Music Teacher's Helper Blog

“If you don’t practice this week and come back ready to play your piece, you’ll have to do ten push-ups.”  That’s how a piano teacher friend of mine gets at least one of her students to engage at their lesson.

I’ve got one of those myself.  He’s about 8 years old and we’re working in Alfred’s Kids Guitar Method Book.  He’s developed this super annoying habit – He strums his strings really really loud and really really fast every single time I try to correct his playing.  He does it again…and again…and again.  I mean…every…single…time.  It’s like fingernails-on-the-chalkboard annoying.

One day, I reached my limit. I had a James Thurber-esque daydream where I clobbered him over the head with his little 3/4 size guitar.  There he was with his head popping out of the sound hole and his nylon strings flopping all over…. birds and stars spinning around his head.  But something brought me back to reality.  Ahhh… the delightful sound of him banging on those strings again.  In a moment of desperation, I said, “Knock it off!  This is a guitar lesson!  I want you to count out loud and play this piece correctly…or….or….you’ll have to do ten push ups!”  His eyes popped open wide and he was totally silent.  He sat up straight and played his little piece about as good as I’ve ever heard him play.  I nearly fell out of my chair.

The next week he was back at it again.  I asked him, “Do you know what a habit is?”

“When you do something over and over?”

“Yup.  How’d you like to do ten push-ups over and over?” I’m amazed at how fast the posture improves and as well as the playing.

Unfortunately, the following week…same old same old.  “Listen Kiddo, we’re going to have to figure this out.  This guitar studio isn’t big enough for the both of us!  Here’s the deal… You and I are going to make a SUPER PROMISE!  Do you know what that is?”

“No, sir.”

“I didn’t think so.  It means you have to promise you won’t do that annoying thing on your guitar anymore when I’m trying to talk to you.  When two people make a SUPER PROMISE, you have to shake hands…and then you can NEVER break that promise.  Ever.  If you do… it’s NO BUENO!  Do you know what that is?”

(Gulp!) “Nope.”

“Not good!  It’s always best to never break a SUPER PROMISE.  So here’s what you and me are going to promise to eachother…   YOU promise to practice your assignments and be ready to play, sit up straight, and count out loud…AND…YOU promise never to bang on your guitar anymore.  For me, I PROMISE not to make you do 100 push ups.  Deal?”

(Gulp.) “Deal.”

We shook hands, he packed up his guitar, and we walked out of the studio.  His grandma handed me a a check and asked me how things went.  I said, “Just great!”, with a big smile and a wink. “Be sure to ask him about the SUPER PROMISE we made today.”

The following week all I had to do was mention the SUPER PROMISE and we had the best lesson ever!

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I live in California, and the biggest, most well-known music examination program here is called the Certificate of Merit. It is run by the Music Teachers Association of California, and approximately 30,000 students from all instrumental disciplines participate annually. For my town, the exam is held in early March, so the month of February is final count-down time for my students.

I am writing this post, because as I help my students with their exam preparations, I notice a common thread: what is obvious to us is not always so obvious for the students! Here are some common areas of concern:

1. Memorization. Most exams require students to memorize their music. To do this, we all know that we need to practice with the score in order to consolidate our memory. Very obvious right?! Students do not always know this! Once they think they have more or less memorized their pieces, they often practice from memory at home, and as such, their memory collapses. Even when told to use their music to practice, they often just put it on the music stand, and their eyes are not actually looking at the music, but at their hands and fingers instead. Everyday I have to remind someone to practice with their music, instead of from their not-so-reliable memory! Students often think they have memorized the notes, but they fail to memorize other details such as phrasing and dynamics.

2. Practice hands separately. Again very obvious right? Many students do not do this. They feel it is too boring, and they are “good enough” to not have to do something as basic as this!

3. Practice slowly. It is painful to play slowly. Students do not like it! “But the piece says Allegro”, I often hear, or “I heard someone play this fast on YouTube!” It takes so much patience to practice slowly, and we all know how important this is in order to consolidate technique, not to mention solidify the memory. Students do not know this, or they often forget to do it!

4. Practice with the metronome. In order to practice slowly, and keep the tempo slow, we need something to keep us steady – the metronome! I have a saying in my studio – the metronome does not lie! Students often get faster and faster and they do not realize it. Metronome practice requires discipline and patience – very important skills!

What are some of the things you have discovered that are so shockingly obvious to you, but you find your students forgetting to do? If you are also preparing students for exams, good luck!

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1. Choices

When teaching music students, it is tempting to prescribe a piece of music that we feel that they will benefit from learning. However, if the student gets to choose the piece, they will be far more motivated to make the effort to learn it. I remember a student of mine from many years ago who could be extremely hard to get to practice when I selected the piece for him. One day I did an experiment! I showed him two pieces that I knew would have the same outcome and told him to take his pick. Suddenly he was taking ownership of the decision and it worked a treat. He enthusiastically made his decision and the progress he had made by the following week was outstanding. What a lesson for me! Letting our students take some ownership of their learning journey is a very powerful motivator indeed.

2. Less is More

How much work should you assign a student for the week? Sometimes I have made the mistake of how much they learn at home being open-ended, giving them a song and letting them “see how far they can go”! However, that approach never often reaps the desired effect. Much better to draw a line with a pencil to show the amount of work that you expect them to achieve during the week. With clear boundaries, the student knows what is expected and rises to the challenge. Not having too much material to cover often results in far higher standards of progress being met. Sometimes less is more!

3. Fun!

As humans, most of us want to happy so try and bring a little fun into each music lesson. Smiling and telling the odd cheesy joke can do much to relax the student and motivate them to work harder. Taking an appropriate interest in the student, their family and their other hobbies has always been an effective method for me to gain the respect of my pupils resulting in more progress. If you have a lesson formula, why not mix it up and even do something completely different from time to time. Bringing in a little technology can help the modern student have more fun. I had one boy that refused to practice his scales but as soon as I found him a scales app, he was away! I also find that keeping the lessons fast-paced and energetic really helps make the lesson time go quickly and enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Let’s call it music lesson “circuit training!”

4. End-goal

What’s a game of football without goals? A concert to prepare for, an exam, a competition, a family gathering, a studio get-together. Whatever the occasion, an event can provide much-needed focus to motivate the student to extra practice. Just well deserved commendation for their efforts each week is a must, spurring them on to try even harder the following week.

What is your secret to motivating students?


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