The Practice Cake: A “sweet” approach to teaching beginners how to practice

By Chrissy Ricker, NCTM 

Musical notation is a complex and elegant language. Using just lines and dots, the lovely sounds of our favorite works of music can be captured forever on the written page, to be learned and enjoyed by those of us fluent in the language of music. 

However, learning how to “decode” the language of music and turn those lines and dots back into beautiful sounds can be a challenge for our students. Some students become overwhelmed by the amount of information on the page and don’t know how to begin learning a new piece. Other students dive right into the learning process, but overlook important details in the score and practice their pieces incorrectly. 

By helping our students to better organize and understand the information presented in their music, we give them the tools they need to become fluent in the language of music and to become more efficient at practicing their pieces independently. Our goal as music teachers should be to help each of our students leave their weekly lesson knowing not only what to practice, but also how to practice! 

One of my favorite ways to break down a piece of music for my beginning students is to use the analogy of a layer cake. Even a simple piece of music is made up of many layers of information, including:

- Rhythm

- Notes on the staff

- Fingering

- Articulation

- Dynamics

- Pedaling (if applicable)

When we are performing a piece of music, we are assembling these layers to create a beautiful treat for our listeners! 

However, just like a baker assembles a cake one layer at a time, it can be helpful to focus on each layer of musical information individually as we practice. This helps us to make sure we don’t overlook any of the important details in the music, and it also gives us a step-by-step approach for practicing a new piece. 

I encourage students to think about each of the following layers of their “practice cake,” and to ask themselves these questions as they practice: 

1. Rhythm 

- Am I counting carefully?

- Am I keeping a steady beat, with no rushing or pausing?

- Does my tempo match the mood of the piece?

2. Notes and fingering 

- Can I hear each note clearly, and does each note sound correct?

- Have I looked for patterns in the music that will make this piece easier to learn?

- Am I using the correct fingering for each note?

3. Articulations 

- Have I found each articulation marking in the music?

- Am I listening carefully to execute each articulation correctly? (For example, do legato notes sound completely smooth? Do staccato notes sound detached?)

- Am I using the correct technique to create the sound I want for each articulation?

4. Dynamics 

- Have I found each dynamic marking in the music?

- Am I listening carefully so that each dynamic can be heard by the audience?

- Am I using the correct technique to create the sound I want for each dynamic?

5. Pedal (if applicable)

- Have I mastered the other layers in the music first, before adding the pedal?

- Am I listening carefully to pedal at the right time?

- Am I lifting the pedal smoothly and keeping my heel touching the floor?

By breaking up a piece of music into layers, and using these questions to guide each practice session, learning a new piece of music becomes much less intimidating for your students. In fact, you could say practicing is...a piece of cake!