Issue 40: Mindful Practising – Building Mental Muscles

I have touched upon this before, but it’s worth saying again!


For a while now (seems like years, maybe it has been?) I’ve been trying to get my music students to learn with the same focus and attention that I use when I am teaching them. I had never realised that focused learning is not a natural skill/ability, until the time that I was struggling make it possible for someone to play a fragment of Bach (the Musette in D from and Anna Magdalena book, bar 12, if you are interested).

The challenge was for her to play the four semiquavers with the vital combination of correct fingering, notes and rhythm. Finally, after many attempts, breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps, going through it slowly, finger by finger, she managed it. “Great! Well done!” I enthused. “Now, what did you do that made it succeed this time?”. I was hoping that she would have gained some useful insight from all our work. “I dunno.” was the dispiriting response. She had just thrown her fingers once again in the general direction of the notes and hoped for the best. Rather like throwing all your china into the cupboard and hoping it will end up in neat stacks on the shelves. All that effort, all that patient, careful teaching, explanation, demonstration, repetition – wasted.

Well, not wasted. I learnt something from it, even if she didn’t. I learnt that most students, whatever their age, don’t have an innate ability to make a conscious decision to learn something; that most people haven’t developed the “mental muscles” for learning, and that teaching them HOW TO LEARN is ninety percent of teaching the average student how to play the piano. This insight has informed my teaching, so now, a large proportion of the lesson may well be used in teaching the student exactly how to go about learning whatever it is that we are working on, be it a scale, a broken (shattered, even) chord, bit of a Mozart sonata¬†or bar 4 of Bah-ba-do-dah (current hot favourite in the Grade 1 syllabus!).


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