Stuff my students say

December 10, 2012

What my students say What my students mean
I was too busy to practice this week. My choices this week did not include practicing.
I can play it perfectly when nobody is listening, I promise! When somebody is listening, I’m suddenly painfully aware of problems with my playing that I ignored in the practice room.
I can play it, just not with the metronome. I can play the correct pitches in the correct order, but not with enough fluency to put each note where it belongs in time. In other words, I can’t play it.
Right now I’m just trying to get the notes. I’ll add in the dynamics and articulations later. I might eventually get the “notes,” but don’t bet on me ever observing any of the other markings.
The thing is, I’m just not good at _____ (rhythms, high notes, low notes, technical passages, lyrical passages, dynamic contrasts…). I wish to be excused from improving my playing.
This _____ (etude, repertoire piece, technical exercise…) is boring. The way I’m playing it is boring.
I practiced until I got it right! I played it wrong 99 times, then right once. Guess which will happen in my lesson, rehearsal, or performance?
You’re mean. I’m unprepared.





  1. Gandalfe

    Don’t forget the adult hobbyists. Given enough time, *maybe* I could learn to play the altissimo with the same dexterity as the rest of the instrument range. But given my 10 hr a day job, 6 hr a week practice & gig time, 8 hrs a day sleep, … it probably won’t happen.

    It’s all about priorities and where does making music fit in their. Lessee, country, family, work, … hobbies. I would also note that while my wife picked up growling on a sax in 15 minutes (damn her!) I have been working in on and off for years, and it has never been there for me. I suspect some people have a genetic predisposition for making beautiful music.

    Doesn’t mean I take my toys and go home though. There are just too many gigs out there where the band is glad to have me. And every once in a while, you click on all cylinders and play the gig of your life.

    Recent blog post: New Christmas Icons & Tracking Cookies (December 12, 2012)


  2. mike

    Couple of thots. One is that a generous way to approach the teaching of music is that no one HAS to learn it. It’s something that enriches life and many people would like to learn it. But life often has other priorities, and especially for adult students, it might be helpful to think of it less as trying to get mildly interested people to do what you ask, dammit, but as an opportunity each week to remind people how wonderful it it to be able to play an instrument.

    A less generous response (sorry) to your points about might be a they say/they mean game like this:

    Says: I didn’t get a chance to practice much.
    Means: I didn’t leave my last lesson excited to practice.

    Says: Do I have to practice these scales?
    Means: I don’t understand how this skill helps me.

    Says: I practiced this piece millions of times and I still can’t play it.
    Means: You haven’t taught me how to practice properly.

    Says: This is kind of boring.
    Means: I’m not having fun with what we’re working on. I want to play music!


    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Gandalfe and Mike — you bring up some good points. Clearly my post is one born of frustration.

      I perhaps should have clarified that most of my students are full-time college music majors. They don’t “have to” do anything I ask, but they did choose to be here. Some, it seems, are learning the hard way that high-level music study is not a casual or “when-I-feel-like-it” situation. It takes many hours, often well beyond the point that the “fun” runs out, and sometimes means sacrificing other things. But the ones who succeed are the ones for whom the work and sacrifice are worth it.


  3. mike

    Bret — my daughter was a music major, actually, and does have the “I really should be practicing” mentality that seems to be a requirement for that life. :-) As I’m sure you know, what seems to dictate success in music, and indeed, in many or most fields, is not raw talent per se (which certainly doesn’t hurt) but what someone once called “a talent for practicing” — being dedicated to it and knowing how to do it effectively. I’ve certainly seen that among students of language (which I have taught), and it’s perfectly clear in my work in high-tech — the people who do the best are those who, either through sheer joy of it or via an overdeveloped sense of responsibility — are always “practicing” and developing their craft.

    I’m always amused when we go to the opera, and how during the intermissions there are always people in the pit, madly running through their parts. Break time seems to be just another opportunity to practice, heh.


  4. Shelley Collins

    I’d like to jump in to this conversation, because I offer the perspective of someone who 1) hears Dr. Pimentel’s students in the practice room; and 2) chats with those students in other classes. (I teach music history as well as flute, so I encounter every music major for at least 3 semesters.)

    They know how to practice. He’s taught them all of the “tricks” — metronome, changing the rhythms, using practice logs, drilling small bits at a time, etc. He even uses lessons as supervised practice time for new students who haven’t quite caught on to the art of practicing. His students tell me that they understand *why* they need to know their scales.

    And many (most) of his students catch on—admirably. Since my office is next door, I often hear great improvement coming from students in their lessons, as well as in recitals and juries.

    But since the practice rooms are directly across from our offices (which is both a blessing and a curse), we also know who actually practices and who doesn’t, as well as HOW they practice. Some students just insist on running through pieces—no matter how many times Bret teaches them how to break up their practice into more effective segments.

    I’ll be the first to admit that some of what we assign IS boring. But until a student can play a scale with accuracy, they’re going to have a hard time developing the technical fluency that will allow them to make the MUSIC they want to make.


    • mike

      Yes, I think Bret’s quite right in noting that there’s a difference in working a hobbyist and with someone who has more or less explicitly declared their commitment to the craft, and who can be expected, as Bret notes, to do the woodshedding (and do it right).

      I personally am in the hobbyist category, and it has been remarkable to me what a wide variety of teaching skills there are among the teachers in whose studios I’ve sat. (Again, true for any field.) Some number of my teachers have not taught practice skills — whether they don’t know how to, or whether the need doesn’t occur to them. (That said, I took a class once that was entirely about how to practice with a metronome.)

      Anyway, Bret, thanks for this post. Given especially the follow-up explanation of where it was coming from, it’s clear what you’re talking about, and I hope you don’t think that _I_ think that you’re lacking in teaching skills or dedication. :-)


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