I believe in goal-oriented practice. At the beginning, for very young students, the goal was simply to repeat an exercise or practice a piece a certain number of times. The pieces were so short that playing them through that number of times accomplished its purpose—becoming familiar with the keyboard and training the fingers to automatically hit a certain key when the eye saw the note.
The student then progressed to an assignment book charting the number of minutes they practiced. If I asked for 150 minutes in the week, they could divide it however they wished as long as it added up to at least 150 minutes. By this time the exercises were more difficult, the scales more complicated, and the pieces longer, so I usually included detailed instructions on how to use those minutes best to accomplish the goal. That is also how I came up with a minute total. If they showed me they could accomplish the same goals in less time, I either upped the goals or lowered the minutes depending upon their age, ability, and interest.
The final level of assignment book was reached by only a few. The pieces were usually several pages long and took months to learn. They were classics requiring far more than simple note-reading and counting. At this level I was teaching talented students to become artists and performers—pianists, not just piano players. It was up to them to pull the pieces apart, working on things like phrase shaping, dynamic nuance, and variations in touch. They chose one such item to work on in a manageable section of the music—say, the exposition section of a sonata instead of the whole ten pages—and when they had accomplished that goal, they were finished with that piece for the day. On its own, practice time had increased from the 15 minutes or so a day for a beginner to something closer to two hours a day.
One day a young lady came in so full of herself I knew something was up. Instead of making me dig through her satchel for the assignment book, she fished it out herself, flipping through to find the correct page and handing it to me with a smug little smile.
I had assigned her 200 minutes of practice for the week, with these additional directions: learn all the black key major scales, hands together, two octaves; memorize the last page of the competition solo she had been working on for two months; and start the rondo movement of her new concerto by playing through the A section everywhere it appeared, in every variation, slowly enough to keep the beat steady and the notes correct.
I looked at the minute total at the bottom of the page—200 minutes, but I had my suspicions. She had practiced, according to her record, forty minutes exactly on five different days. This was the girl whose previous pages seldom showed more than three days of practice, all with odd numbers like 12, 17 or 21, and whose total had never come close to the assigned number. Each forty minute entry was written in the same bright blue ink, with the same size numbers, and the same slant, as if she had filled them in at the same time one after the other. The page was clean: no smears, creases, smudges or erasures, as if this was the first time that page had seen the light of day since I wrote out the original assignment.
I kept my suspicions to myself for the moment, smiled, and said, “Let’s play.” That was where her plan fell apart. Black key majors are the easiest scales to play. She couldn’t get past the third note. She could not play the concerto slowly enough NOT to make a mistake and she had exactly two measures of the solo memorized. How she thought she could fool me into thinking she had practiced nearly 3 ½ hours that week was anyone’s guess. After being with me for six years, I couldn’t believe she thought I was that dumb.
And yet we think we can fool God into thinking we practice. For every one that partakes of milk is without experience of the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But solid food is for full-grown men, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil, Heb 5:13,14. If that isn’t “practice,” I don’t know what it is.
If I never improve--if I keep tripping over the same stumblingblock rather than learning to step around it; if I make the same foolish mistakes instead of wising up; if my knowledge remains shallow instead of deepening with understanding through the years; if my faith remains a superficial veneer instead of reaching my heart, how can I even pretend I have been practicing?
Goal oriented practice is self-rewarding when it is followed faithfully. The student himself sees the results and is encouraged to practice more, to gain experience in whatever discipline he is applying himself. Our practice should be goal-oriented too, and we have abundant motivation, both here and beyond. But pretending to work at it will not achieve those goals any more than a silly thirteen year old could learn to play a piano concerto by lying about her practice time.
Some of us still think that counting how many times a week we assemble is all the practice we need. But God expects us to get beyond the rote practice of following rules and live the life every minute of every day. He will know when we practice and when we don’t. It will be obvious to Him, and maybe to everyone else too.
And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw nigh with their mouth and with their lips to honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid, Isa 29:13,14.