One of the most important lessons I can bestow on students is teaching them how to practice. So often students and educators alike assume that if the material and concepts have been understood and attained during the lesson, then the student will automatically know how to work and improve at home by themselves. If only that were the case! Fortunately, good practice habits can be taught, and we all know that hearing progress is an excellent motivational tool.
This post is meant for educators to start the conversation about healthy and productive practice routines with their students, and share what’s worked for them. If you’re self-taught, trying your best, and looking for ways to improve your practice, check out this companion post I wrote just for you: What should I practice?
I try to be ahead of the curve and ask my students how they’re practicing and if they think they’re hearing progress on a regular basis, but the reality is that is our practice conversations often come up when I’ve heard the same passage/concept/tune/technique after a week of ‘practice with no improvement’. This could mean a couple of things, and hopefully you help the student diagnose their own practice deficiency. (It’s important for you to lead the student to the diagnosis instead of the educator always having the answer- this fosters future musical independence).
The student may have practiced other assignments but neglected a particular one because:
There has been a lack of productive time management.
Sounds like a practice schedule is in order. Help your student by dividing their total daily practice into segments, with goals for each day. Here’s where a practice notebook can be an excellent tool. It’s worth taking the 5 minutes at the end of the lesson for you to fill out the time allotted and goals for each day/assignment together, so the student can take notes during and after each practice session
The student feels this new topic was too hard.
When a student tells me that the new tune/technique/assignment was too hard, I have come to realize that this is an issue of trust. Trust is the bond that allows your students to take risks (i.e. learn or try something new). Without a student’s trust, a teacher has no currency. I explain this to my students- I tell them that I would never set them up for failure, because I know that would wear away our bond of trust. Therefore, I will only give them assignments and challenges that I KNOW they are capable of achieving (with work) so they can always believe me when I tell them they can do it. It’s important to periodically remind students that they can trust you when they are struggling.
The student doesn’t understand the end goal of the assignment.
Doesn’t everyone dislike working on a meaningless task? If the student recognizes that there is a means to an end, and that the end is coming as soon as they accomplish the skill, she will more than likely jump on board with the new and challenging task at hand. This could sound something like this, ‘Your favorite tune is in F? great! Play your F arpeggios and thirds by memory and then we can get started on that tune.’
Perhaps the student DID practice the passage, yet incorrectly.
Negative practice- drilling or mindlessly playing a section incorrectly can sometimes be worse than not practicing. Habits are hard to break.
The student wasn’t listening and thinking about the concept to decide if there has been improvement.
I find this is most common in younger students, before they have begun to think and hear in ‘layers’. It is an incredible challenge for them (or anyone for that matter) to engage and combine their physical, auditory, and visual senses. As their teacher, ask them pointed questions for them to begin to use these faculties. Here’s an example: “Let’s play this section again. When you’re done, I’d like for you to tell me if you held your bow properly, played with consistent tone, and if you read the rhythm correctly.” This puts the power on them—not you—to tell them if the practice was complete. If they can’t tell you all three senses, ask them to play again and focus more on that sense. If they say they were ‘great!’ but were less than, ask them to define or demonstrate what makes a great bow hold, great consistent tone, and great note reading. Then ask them to play again and be extremely particular- ‘How was your bow hold? oh, your pinky collapsed? Let’s work on that this week during your practice.’ etc.
Or, the student was ‘too busy to practice’ many or most days since the last lesson.
Everyone has these days. Or week. It’s important to have high expectations for practice, but remain realistic that sometimes, we.just.can’t. BUT that is NOT the case MOST of the time. I often go through a ‘normal’ week with a student who says this to me and schedule in an appointment with their instrument for each day that they can’t negotiate (rescheduling practice most often means missed practice- treat it like a doctor’s appointment and show up to practice). Remind students that 10 minutes is better than 0 minutes, but set a goal for the amount of time that the student ‘should’ be practicing every day. I don’t often suggest extrinsic rewards, however I have found that certain students respond very well to ‘100 day challenges’ with a small gift from a parent if they succeed. A week and a half in to the challenge, practice has become part of the daily routine.
Positive practice leads to confident, independent musicians. Good luck to you and your students—Happy practicing!