Practice and the Musician An Interview with Hélène Maltais by Laurier Rajotte
/ October 4, 2004
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:
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
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
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.
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
[Translated by Eric Ginestier]