Friday, November 03, 2006

Practicing Productivity

Noah has been really reluctant to go to his viola lessons lately. I mean, as a huge homebody who doesn't make transitions well at the best of times, he normally doesn't like to go, but usually once he gets there and gets in the groove, he's okay. But lately he's been articulating clearly a sense of not feeling adequately prepared. We talk about it a bit at his lesson this week.

"I think maybe you get to something that's tricky, or that you don't like a whole lot, and you figure you'll just sort of ignore it today, and get around to dealing with it later. And then suddenly you realize it's lesson day, and you never got around to it. Is that about it?"

"Yeah," he says. "That's it."

I mention how his practicing, which he's doing all on his own, is pretty short. I hesitate to articulate in real terms how short it is, but make a casual reference to him bashing through things in 20 minutes that maybe would take longer if he really delved in. He thinks his practicing is pretty long, but confesses that it might be shorter than it seems.

His grandma (/teacher) says that as a ball-park, she figures it should probably take a beginning-of-Book-5 viola student about 45 minutes to get through all the technique, repertoire, review, reading and orchestra work. She wonders if it might be helpful for him to use a timer to find out how long he is really spending on his viola practicing.

On the way home from lessons, I suggest a new way I might make up his lessons notes, which I always type up for him afterwards. He thinks it might be worth a try.

I type up three sections. One is the usual notes about details in pieces, assigned scales, reminders to watch the thumb here, to check the bowing at the top of the second page, to keep an eye on fingerings in the scales, and so on. The second section is a list of specific goals / assignments that I am guessing if he accomplishes, he will feel adequately prepared for his next lesson. Things like "fix bowings in bars 55-57 for once and for all" and "get comfortable with 3-octave d melodic minor scale in quarter notes" and "play first half of Telemann 4th accurately without written music." There are about eight of these.

The third and most crucial section is the calendar. Just a six-day calendar with days and dates and relevent activities filled in. So that he can see that it is Friday today (it's easy to lose track of the days when you don't go to school!), and Monday won't be an easy practice day, and Tuesday is group class, and then it's lesson day, and he can guage how his task-completion is faring against the progress of the week.

I print this out and give it to him, along with the kitchen timer. I really don't know if he's using the notes, though I think he probably is. What he is doing for sure is using the kitchen timer, and this has turned out to be a really instructive exercise.

After Thursday's practicing, he comes out and says "I did everything really slowly and carefully, and about five review pieces, and I can't think of anything else to do, and I still have 23 minute to go."

"What do you mean, twenty-three minutes to go?" I ask.

"Until I've done forty-five minutes."

Twenty-two minutes of practicing had seemed unusually long and thorough to him! I suspect his practice duration over the past couple of months has averaged around 14 minutes.

"Well," I say, "that was just a thought, not a requirement. There are things you could do to fill the time, like repeat the scales until they get easier, or do some extra work on the orchestra music, or do more detail work on the Martini review. But if you feel you've done enough, then that's fine. The idea is just to become aware of how much time you're spending at your practicing. Do you think you've done enough for today?" I ask.

"Yeah," he says, and heads off to the computer. Oy. Even his "exceptionally slow and thorough" practicing is still of the light-speed variety. I begin to wonder what the point of our discussion and change of tactics is.

But wait for it -- Friday's sequel.

Noah heads off to practice at the same time as Sophie. For once, she's done first. In fact, some time goes by and I realize he is still off in his bedroom playing. Finally he finishes.

"Wow!" I ask. "How long was that? It seemed like a huge number of minutes!"

"Dunno," he says. "I didn't time it. I just did everything three times. My whole practicing, three times."

He's smiling. I'm guessing it was an hour. Amazing.

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