February 23, 2010


On a recent trip to San Francisco I read Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.  This is a great book on the different aspects of change and our response to change.  One element that struck me is that often times in my teaching I view problems as people problems and not situational problems when trying to instill change.

When teaching students in the private studio, I feel one of my main jobs is to be a motivator, get the student “pumped” about putting in the amount of time necessary to build great technique, a varied repertoire, and playing skills in a variety of genres; 10,000 hours of practice is needed to achieve expertise, research shows.  I often get disappointed, and frustrated, when students to do not embrace this full-on approach to guitar studies.

Switch has given me a different perspective of this situation.  A study of movie goers revealed that often the problem with change is not a people problem but a situation problem.  Movie goers in this study were given a bucket of popcorn, half were given a bucket larger than the other half.  What the researchers found was that those with larger buckets consumed more popcorn that those with smaller buckets.  This is obviously a study testing the effects of larger portion sizes.  The larger the plate the more you eat.  It is not that these people were popcorn eating gluttons, they just had larger buckets and consumed more popcorn as a result.  The situation they were in was the root of the problem, not the people themselves.  They were placed in a situation where the larger popcorn bucket aided their over eating.

This made me think of how I teach.  Students are told to practice technique or new pieces of music.  What I do not provide often enough, as it is obvious to me, is how a student should practice technique each day throughout the week.  What am I implying by saying a student should practice technique?  Have I given my students anything they can grasp, follow in the practice room?  Do my students really know how to practice technique in such a way that it leads to greatness?  My students want to suceed, they truly want to play the guitar better.  So, this is not a people problem but a situation problem.  My students simply do not have enough information to guide their practice time, to elicit the change I desire to see and that they want as well.

A few thoughts about how to change the situation:

1) Make a detailed weekly practice chart

This idea is not new.  My spin on this is I am the one making the practice charts, without time limits per practice session.  For example, I have made a weekly chart, Monday through Saturday, that includes the areas of practice I feel are needed for guitar students to succeed: Technique (right hand and left hand), new pieces of music, pieces of music in progress, learned music (music prepping for performance and rep maintenance), ensemble music, and improvisation/composition.

Each day I put exactly what I want my students to practice in the way of technique; Monday, Wednesday, Friday practice major scale forms in all twelve keys, for example.  My students are clear on these days what to practice in the way of technique, I have clarified the situation.  Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday practice arpeggios.

2) Focus on what needs to be accomplished, not a set amount of time

Focusing on the “to-do list” of your daily practice is a more effective method than focusing on the amount of time.  If a student is told to complete an hour of right hand technique, they will feel overwhelmed by the daunting task of practicing.  What happens if I can only squeeze out 50 minutes?  Will my technique suffer?  A better approach is to give your student a list of right hand exercises, descriptions of how to practice them, and what days to practice these techniques.

3) Music needs to be learned, rehearsed, and polished congruently

When learning a number of new pieces students will generally neglect everything else in order to make headway on the new.  This does not provide the balance needed for rep maintenance and making sufficient progress on all of the pieces that need to be learned.  With the start of a year/semester, a student is given a repertoire list, a list of pieces they will be responsible for at the end of the year/semester.  Advise your students to work on two new pieces every other day, alternating every other day.  In this fashion, the new pieces are being practiced consistently and new repertoire is being learned.  With this have two other practice sessions that focus on pieces in progress, pieces that are learned but maybe the scale passages are not consistent with the rest of the piece, and pieces that are in the polishing phase, those that are ready for performance soon.  The student is able to keep track of new pieces to learn, pieces that are in progress, and pieces ready, or nearly ready, to perform.  Clarity, your student now has some clarity on the issue.

4) Build in improvisation, composition, and arranging time

Having your students set aside time everyday to improvise, compose, and arrange will aid in their development as musicians.  Being a musician is more than being an accomplished guitarist.  It is about creativity, not technique.  Technique is simply the vehicle used for musical expression, it is how you get to express your musical creativity.  Therefore, let your students know that learning to be creative is a priority to you and should also be to them.

I’m still wrestling with a great deal of the information contained in this book.  I am as an instructor trying to instill change in my students.  Change that will ultimately bring them to greater and deeper levels of musical expression.

Here is the practice document I made for some of my students.  Feel free to use and modify.

weekly practice schedule

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