As a piano teacher, one of my main jobs is to teach my students how to practice and learn pieces of music at home. Many students tend to practice in a very ineffective way. Here's what many students think constitutes "practicing."
- They start playing at the beginning of the piece.
- They play until they make a mistake in rhythm or notes (if they even notice they've made a mistake at all); then they stop at that section and struggle to find the right notes.
- Once they find the right notes—or what they think is right—they just continue from where they were and the process repeats: play, mess up, find the right notes (hopefully) and continue from there to the end of the piece.
- By the time they reach the end, they may have played all the right notes (eventually), but those correct notes were intermingled with a dozen other wrong ones.
Many of my students practice like this at first, and then when they come to lesson they wonder why they can't play the song through correctly! In their minds, they think they've spent hours practicing the pieces during the week; but in reality they've done practically nothing to improve their ability on the piece. They wasted all that time at the piano and accomplished next to nothing.
So that is my first challenge: to teach my students how to practice effectively.
Enter Larry, Moe, and Curly. Yup, you got it, the three Stooges! What in the world do the Three Stooges have to do with practicing piano? Let me explain.
In learning any piece of music, the piano student is simply training the muscles and nerves in his fingers and arms to work smoothly in concert and in order.
Imagine your fingers have a mind of their own, and can learn to repeat certain passages of music, but only when they are told what to play. For example, let's say there's a short two-measure section of music you're trying to learn. If you play it through, but stumble over the rhythm and notes, your fingers have not been sent the correct message.
And so you play it again, but still with mistakes.
Again, your fingers have no clue what is right yet.
But then you play it through one time perfectly (probably on accident), without any mistakes! Aha, you think, now I've got it right! And so you move on to the next section. Big mistake!
Look at it from your fingers' perspective. You may have played that two-measure section 30 times, but only on the 30th time did you play it correctly. Your fingers (being rather clueless most of the time) have no idea which of those 30 times they're supposed to remember. Only if you play a section the same way, several times in a row, will your fingers "get a clue" and figure out exactly what it is they're supposed to remember.
I try to stress to my students that once they've played a section correctly, they need to play it again—at least three times in a row—with no mistakes in between, to ensure that their fingers do indeed know the section. If they can accomplish that, then they can be fairly confident that they will be able to play that section again, correctly, and without any errors.
And so we're back to Larry, Moe, and Curly (represented by three Monkeys from my Monkeys in a Barrel game).
The monkeys simply help my students visualize their practice. Once they've played a section correctly, Larry gets hung up. If they play it correctly again the second time in a row, Moe gets hung up under Larry.
If at any time they play even one wrong note or rhythm in the section, every monkey that's hung up gets taken down and we're back to square one. Since the goal is to play the section correctly three times in a row, the student continues in this manner until he can hang all three monkeys.
I have added an extra twist to the game in recent months. To ensure that the learning of the section of music has really moved into long-term memory, I stop my student after they have hung up Moe. They have to remove their hands completely from the piano and then I ask them some question (silly or not-so-silly) to get them completely distracted from what they were just playing. I might ask them anything from a geography question to how to spell their middle name backwards or what they ate for dinner last night.
After they've been thoroughly distracted, I'll have them play through the section one more time. If they're able to do it (on the first attempt) without any errors at all, then we'll move on to learning another section. But if they make any mistakes, we remove Larry and Moe and begin again.
I encourage my students to use the same "Monkey Practicing" principle at home. They can either find three objects to use in place of the monkeys, or they can just visualize it while they practice. It's really amazing what this little game has done to help my students focus on effective practicing!