Metacognition in Practice

One of the most impactful elements of my teaching philosophy is showing students the concept of metacognition and training their ability to understand and use it as an effective tool in their daily practice. Being able to stand outside yourself and communicate with yourself in the same manner as you would with another person is incredibly helpful in many crucial aspects of learning and mastering a string instrument. Students often spend too much time playing a passage over and over without taking a break and fail to realize that stepping outside the playing process and really analyzing what they are doing will produce faster and greater results. -Hans Jensen

Below is an excerpt excerpt from Chapter 2: Metacognition in PracticeMind: The Complete Practice by Hans Jensen and Oleksander Mycyk.

The spiral of learning is represented here by the Fibonacci Sequence or Golden Spiral. With great metacognitive success, the mind pulls the spiral further inward toward its goal, and with each goal, the spiral continues. A lifetime of learning is beautifully represented with a shape that is present in many natural phenomena such as seashells, galaxies, and instrument scrolls!

Metacognition is often identified as a model for “thinking about thinking.” For musicians, metacognitive knowledge and understanding are essential. Metacognition is a key component of practicing that includes planning, organizing, implementing, and evaluating everything from the smallest detail to larger practice goals. Musical inspiration, visualization, problem solving, creativity, and strategic thinking are also integral parts of practicing that depend on metacognition.

Transforming the auditory images you hear in your mind into real music is a mostly intuitive process that takes place with little conscious thought. However, this process also occurs with the help of metacognition, whereby what is imagined and heard internally is analyzed and then processed into specific techniques on the instrument.

Metacognition often manifests as a feeling or nonconceptual representation. It is common to experience a feeling of “knowing” or that an answer is on the “tip of the tongue.” Having that kind of intuitive awareness about something can lead you to the answer you have been searching for or provide the initial inspiration that propels you on your journey toward solving a problem.

Great performers complete metacognitive calculations in just a few seconds, intuitively, without even realizing all the steps that their brains process in an instant. For less experienced players, working through these concepts step by step helps to illustrate the progression of thinking needed for developing a great practice mind.

The metacognitive strategies and concepts in PracticeMind are also represented in the various practice tools contained within this book. Metacognition promotes increased mindfulness and engagement that will infuse your daily practice with inspiration, great planning, and creative ideas. Depending on your needs and what you are currently focusing on, select and use the information from the chapter in the book that will help you the most.

Metacognition Explained

When students are first introduced to the concept of metacognition, it can often seem too brainy and complicated. However, the important aspect of

metacognition in relation to practicing and playing a musical instrument is the idea of actively engaging the mind in the whole learning process in imaginative and creative ways. The process of “thinking about thinking,” as metacognition is often described, can be explained and experienced as a simple make-believe game.

This make-believe game can be done in any number of ways. It is often easier to do with younger students because make-believe games are already a big part of what they do when they play. Children’s brains are very open to learning new things, but as they grow older, they get more and more set in their own individual ways. This often limits the possibilities for being totally open to new ideas and concepts. However, we know from neuroscience that the brains of adults are still flexible (due to what is called “neuroplasticity”) and able to make incredible changes.

Because of this, make-believe games are also a great way for everyone to open their minds to creativity and experience metacognition in its most simple form.

Make-believe game with younger students

Before the student plays a piece, the teacher can tell them to imagine that their favorite dog, cat, or toy animal isin the room listening to their performance. Right after performing, the student should be encouraged to ask the animal questions about the quality of the performance. It is incredible how much self-reflection and positive and constructive feedback come back from the conversation.

If the student has trouble coming up with questions, the teacher should ask the animal questions as well to help make it a lively, engaging three-way conversation. Most kids absolutely love having an imaginary animal as part of their lesson; it is also OK to tell the student to bring a toy animal or doll to the lesson. The teacher can also invite the student to play the game at home. That way, the students have a practice partner and teacher even outside of their lessons. 

Different animals can be used as symbols for different kinds of thinking. To keep this game fresh and new, unless the student prefers the same one each time, try switching up the animals for every lesson. For example, an owl could be used to inspire the students to come up with clever answers and solutions, a cat to inspire independent thinking, and a lion as a symbol for using courage to face a difficult passage.

Make-believe game with older students

More mature students can also use animals as symbols for different ways of thinking, but they might have more fun using famous musicians and composers as imaginary practice partners. Each student can invent the character traits that they think fit the musician or composer they choose.

For example, we know from German composer Ferdinand Ries that his teacher Beethoven did not mind mistakes, but rather was obsessed with finding the true character and dynamics of the music.2 If those aspects were not followed, he would get upset. Therefore, when focusing

on dynamics and character, it might be good to pick Beethoven as the imaginary practice partner. On the other hand, if tempo control is a problem with a specific work, inviting Stravinsky into the session can be beneficial. If the problem is being too rigid and playing without freedom, Chopin is great to invite because of the way rubato is used when performing his music. If a violinist has problems with specific technical passages, it’s a great idea to invite a legendary violin teacher to the lesson. While imaginary games should play only a small part of practicing, there is no limit to how beneficial and imaginative this kind of practicing can be.

Turning make-believe games into regular practice

Introducing the concept of an imaginary practice partner shows metacognition in its purest form. Allow time in the practice session for the imaginary teacher to answer questions or give feedback from the performance or passage that was played. Going through that process teaches students that it takes time for the internal conversation or thinking process to take place when practicing. In most practice sessions, that conversation should take place within students’ minds.

A Short History of Metacognition

John H. Flavell was the first person to introduce the term metacognition to the realm of educational and cognitive psychology. Flavell used the term to refer to a person’s awareness of thinking and learning. He described it like this: “Metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them. For example, I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; or if it strikes me that I should double-check C before accepting it as fact.”3 Flavell’s model was divided into four subparts: metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive experiences, goals, and strategies.

In 1978, Ann Lesley Brown, an educational psychologist, proposed a simpler model composed of two domains of metacognition: knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition.

The above excerpt is taken from the book PracticeMind: The Complete PracticeModel Model by Hans Jensen and Oleksander Mycyk.