The Nonpracticing Student

April 15th, 2015 by

“I didn’t practice as much as I’d like” is a pretty common refrain at music lessons. But “I didn’t touch it since last time” is not so easy to confess to.
practice chart
There are many reasons why a student didn’t practice.  I think it’s important not to lump them all together, but to take care to understand what happened in each individual case, in order to have an effective response.

Perhaps the foremost excuse for not practicing is that they didn’t have time. On the one hand this seems almost impossible, since it’s not so hard, and can be beneficial, to practice even a few minutes here and there, just to keep the muscles engaged, and the head in the game.  Sometimes I joke that a student should pretend they have to go to the bathroom an extra time, and practice for 5 minutes instead.  But often anxiety plays a role — a single mother may be at the end of her rope; a student may be under pressure from school; a manager could feel pressure from a deadline.  These people may not have the mental space they need to turn their attention to playing their instrument.

A student’s concern about not having time to practice should be respected but also explored to see where that concern comes from.  The student may have expectations of practicing that are too demanding.

To help avoid this last hurdle, I like to emphasize the importance and value of the simplest exercises — long notes to get the instrument going without worrying about a piece of music; hand exercises that build awareness but are so easy they hardly seem like exercises; review of music they already know, either just to play, or to try out a new technical idea.  And there is always the intrigue of learning a manageable part of a new piece of music.

Practice charts are very helpful, too — they allow a student to feel rewarded by documenting what they did and how they felt they did, even if they didn’t get to everything they wanted, or didn’t play it the way they wanted.  It still counts on the chart.

Using a practice CD smoothes out some student concerns, by immersing them in sound, as they should be.  However, finding and putting on a CD is sometimes one effort too many for a busy student.

The perfectionist is probably one of the most difficult of students, and may actually not practice because they have excessive demands of themselves — and most importantly and most troubling, the demands they make of themselves may not be very well-founded.  It takes time and persistence to convince a perfectionist to adjust his or her presumptions about what to listen for.  If you praise them for continuity, or sound, or musicality, they may simply not trust your judgment because they KNOW that one note was out of tune!  But with patience and focus, it’s possible to demonstrate over time, even to a perfectionist, that it’s more effective, for example, to temporarily pay attention to timing over intonation than have everything in its place all at once.

The worst problem for perfectionists, however, is the danger that they may lock themselves out of music for fear of making a mistake.  This might be the reason they didn’t touch their instrument this week.

As I like to tell them, the more you play, the better you get; and the better play, the faster you get better.

None of the types of students mentioned above should be a long term problem; they may be going through difficult phases.  It could be that the piece of music they’re working on or the exercises they’re being asked to do.  But even that is a temporary phase.

If the teacher reacts angrily, acts hurt, or become snide, he or she is just adding more pressure to an already pressured student.  It’s better to investigate and understand the problem, especially if it continues on a regular basis, so that you can try to puzzle out an effective approach.

Some teachers feel that good musical discipline requires strict rules, even contracts, regarding practice, including minimum minute requirements.  For many students this shuts them down when they find they can’t measure up; or it makes them lie to their teacher.

I don’t call that good discipline, necessarily, because there are 2 kinds of discipline:  external (requirements, rewards and punishments) and internal (determination, interest, even passion).  It is the internal discipline that is most rewarding and longest lasting.

The only kind of student that is a real problem for not practicing is the one who is taking lessons because somebody else is making them do it, directly or indirectly. This person doesn’t actually want to play music. If nonpractice continues for weeks with someone who is required to take lessons but doesn’t show interest, it’s time to encourage them in new directions — a different instrument or a different activity.

But for most students, let them off the hook and keep them focused on the task at hand, the music or technique you’re working on.  Often if they get a window on how to master it during a lesson, they get intrigued about trying it at home. Whether or not a student did their “homework” or no, there is always something worth working on.

It’s one thing when a student shows up not having practiced; it’s another thing when they attempt to postpone or cancel for that reason.  Not practicing is never an excuse for missing a lesson.  In fact, it’s exactly when a lesson is needed, for mid-course corrections, reminders, and to rekindle some interest.

Keep us posted with your own comments below, about how you handle the students who haven’t practiced; we look forward to hearing from you!

Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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