Smart Practice Choices: Evaluating Our Inner Voice

By Gail Fischler, founder of Piano Addict Blog

Do you judge yourself as you practice? Those negative inner thoughts are human nature. Sometimes voices from the past echo in our heads. Sometimes, the thoughts have nothing to do with the task at hand at all. Every good book that I have ever found, on practicing anything—from tennis to a musical instrument, to public speaking—advises working positively without judging.

Evaluate. That's the ticket. You don't have to beat yourself up. Judging while learning and practicing is negative. The outcome of judging is also negative. Evaluating is positive. When you evaluate, you look at where you were, where you are, and what will help you get better. Here’s an example.

Judging Inner Voice: Don't mess up this run.
Result: The run goes totally wrong.
Judging Inner Voice Again:
Don't play Cs or miss the last note.
Result: Missed C#s and last note. 

Positive Evaluating Inner Voice: That run isn't working. Maybe it's fingering. Put the 3rd finger on the C#s.
Result: The fingering worked but I missed the last note. 
Positive Evaluating Inner Voice:
Aim for the high A. Put my 3rd finger on the C#s.
Result: A totally successful run.

It’s the Don’t Think About Elephants exercise. Of course, the first thing that pops into your mind when someone says don’t think about elephants is a very large elephant complete with floppy ears, possibly eating peanuts. The same thing applies to music practice. If you say don’t do something, that very thing pops right into the mind. 

In the first judging example above, the brain has not been given anything to shoot for— just a general don’t mess up. Then, more poor instructions (don’t play Cs & don’t miss the last note) mean the only things remembered are C and last note. In the second evaluating example, the brain has been given exact instructions on what to do (put 3 on C# and then aim for A) with a positive result.

Let’s talk a minute about that other judging voice, the one that says I'm so bad at this, I never get this part right, or I'll never be good enough. The path to silencing those kinds of thoughts is a creative practice. Take things apart, change them, put them back together. And, give yourself specific directions along the way.

So many times, despite how I have modeled practicing in the last lesson or how carefully I have provided written assignment guidelines, when I ask students how their practice went during the previous week or how they practiced a specific passage, I am given a job list. I practiced the third page ten times every day, but it's only a little better, they say. I worked on getting the fingering right in the LH part, but I'm bad at fingering, they say.

I decided to make a new kind of practice log—an anti-practice log. I wanted it to help my students focus on the quality rather than the quantity of their practice. I wanted it to reward them for the good decisions they made. I wanted to help them silence their judging voices. I wanted it to work no matter the person's preferred way of learning.

The result is the sheet you see below. I printed it two per page on 8.5" by 11" colored cardstock so that it looked as little like a practice journal as possible. I also left the back blank to provide extra writing room.

It was hard going at first. One student gave me a mileage log, I practiced 45 minutes on Tuesday. Presumably, they felt that just getting to the piano was a smart choice. And, although it was, it wasn't really the kind of choice I had in mind. Another told me they had practiced the 3rd page and then gave me a laundry list of things they needed to fix. Going over the Smart Choice card was the first thing we discussed at every lesson.

Little by little, students started to dig deeper and think about practicing differently. For several, it was like pulling teeth. But, once they had a repertoire of smart choices, they began to be more creative and come up with new strategies on their own. I was very happy when I began to read entries such as these three:

I practiced for about 15 minutes and couldn't focus at all, so I stopped and had a snack and a nap and then everything worked so much better.

I took tiny sections and worked until I was comfortable and then stuck them together.

I took those broken chords and practiced my arpeggios in lots of keys with that pattern, and I told myself to aim for the first note in every group.

Smart Choices? Indeed!

Please feel free to use the Smart Choices card with your students or in your own practice. If you do use it, please include my copyright. I’d love to hear how it worked for you! Let me know over at Piano Addict

(This article first appeared on August 20, 2013, on Piano Addict. Reprinted with permission.)