Between lessons, music students are left to fend for themselves and practice without your nagging–oops– I mean guidance. The minute they walk out of their lesson, it’s almost as if they walk into a black hole. We cross our fingers and hope for the best. If you want quality home practice between lessons, it begins with the teacher–yes YOU!
It’s hard enough trying to fit all the concepts that need to be covered in a lesson but if you want students to progress, THE most important concept that you need to teach in EVERY lesson is…HOW to practice!
In the first weeks and even months of lessons with a new student, I feel that 60-70% of my lesson is spent on practicing with them: clapping or moving to the beat, playing hands alone, hands together in small chunks, playing a portion 3x and aiming for the 3rd time to be perfect and other games and drills.
I confess, I get impatient. I feel the pressure of time and what has yet to be covered and neglect focusing on practice strategies at lessons. So sharing this post is for me just as much as it is for anyone reading it.
My realization that practicing is an essential skill for musicians produced an idea a couple of years ago that I call Practice Pouches. Here’s the post I wrote featuring details of the practice pouch my students assemble in the first couple of weeks into lessons. The pouch includes a highlighter, die and some other tools that keep home practice interesting and memorable.
Besides the standard items in every practice pouch, I like to include “traveling” tools. I show how to use them for home practice at the lesson. Students borrow the tool for the week of practice and return it so another student can use the tool the next week.
Transposing can be a frequently neglected assignment. Offering big, chunky dice with letter names written on them allows students to roll and let chance decide the transposition key and reminds them to complete the assignment.
If beginners are working from a limited staff notation, roll the die to determine what key on which to begin the piece. Or roll and find all those keys with the same name on the keyboard.
To boost students’ understanding of the keyboard, write words like the ones below on the sides of the die. Ask them to roll and play and create on the keyboard what it says.
- 2 black
- 3 black
Detecting similar patterns in a longer piece can set students at ease. It may look like a gigantic piece to conquer but when there are a number of sections that are virtually the same, the task seems much more achievable. Color coding each section provides an immediate visual landscape of information and helps tremendously with memorization. Challenge: give memory quizzes and ask students to play all the pink sections or the green section or…
These rubbery creatures continue to entertain AND solidify concepts for my students. I’ll ask beginners to set the cow on C, the dolphin on D, the elephant on E, etc. Since the penguin lives in the Arctic, it stands on the letter “A”–a stretch, I know.
To teach the pentatonic scale, the student first places the animals on the scale tones: CDE GA–scale degrees 123 56. After the tones are played in order, move the animals up to the piano rack. Ask the student to mix up the animals and play the keys in the new order. Introduce this as a MOTIVE. Next, ask the student to play the row of animals backwards and the label that RETROGRADE. Moving this same pattern a step up to D will demonstrate SEQUENCE. Assign students to create a new motive, sequence and retrograde every day during home practice.
- Divide a piece up into 6 sections and number them on the page.
- Roll the die to choose a section.
- Roll the die again to see how many times that section will be played.
- Explain the rule that the last time the section is played it must be perfect or the die must be rolled again and the student must start all over.
Penny, Skittles or M&Ms Challenge
For a change of pace, set 4-6 coins or favorite candy pieces in a row on the piano rack. Ask students to play a section. Once the section is played up to your specifications and students understand those specifications, move one piece or coin to the other side of the piano rack. Once all the pieces are moved to the other side, the student can enjoy the extra cash or munch on the candy.
See how paper clips can prepare students for upcoming performances here. They, along with puzzle piece erasers or just puzzle pieces work perfectly for “link and chain” practice. Ask students to master one measure. Once it is played with zero errors a paper clip or puzzle piece or monkey is earned. Ask the student to learn and master the next measure. Once this is mastered (which is determined by teacher and student) another clip is earned. Next, ask the pianist to play both measures. When these are performed with zero errors, the student may link the clips or puzzle pieces or monkeys. Challenge students to see how many links can be chained together each day during home practice. Some even share pictures of their success with me during the week!
When kiddos learn to count, they usually hold up an index finger and say “one” and continue counting. Obviously, this is not how pianists number fingers. To help beginners learn that the index finger is “two” I use these finger puppets with TWO large eyes. Yes, they aren’t great for playing at the keys for too long but it makes a point.
It’s important to know that all of these strategies are taught and experienced in the lesson first so that students feel confident with how to use them in their practice at home.
With this wide selection of tactile toys, I feel a little like a physician with my own doctor’s kit ready to diagnose and prescribe the next practice tool. Do you have a favorite gadget to encourage or enhance practice between lessons?