mind, which is required make a larger contribution at this level, has not developed in its capacity to handle the required amount of musical information. The “fun” that he had as a beginner has worn off. Once the student experiences this type of shortfall in their ability to process all the required information in a piece of music they are likely to convince themselves that they do not have the “talent” to progress any further. Playing music at this level is now too difficult for this student. Student “B” has stopped making progress. Most students in this situation will give up at this point and stop taking lessons. The mechanical aspects of playing that should have been automated by now are not in place. The student must still use his conscious brain to play all the notes. The shortfall at this point is significant. There is not enough conscious brain power to do all the required work. Even though pieces of music at this level demand more musical information to be processed during the performance the conscious and subconscious brains capacity to process musical information has not increased. The ability to memorize sections of music has not been developed. The student still has to read every note on the sheet music making it difficult to move his fingers quickly around the piano and read the music at the same time.
Student “A” has by now achieved an advanced ability to play music by memory which means there is no need to expend valuable brain cycles reading music. The music seems effortless as all the cognitive processes are automated. As the student does not need to “read” the music as he is performing he now has an extremely large “spare” capacity in his conscious mind. In fact, student “A” is hardly using his conscious mind at all when he performs at this level – Nice work! Even though the music is now very complex student “A” can cope with this high level of musical information because the subconscious mind has been trained over a long period of time to handle the bulk of the workload. The student is used to practicing music so that it becomes automatic. The process of practicing now mainly involves feeding musical information through the conscious mind into the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is becoming very skilled at absorbing larger amounts of musical information in a very efficient way. The sky is the limit if this student continues to work in this way.
If student “B” is still playing at this level it has taken him much longer to get here than Student “A”. This student will never be able to play successfully at this standard as the subconscious mind has not been developed enough to make the required contribution to the performance. At this level using the subconscious mind to help automate areas of the performance is critical but Student “B” is totally unprepared to be able to do this. Student “B” could study the piano for the next 20 years and not make any noticeable progress if he did not change his practice habits. In order to begin making progress again Student “B” would need to go back to studying music at level 2 and study each piece of music to a much higher level than he did before to give his subconscious brain the chance to grow in its capacity to handle more of the workload. The student would need to complete many level 2 and level 3 pieces to gradually increase the level of automation in his playing required to grow the subconscious minds ability to handle more of the cognitive processes involved in playing the music which are critical at level 5.
Students who practice for their teachers recommended practice times will be more likely to follow the progress path of Student “A”. Students who do not practice enough will be likely to follow the path of student “B” no matter how many years they study for.
It should be noted that even if student “B” increases their practice time at this point and starts to try and learn music more thoroughly at level 5 they will have very limited success. This is because the subconscious mind has not been developed enough to cope with the demands at the Level 5 standard.
This can be a source of frustration for students that have played for a long time and think that by increasing their practice time they should start to make progress at level 5. Unfortunately for this student this is not the case and they will have to go back to study music at level 2 as the music needs to be fully mastered at each level in order for the subconscious minds ability to grow in its ability to handle increasing amounts of musical information.
As the student now struggles so much with level 5 pieces the level of learning required to begin developing the subconscious minds ability to take over the mechanical aspects of controlling the notes cannot take place. The student needs to grow his subconscious minds ability to handle music at level 2 and level 3 before it can be expected to work effectively at level 5. The longer Student B continues to study in this way the worse the effects of neglecting the subconscious mind become and the further back they will need to go if they ever want to begin making progress again.
The skillful teacher will be able to see what level of music the student is “comfortable” at, i.e. what level of music they should be working at in order to be able to start working at automating the bulk of the mechanical workload in a piece of music. Some children that are “gifted” may initially have an advantage in that they have a more natural aptitude for using their conscious mind than others in the early stages of learning. Their conscious “thinking” mind may be stronger and more focused than the average student in the beginning. This may mean that they can make faster progress in the early stages of playing the piano than the average student by relying heavily on their conscious mind, however if a gifted child is allowed to follow the path of student “B” this early advantage could be quickly eroded. This often happens with gifted students when their teachers push them through the early grades too quickly neglecting to take into consideration that these children must also develop the ability to utilize their subconscious minds when playing piano. The eventual failure of these gifted students is often explained by saying that they “burned out”, however the truth is that because of their conscious brains ability to handle more information than the “average” student in the early stages of learning they have probably neglected to spend enough time practicing each piece of music to allow essential cognitive processes to be automated.
Failure to do this will cause even the brightest and most talented students to fail.
Occasionally a transfer student will begin taking lessons with me that is attempting to play level 5 pieces without success. They often believe that a good teacher will be able to help them become successful at level 5 right away. Unfortunately they have taken the path of student “B” and are unprepared to continue work on level 5. Under these circumstances I will often recommend that the student revisits music at level 3 or 4 for the reasons outlined in this article.
Students occasionally express disappointment when this happens as they feel I am “putting them back”. Nothing could be further from the truth. For this student the kindest thing to do is to allow them to first grow their abilities to the standard required to be successful at level 5. It would be a mistake to continue working at level 5 if the student did not have all the essential “musical skills” in place required to be successful at level 5. This includes making sure they can play whatever piece of music they are studying to a high standard with the right level of “automation”. If this student was allowed to continue working at level 5 without having first developed the subconscious brains ability to handle the bulk of the mechanical workload the cycle of frustration and minimal progress would continue no matter how talented the teacher was.
The key to success is to make sure every piece the student studies can be played to a high standard in order for them to be fully prepared to move on to the next level. Music is a great leveler. In the study of music we all need to approach our work in the correct way if we are to make the most of our own potential. “Potential” by the way is a topic all in itself that we will look at another day.
It is important that students grow their ability to automate aspects of their music performance at each level before moving on to the next level. If the student does not practice for the recommended amount of time it will take a longer period of time for the student to grow this ability. Rather than pushing students onto more difficult music before this level of learning has been achieved the wise teacher will allow the student to spend more time on each level by introducing supplementary materials for the student to study alongside their regular “core” piano curriculum. This will mean that the student that practices for less than the recommended amount of practice time will need to spend longer working at each level and study more pieces of music at each level. This is the most advisable approach as the teacher is positioning the student for success at the next level. By allowing the student to progress onto the next level of difficulty before these abilities have been allowed to grow the teacher would be positioning the student for future failure. Unless students take lessons with a gifted teacher from the very beginning there is a high probability that they will follow the path of student “B”.
My personal belief is that the first few years of taking piano lessons are the most important. They set the foundation for future success, not just in terms of the knowledge the student acquires but in the cognitive skills that need to be correctly developed during this time. If the student does not learn to process the musical information in the correct way in the first few years of lessons their ability to progress will be forever impeded.