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What's new in pedagogy research.

Do you believe that as your students advance they become better at practicing? Use better strategies? Are more focused? Enjoy practicing more? Are they getting better because they are learning to practice more effectively? A recent study titled "The development of practicing strategies in young people" (1) investigated these questions.

The Method

Previous research on practicing generally focused on video recording small samples of students and observing their practice habits and approaches. This study, conducted in the United Kingdom (UK), took a different approach by surveying a total of 3,325 music students, studying all classical and popular instruments in a variety of instructional settings. Because the students were studying in the UK, they all participated in graded examination boards each year in levels Preliminary to Grade 8 (the final, pre-audition level for conservatory entrance requirements) and ranged from 6 to 19 years of age. The results of these yearly graded examinations provided a readily available assessment of their level of expertise and quality of playing. The questionnaire used a seven-point Likert scale and included a range of statements relating to "the practicing strategies adopted; the organization and management of practice; and motivation to practice." (2)

The Results

Data from the extensive survey were analyzed and the results applied to seven general factors:

1. Adoption of systematic practice strategies. This factor included statements regarding methods of practicing such as what to do after making a mistake; practicing difficult sections repeatedly; recognizing errors; practicing small sections; and concentration during practice. Results indicated that "as the level of expertise increased, the adoption of systematic practice strategies increased." (3)

2. Organization of practice: Statements included the use of warm-ups and scales; listing what had to be practiced; setting goals for each practice session; marking the score; and practicing with the metronome. Responses suggested that "as level of expertise increased, there was no systematic increase in the organization of practice." (4)

3. Use of recordings for listening and feedback, and use of the metronome. Data pointed to a greater use of recordings and the metronome as expertise increased.

4. Use of analytic strategies: Included in these statements were "trying to find out what a piece sounds like before trying to play it; getting an overall idea of a piece before practicing it; identifying difficult sections; analyzing the structure of a piece before playing it; thinking about interpretation; and working things out just by looking at the music and not playing." Again, as the students' level of expertise increased there was no increase in the use of analytic strategies. (5)

5. Adoption of ineffective practicing strategies: Statistically significant responses were made to statements concerning "only playing pieces from beginning to end without stopping when practicing ... and going back to the beginning and starting again when making a mistake ... [A]s the level of expertise increased, there was a decrease in the adoption of ineffective practicing strategies." (6)

6. Concentration: Data from statements regarding ease of concentration and being easily distracted when practicing suggested that with an increase in expertise there was no concurrent increase in concentration.

7. Immediate correction of errors: Statements included "when making a mistake the wrong note is corrected and then I carry on; and, when I make a mistake I carry on without correcting it." Responses indicated that as expertise increased, the immediate correction of errors decreased. (7)

Students' attitudes toward practicing were also studied with statements such as: I like to practice; on some days I don't want to practice; and, I find practice boring. There were no statistically significant relationships between expertise and liking or disliking practicing, but "as expertise increased, so did reluctance to practice on some days ... suggesting that students enjoy practicing less as they become more expert." (8)

In their concluding statements the researchers wrote:
   Learners at higher levels of
   expertise reported adopting
   more effective practicing strategies
   and perceived that they
   were more able to recognize
   errors. They also ceased to adopt
   the ineffective strategies of playing
   through entire pieces, returning
   to the beginning of a piece if
   they made a mistake, or correcting
   errors as they played through
   a piece.... What may be problematic
   is that some learners are
   unable or unwilling to change
   their approach as the content of
   what they are learning becomes
   more complex and difficult. This
   is supported by what appears to
   be a dip in the adoption of
   effective strategy use at around
   grade 3. It may be that, as the
   repertoire becomes more challenging,
   some students cannot
   or are not sufficiently interested
   to adapt their practice strategies.
   These students may then give up
   playing. The increase in negative
   attitudes towards practice in
   these middle grades supports
   this.... The data suggested that
   practice was enjoyed in the early
   stages of learning with less
   enthusiasm in the middle examination
   grades with enjoyment
   and commitment returning
   beyond this level. (9)


In the first class of a university pedagogy course, I always ask "What is the main goal of every lesson?" My students always have a wide variety of responses--to introduce new pieces, to correct mistakes, to teach good technique, to teach musicianship and the like. Although these are all good and valid activities, they never name the goal I feel is the very most important aim of every lesson--to prepare the student for practice. Perhaps that is why I found this study to be interesting and disturbing.

Factors two, four and six showed no improvement with increasing expertise. Why is that? Did their teachers assume that because they were playing harder repertoire and technique they were maturing in their organization of practice, use of analytic strategies and concentrated focus? Additionally, there was a significant dip in good practice techniques and positive attitudes during the middle grades, which would probably correspond with intermediate literature and the middle school years. Should we give more emphasis on how to practice the assigned pieces during these years, rather than assuming that since they made it this far, they should know how to practice effectively and efficiently? Certainly more questions than answers; but for me, a renewed determination to never slack off overtly training and preparing each student for how to practice each piece, each week!


(1.) Hallam, Susan, et al. "The development of practicing strategies in young people," Psychology of Music 40(5) (2012) 652-680.

(2.) Ibid., 657.

(3.) Ibid., 661.

(4.) Ibid., 663.

(5.) Ibid., 663-5.

(6.) Ibid., 665.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Ibid., 665-7.

(9.) Ibid., 670-1.

By Rebecca Grooms Johnson, NCTM

Rebecca Grooms Johnson, PhD, NCTM, is a nationally respected leader in the field of piano pedagogy. She is an independent teacher and has taught extensively at the college and university level. Johnson has served as president of Ohio MTA, chair of MTNA's Pedagogy Committee, chair of the National Certification Commission and is currently vice president of the MTNA Board of Directors. She is an associate editor for Clavier Companion.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources; music teaching
Author:Johnson, Rebecca Grooms
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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