I’ve recently begun using an analogy to Google Earth when helping my students plan their practice. For those of you who haven’t used Google Earth before, it’s a free satellite imaging program that allows a user to zoom in on any area of the Earth, starting with a view of the Earth as if you were in outer space, and zooming right in on individual cars or buildings. The detail is quite stunning; it’s amazing technology that is well worth a look if you haven’t used it before (but be prepared for time to vanish while you’re immersed in it!).
Although Google Earth is a great piece of software, it’s not that directly useful for piano practice (except as a procrastination tool!). That said, I’ve found that the analogy of “zooming in” from outer space right up to the detail of someone’s letterbox, is one that will resonate with students when they need to find trouble-spots in their pieces.
I’ve found that all too often during practice, students neglect to “zoom in” and work on the real source of their problems in a piece. This leads to the wholly unproductive practice of playing bits they already know well (often the beginning) and playing through known trouble spots just hoping that they will get better with repetition. As I repeatedly tell my students in lessons, mindless repetition is a waste of their valuable time.
Instead, I ask them to think like Google Earth while they play through a difficult part of a piece. The whole piece represents the Earth from space, a country might represent a movement, their state might be a page, a line of music might be the city, their street one phrase and the problem area is no more than their letterbox! The challenge: concentrate and zoom in enough to find the letterbox in their piece!! This will often be no more than two beat’s worth of music at a time.
Once the location of the letterbox is identified precisely, we work out what the difficulty is. More often than not, it’s hands not moving fast enough to a new position, or if they are, landing in the wrong spot. Perhaps it’s an awkward fingering that needs adjusting or the left hand simply not knowing what it’s doing. I give them some practice techniques at this letterbox level for a few minutes before we zoom out just slightly to their street frontage level. They instantly realise that this means adding just the one or two beats before, and then the one or two beats after the trouble-spot, and playing through that level of zoom. This eliminating the next most common mistake of neglecting to effectively join the trouble-spot back into the rest of the phrase.
Using this analogy, you can keep zooming in and out of their pieces as required. My hope is that students will realise that by “zooming-in” and fixing problems at the letterbox level in their pieces, their practice will be far more effective, they will achieve their practice goals faster and thus have more time for all those important things like Facebook and computer games!
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