How to Get Kids to Self-Evaluate Their Progress for More Effective Practice | The 5 Dimensions of Learning Music: A Self-Assessment Tool for Students

Uncategorized Mar 25, 2023

I often joke with my students that my job as a teacher is to listen to what they play, and then tell them "Good... Now do it better." That's pretty comically pointless feedback and instruction, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, it's "pointless" because it's not very specific. But no, it's not pointless because it puts the burden of thinking where it's most appropriate: in the mind of the student.


The brain that does the thinking, does the learning.

If my job as a teacher is merely to point out specifics in need of improvement, then the student stops growing as soon as the teacher is away. That's not a great cycle.

Instead, I see my role as to encourage and nurture the student's personal drive for achievement. If their progress is limited to our time together, their progress would be very limited, indeed. That's why, more than feedback for specific improvements, students benefit most from a framework for self-assessment.

That's what "The 5 Dimensions" are - a framework I use as a powerful macro-level tool to teach students how to self-evaluate their progress for more effective practice.

Here are the 5 steps I use, and the order I use them in: (students should memorize these!)

1. Notes
2. Rhythms
3. Tempo
4. Expression
5. Presentation

Before we go further, just know that I recognize that musicians often blend several of these steps into single moments of learning. For example, we'll learn "notes" and "rhythms" simultaneously, and sometimes start applying aspects of "expression" before dealing with "tempo," etc. That's fine. The point of these 5 steps is not to say that students must learn in only this way, but rather, to use these steps and their given order as a self-assessment tool, so that when they are practicing and get stuck or plateau, they can quickly think

"Listening to myself and how I just played this section, which step would I say I was successfully through?"

Then they think:

"Notes? Check. Rhythms? Check. Tempo? Hmmm... could be faster... could be more steady... Expression? Let me fix tempo first. I'll go a little slower until I can get it perfectly steady, then I'll start putting back in the expression and see if I can keep it steady, too. Maybe tomorrow I'll go faster."

So, we could rearrange the particular order of the steps, or think they should be labeled differently, or that there should be entirely different categories. That's fine. The point isn't that these 5 are "The PERFECT Golden 5 Steps of Music" or such nonsense, but rather, that they form a somewhat logical framework I personally use when teaching my students, and which I now also teach them to use to self-direct their own practice, too.

The steps, however perfect or imperfect, are useful in other ways, too. By making each individual step clear and distinct from the others, it helps make each goal tangible, and clear goals lead to clear successes.

By using the steps, students become more mindful, intentional, and deliberate about their practice moment-by-moment. They also learn to be more honest with themselves about their current state of progress, to such a degree that they can sense their own progress better than anyone else observing their progress from the outside. (Doesn't that sound powerful?! I think the right word is actually "empowering!")

Let's scratch the surface of what's meant by each step:

1. Notes

This just means "playing the right notes," and it includes finger choices as to how you play that note. The pitch you play is the most basic building block of a song. But it takes more than just the correct pitch to make music! (On instruments like violin or cello, this could also include which string/finger/position is used.)

2. Rhythms

The subtle difference between "rhythm" and "tempo" is that rhythm deals specifically with the duration of notes in proportion to each other, but tempo deals with the overall speed in which the notes and rhythms are played. Once you have the right notes and the right rhythms, it's really going to start sounding like a song! 

3. Tempo

Notes and rhythms are fairly straightforward and "single" in their nature. When the note or rhythm is right, it's right. Tempo, however, comes in aspects and slices.

The first aspect of tempo is steadiness. The world-famous classical guitarist Christopher Parkening says the first goal when working on a new song is to play through its notes and rhythms correctly (meaning also without any stops, pauses, or hesitations where there ought not be) no matter how slowly. This refines the piece by bringing any trouble spots to the surface of our attention - whether it's a page-turn, a finger placement choice, an unusual note combination, or a tricky rhythm - whatever the case, it's best to fix it when it's slow.

The second aspect of tempo is bringing the piece up to concert tempo. This is the aspect of tempo that comes in many tiny slices because it usually takes days, weeks, and sometimes months to pull a complex piece up to concert tempo. World-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman echos Christopher Parkening's advice this way. He says "The key to playing fast is playing slow." (Listen to Chris and Itzhak!)

4. Expression

In its basic form, "Expression" just means the mood or feeling you bring to a piece or to a particular section of a piece. It's not the story; it's how the musician narrates the story. It's where all the math and physics connect with feelings to produce art. This is where ART begins to happen.

The basic tools of expression are as primary as the colors and textures oil painters have to work with; but instead of "red/yellow/blue, black/white, and some textures," we musicians have "loud/soft, fast/slow, and some textures (smooth/detached)..." 

Here's the trick about Expression: it changes with tempo. In other words, the same musician may prefer very different expressive choices at a slow tempo than a fast one. That's okay! In fact, it's a big opportunity for enjoyment at all the speeds while learning a song.

Moreover, an artist's expressive choices may likely change to adapt a style that best fits the tastes of the audience - - - Are they a "serious" audience, looking to be "moved" or "inspired," or are they a light-hearted audience, looking to laugh? Take a moment to enjoy the musical comedy of Victor Borge!

Sometimes we even alter our expressive choices to accommodate the reverberation of an echoey concert venue - or, simply because we feel like playing a piece differently today than we did yesterday. Sometimes, completely differently! (This is where I'm tempted to launch into a longer discussion on "the soul of the artist..." but I'll refrain!)

5. Presentation

Among musicians, this is the dimension of our performance that gets the least attention, but is one of the most important aspects of today's most popular musicians. That is, what makes the performance really worth watching?

On a basic level, this aspect deals with what we wear, how our environment looks, and how we as performers interact with our environment, and how our environment interacts with our music to create an effect for our audience.

Whether we show up in plain clothes or dressed up, both are choices in our presentation. Whether we exaggerate our hand and arm motions for visual impact, or have a laser light show, smoke machines, and spin in circles on the floor while fireworks explode in the background - it all affects our audience, and is worth planning into our practice!



I hope you found the 5 Steps a useful sort of framework for your student's practice. Think of them every time you practice! 

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