PRACTICE: THE COMPLETE WORKS
PART 1 –
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE NATURE OF PRACTICE
By Kevin Taylor
Before you enrolled in guitar lessons you may have already noticed your child’s interest in music or the guitar. If your child was interested, you may not know where that interest came from, or you might not even care. We don’t know where it came from either. But here we are.
You have brought your child to music & guitar lessons because you probably want your child to be able to play music. The entails learning the physical skill, aural sensitivity and musical knowledge. You may have other reasons, too (to keep them busy, have them interact with other talented kids, keep their minds on a discipline as they become teenagers, improve their IQ, provide a beautiful activity as they mature, etc.) Regardless of your motives, the ultimate goal of that acquisition of musical skill is being able to play the instrument – perform. We practice so we can perform. Regardless of our audience preference, concert stage, friends, family, oneself, the point of learning music is to play it.
All performing is simply remembering what to play. So practice and learning music is simply a process of inputting memories. The kind of memories a musician stores is not like remembering a series of numbers or a shopping list. It is an extremely refined combination of input from many senses and cognitive processes: arms, fingers, head, eyes, motion, hearing and discriminating sound, visual perception, symbol processing, and even proper thinking! Even just sitting down and holding the guitar correctly requires many separate memories which requires practice.
The physical process of skill acquisition and mastery has been studied for about 40 years. It is a relatively new science. But we know much more now about it than decades earlier and, better yet, we now know more about the “why” and “how” of it.
THE PHYSICAL PROCESS
Simply put, a new musical passage starts out as a chemical process in the brain and becomes an electrical one. Every motion a musician learns starts out as a neuronal pathway linking one brain neuron to another. The synapse – the space between neurons where most of the memory construction takes place is extremely small – less that a millionth of an inch. This chemical linkage unifies the electric charge in the two neurons and they become a pathway that the brain retains if its sufficiently insulated. Electricity moves through the completed neuronal pathway to complete the action. This pathway is not like a single trail through the snow. It is like a tree blowing in the breeze, with limbs and branches all over our brain, spinal cord, motor and sensing nerves. It is extremely complicated. For our neurology to remember the perfect unification of the specific electrical pathway, it must be “programmed” perfectly and reinforced many times exactly. There are many opportunities for the electrical charge to go astray in those tiny branches (we call those “mistakes”). So the correct pathway has to be created, contained and somehow retained. That’s where concentration and repetition comes in.
Every time a neural pathway is created or activated the brain insulates it with myelin. Myelin is a type of fat. The process of insulation is critical for accurate movement and a musical presentation. That process is stimulated by concentration. The more we do a learned motion the more myelin insulates it, the faster the electrical current moves through the neural pathway and the more automatic the action becomes. If you think of a correct musical passage as a neural pathway, every time it is done perfectly it is insulated more and it can be done again a bit easier. Every time it is done incorrectly, however, it can also be done again easier! So its important that it be done right the first time. And it is important we catch our mistakes before they become habitual. Children don’t normally do that. So unless we wish to spend a lot of time un-learning (allowing the myelin to degrade), skill development is best done in a progressive, one-step-at-a-time, manner like we do in Childbloom.
Children don’t practice perfectly and yet they learn extraordinary skills before the age of two – they learn to walk and to talk. However, they have constant, natural models and teachers, parents and older siblings who are good at those things. But learning music is very different. Most parents don’t have the skills associated with guitar playing (at least not the advanced ones). So the job of parents is different and much less natural and spontaneous. It requires thinking and purpose.
And that’s what I will be addressing in subsequent articles in this newsletter.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO
The ability to practice perfectly is a function of a number of aspects: 1) the chronological age of the child; 2) the intelligence of the child 3) the emotional age of the child 4) the physical attributes of the child 5) the emotional stability of the child 6) the concentration ability 7) the relative helpfulness of the environment 8) the connectedness of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. All of these aspects are dynamic – an ever-changing algorithm. Most parents, like most kids, are enthusiastic about their role in the beginning of this process. After a few weeks parents tend to want to withdraw – especially if the child seems to be functioning well. We don’t encourage that. Your presence may look different but your involvement-commitment and attention should not change – ever.
I think its important for we parents to see ”practice” as “learning.” It’s much easier to re-commit to involving ourselves to our child’s “learning,” rather than “practice” – and all the negative associations “practice” can have. However, seeing your child learn, being in the same environment when its happening, noticing progress, is a great joy of parenting. Its what keeps many teachers coming back, too.
PREPARING FOR LEARNING
Children change faster that adults. We parents have to adjust to those changes. Its probably not fair, but that’s the way it is. Before practice starts parents must prepare the learning environment for the child. If you haven’t considered that, do it today. Not all environments look the same for every child and not all environments will remain the same for any one child. Here are the essentials:
1) Supply the child with everything needed: chair, guitar, footstool, tuner, guitar stand (to prevent breakage) and eventually a music stand. If you are online, please get a good microphone and teach the child how to maximize the sound if you don’t wish to do it. Don’t think the value you are providing your child doesn’t come with a cost.
2) Have a protected environment for practice. Have it quiet. Have it comfortable. Find out where your child wants to practice. Remember, concentration is the key to accurate learning. Since the guitar is portable, the child may find h/her own space to play or even change the space frequently. You need to notice which space creates more progress so when better concentration is needed you can bring the student there. The child won’t know. Kids’ privacy demands change with age, also, but the initial default should be an environment where your presence is immediate. Think of it like this: you want to be so close that if a child raises the guitar over his head to smash it, you can prevent it.
3) Time Management – How much time can YOU devote to watching or helping your child learn? Don’t expect your child to do more than you initially. Parents need to figure that out ahead of time. If the child wants to play for dad and dad gets home after the child’s bedtime, then you have a problem that needs to be solved. These days, the kids are home a lot because of the pandemic. Ironically, because of so much time available, the time tends not to get organized. Parents need to be aware of “learning time” for the music. The older tweens and teens may have carved it out for themselves, but you need to know when it is happening and especially when it is not!
For the most part, parents will have to organize the practice time for the kids below the age of 11. Don’t be afraid to initiate it after the novelty wears off. That’s pretty normal. But recent research in skill learning suggests something surprising: SPACED LEARNING IS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN EVERY DAY LEARNING FOR MEMORY RETENTION! This means that all is not lost if the student fails to practice every day. To help you monitor the patterns of practice, which will be important in subsequent articles, see our Learning Calendar at the end of the newsletter.
In the next month’s newsletter I will address the thorniest problem parents usually face – initiating the practice. If this can be solved, everything can be solved. And it can be solved.
2021The Childbloom Co.