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What did you learn today?

I often hear parents ask our students the question: “What did you learn today?” or “Did you do a new page in the book?” Although very well intentioned, I believe there is often some misunderstanding as to how to best make musical progress.

Regularly learning new material is of course essential to grow as a musician, however, it is not always best to learn something new. Musical ideas, concepts and techniques need constant revision, sometimes it is best to spend a week or two revising where we are up to without the added burden of learning something new. Consolidation is often necessary before moving on.

Exam material should be revised every lesson and every practice session at home and obviously practiced more and more as we approach the exam date. New material should be introduced slowly from method books and other sources where necessary. A new page may be looked at each week or fortnight or longer if the student has not practiced enough, or absorbed the material to an acceptable level. Each page does not have to be perfect to move on, but it should be reasonably secure (it can be perfected over the next few weeks in our revision) New material requires more concerted effort and the older material can be improved gradually as we progress through the book. By the time we finish a method book every page should have been practiced hundreds (thousands is better) of times. If we are not secure in the early pages the progress can slow or stall altogether in later stages. Never skip material in method books, it is there for a reason!

Many times I will say to students something like; “That was ok, let’s spend another week on it and make it more secure” Often I will say: “That was really great, so let’s spend another week on it just to be sure!” It is best not to be in a hurry to finish our books, as soon as we finish we are onto a new book anyway. We should not judge our progress by what page we are up to in a book, best not to make arbitrary judgements that really mean nothing. Musicians are making progress all over the world, working from different books, the material we learn is not as important as the learning we undertake. The content of our practice sessions is not as important as the quality of our attention, learning and technical execution.

One of the main books we learn guitar from at Caroline Springs School of Music generally takes anywhere from 6 to 24 months to complete (if learned correctly) many times a new student will come to us having “finished” the book elsewhere in a month or two. In almost every instance the material is not secure at all, even the early pages. Bad news; we have to start again. Good news: at least this time we will actually learn something. I would rather see someone playing well on page one than playing poorly on page 100.

How to keep our playing from stagnating or becoming boring whilst revising method books and exam pieces? Try different approaches to the same material, mix up the order of your practice, play the same pieces with different feels, tempi, orders of material etc. Work backwards through the book, practice pieces from the end back to the start. Make sure you always work some improvisation into practice sessions. One of the best aspects of ANZCA exams is the option to improvise or embellish melodies etc, this can really help us find our own voice on the instrument. Don’t just play like an automaton, express yourself through the music. (Our technique and movements should be reflex and automatic) The emotions and feelings engendered in the performance require us to be sensitive to the music and the moment.

We must always remember that being good at music requires a great deal of work refining movements, like a sportsman, you can never practice the fundamentals too much. Learning music is not just about acquiring new information or racing through text books, the important thing is how well we are executing the material that we do know. Anytime we learn something new we have to run it over and over before it truly becomes a part of ourselves. When we can play without thinking about it, (on auto pilot, but not an automaton); that’s when we know we are onto something.

Brendan Hains Caroline Spring School of Music

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