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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 2

Practice and the Musician An Interview with Hélène Maltais

by Laurier Rajotte / October 4, 2004

Version française...

It is October. The stress and frenzy of the start of the school year have subsided, so this is an opportune time to look at the activity that represents the near totality of musicians' work: practice.

Effective Practice

What is practice? According to some definitions, it is an activity performed voluntarily whose goal is to produce concrete results. In the context of playing an instrument, this certainly is the case. Generally speaking, there are three steps to musical performance – preparation, playing, and persevering. Practice can be described as the key feature of the first of these steps. But it is not always done efficiently. Hélène Maltais, an education professor, explains why: "Music students often find themselves confronted with several challenges in terms of practicing. For example, some think of practice as some kind of game." A trained pianist, Dr. Maltais has taught the instrument at elementary level for more than 20 years. She focused her education research on musicians' skill development at the University of Sherbrooke, and now teaches a course on the music learning process at the University of Montreal. "Students also have a tendency to work with particularly difficult passages, which they repeat time and again, thinking that mere repetition will ensure success. But if this strategy is undertaken without having established the reasons for doing so – such as defining why the passage should be repeated, what the problems are, and what measures can be taken to solve them – then it is inefficient. Moreover, such a strategy can encourage the repetition of erroneous habits that thereafter become very difficult to correct. Fortunately, one can learn to become proficient in the art of practice," she adds.

Difficulties in Practice

What are the main problems students encounter while practicing? Dr. Maltais replies without hesitation, "From the elementary to the university level, the greatest challenge for the student is motivation. From a lack of motivation comes irregularity in conforming to a practice schedule, and this decreases the progress in learning." It is wiser to practice a little every day than a lot one day and not at all the next. She continues, "Another problem, especially among younger students, is a lack of organization in the ways they practice. It is something that must be done strategically, determining what piece to practice, how, and why. It should be approached in the same manner that professionals, who cannot afford to waste time, approach practice."

Often, instructors and parents closely follow the practice sessions and methods of their children until they reach adolescence, at which point they are increasingly left on their own, right up to the university level. But considering the attention olympic athletes get from their trainers, why shouldn't the same degree of attention be applied to music students? "Music instructors often take it for granted that their students will know how to manage their practice sessions and strategies, which is not always the case." Replied Dr. Maltais. "Practice is a skill that should be developed with the same respect given to technique and musicality."

"A third great challenge facing the musician lies in the way one practices. Some students falsely assume that practice is limited to the instrument or instrumental technique," she explains. "But one can also reflect on the concept of the piece, its history, its composer; or one can think of the various tones desired. Practice is essentially the mental construction of one's interpretation."

Practice: How to do it

There is no single good way to practice; it depends on a musician's limitations (physical, temporal, technical, etc.) and objectives. Is there a common denominator to the ways in which professionals practice? Dr. Maltais replies, "Structure! Practice, as well as what is practiced, is structured. Professionals always have in mind a final goal, and so they never waste time with mechanical practice sessions; their work is focused. Another common denominator is that the experts always start off with an idea of how they want to sound, and adjust their playing according to that idea. They begin with a mental model and work to express it."

Goal-setting is of paramount importance: "To improve one's practicing, challenging and yet attainable goals must be established. Once this is done, musicians must focus their hearing on their results and ask themselves, 'Am I really playing what I am hearing interiorly?'

Setting a goal does not mean wishing to play like a virtuoso and then waiting passively for it to happen. "Musicians should always organize their practice sessions in order to reach personal goals. This process increases motivation." The equation seems simple enough: setting attainable goals leads to motivation for progressively higher goals.

How much time should musicians devote to practice? "It depends on a person's objectives, strengths, weaknesses, and age. But it has been determined that the optimal practice session is done in 50-minute blocks followed by breaks," Dr. Maltais specifies.

Some Advice

Dr. Maltais offers some advice to parents looking for tips on how to help their children make practice-time efficient: "First, the child should be encouraged. Next, the time and place for practices should be established. Parents can ask children questions about their most recent classes, their programs, what they're working on, etc., in such a way that these will give students ideas about how to organize their practice sessions on their own. Lastly, children should be encouraged to play, and to find ways to explore the music while enjoying the experience."

To young students aspiring to be professional musicians, she says, "Develop good practice habits, and never forget that music should be studied for the love of music itself."

[Translated by Eric Ginestier]

Version française...

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