Learn to problem-solve to improve practice efficiency

Helping students become more efficient at their practice is always one of my primary goals — and often one of my biggest challenges. My new students always tell me they know how to problem-solve when I ask them in their first lessons. Yet, when pressed, they are usually not able to articulate many of the commonly known steps in problem-solving. Subsequent lessons soon reveal very inefficient practicing due to a lack of refined problem-solving skills. This is a skill students can improve for years and years.

How much would well-learned problem-solving skills help your students? Here are a few tips to help them:

  1. Know there is a problem. Encourage students to practice as mindfully as they can to quickly determine when a problem spot occurs.
  2. Identify the problem. Here, the student must try to define exactly what the problem is (not in generalities such as: I think the rhythm is not quite right or the something seems to be wrong in my LH).
  3. Create a plan of action. How will the student attack the issue? Might they isolate the issue to include just two or three notes in one hand such as where two notes comprise an awkward leap or finger cross? Then, how should they practice it? Encourage students to always practice something at a tempo that allows for accuracy — no matter how slow that might be. Students almost always try to practice something too fast — and therein lies one of the primary reasons why they struggle with efficiency.
  4. Try the plan of action. Students must be constantly alert to what seems to work and what doesn’t. Revise their plan of action when necessary. Make sure they take care to use enough repetitions to give time for the plan to work. Patience! At the same time, students must try to determine when to change the plan of attack when it isn’t working. This might entail changing entirely the physical choreography the student initially thought was necessary to negotiate that awkward leap or using an entirely different fingering for that difficult cross-over.
  5. Use trial and error. Sometimes, when no clear choices present themselves in a problem spot, students will have to use educated hunches and sometimes even blind tries. Thankfully, each ‘try’ usually provides information on what to do next — a little adjustment here, an about-face there. A student must be especially vigilant in this situation to recognize solutions when they appear — which is often unexpectedly. Don’t let a solution get away!
  6. Solidify. When plan of action is working, make sure your student plays though the problem spot by adding a few notes on either side for context. If they can play this snippet at least six or seven times in a row without an error, have them slightly elevate the tempo and play it again. Repeat this sequence until the target tempo is achieved (a task which may take days or weeks).
  7. Reconstruction. Now that the student’s plan of action has delivered the intended results, it is time for them to place the solved problem spot back into the section it came from and play it through for context.

Once a student can competently apply these problem-solving steps in the music they are practicing, it’s a great time to “transpose” them by introducing the idea of applying their hard-earned problem-solving skill to any situation in life. This will be the subject of another post and how the music lesson can truly be expanded.