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Sunday, 26 January 2014 20:52

Bringing it Home: How to Get the Most out of your Lessons

By Penny Wayne-Shapiro


The other day I started a young student's lesson off by asking her to warm up with a scale. Her fingers were pleasingly fluent, but the sound was fuzzy. I helped her to adjust the angle of her bow and dig it into the string for a much deeper, richer sound. She played the scale again, and we both enjoyed the result.

I opened her practice notebook to write a reminder for her to do this at home too - and realized that I'd written the exact same advice the previous week, and two weeks before that. "Oh yeah....I forgot!" she said.

Of course, this won't be a surprise to any parent who has reminded a child (for the fourth time) to put the dirty socks in the hamper! And let me be clear, I'm happy to keep on working with a child for as long as it takes, and in as many ways as it takes, to build a new skill or reinforce a concept.

But in this case, the child had already grasped the concept and was capable of doing it well. She just wasn't remembering to apply it, so we were spending lesson time (and incidentally her parents' money) reinforcing something that could have been integrated during practice, instead of moving on to new material.

The example above is fairly basic, but it happens with older students too. Sometimes I've spent 15 or 20 minutes of a lesson helping a student get to grips successfully with a tricky passage, only to find we're back at square one the following week.

And it's not because the student didn't care or wasn't appreciative - just that by the next time s/he got the instrument out of the case, the useful information had seemingly "leaked away".

So, how do we bridge that gap between a productive lesson and home practice, making sure that the student is really "bringing it home" and getting the best value from lessons?

The first thing is to understand how easy it is for things to get forgotten! Picture this: your child comes out of the lesson, jumps in the car, goes home and eats dinner, does homework, goes to bed, gets up and goes to school the next day, goes to soccer practice, showers, eats dinner.....and then, 24 hours or so later, gets out the instrument to practice. It's hardly surprising that some useful information got lost along the way!

What we really need is a way to make that information "stick" quickly, right after the lesson, so it'll still be readily available at the next practice session. A useful analogy is computer memory. While you're working on a document you're using RAM, but before you leave your computer you have to press "save", so it's stored on your hard drive for your next session.

When you come out of your lesson, there are two easy ways to "save" the information before walking away from it and possibly forgetting it: review it, and explain it. Each of these takes only a few minutes, if you do it soon enough. Here's how:

Review it: Put your instrument away, and then immediately take a quick look in both your notebook and your music (you can even do this in the car if you're in a hurry, but start as soon as you get in!). Read what your teacher wrote and think about what s/he said; run your eyes over the music to remind yourself which parts you worked on together, and how. Write a few reminders of your own right there in the music, if you like.

Why do this right away? Because right now, the memory of what you actually did is still fresh. While your teacher's notes are useful, they are really just a kind of signpost to the actual work you did. Take a few minutes right now to reinforce the memory of that work before it fades - and you'll find you've retained much more of it to use when you next practice. 

Explain it: When you explain to someone else what you've learned, you not only reinforce it, you also understand it more deeply. This could be a simple as either telling or showing: "When I play nearer the bridge, I get a bigger sound." Older students can re-explain the concepts to themselves in their own words. Parents of younger children can simply open the notebook and ask them, "What does this mean? Could you teach me?" or "What was the most interesting thing you learned today?" Again, this need only take a minute or two, and can even be done right in the waiting-room before you leave.

If you follow these simple steps, you'll be surprised how much more you remember next time you get the instrument and notebook out. Your practice will be more directed and you'll progress faster. Try it!

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