Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Approaches to Practicing

Practicing.  It’s a loaded word.  Musicians can’t get anywhere without it, but what does it really mean, and what is the role of a teacher in the way students learn to practice?

A number of teachers provided some very interesting comments on earlier posts (for example the one about lesson policies), and this topic would be a great one for all of us to read comments (just add one at the end of this post) from you.  After all, everyone thinks about it a little differently and we can learn from other approaches.

“I didn’t get to practice as much as I had hoped.”  Is that the most commonly heard statement by music teachers?  Or is it, “I played it better at home!”

As teachers we often expect different kinds of practice from one student to another–and even different ways of practicing from the same student, depending what’s being worked on and what the student needs at the moment.

Below is a list some of the ways we think about practicing.  Do you see it and/or teach it in any or all of these ways? 

1.  Practice as homework.  Many people feel that if they or their children are paying for lessons they need to be prepared and do their homework.  The good side of this is that it can build routine and dedication; the downside is that it can make music feel like drudgery.

2.  Practice as play.  No one takes up music in order to practice it; we learn music in order to play it.  If a student can be encouraged to play more, even without doing everything they way they should, they can enjoy music (a lifelong benefit) and stay conversant with their instrument, ready to move on to more challenges.  The downside is they might develop bad habits, or not develop the discipline to practice important things they may not initially enjoy.

3.  Practice as proof of interest.  A teacher could choose to do his or her best in teaching a lesson and then sit back and measure a student’s level of interest by how much practicing is done between lessons.  This could perhaps be called a laissez-faire approach:  the student has chosen to take the lessons; the teacher’s job stops when the lesson is over, and the student has a responsibility to follow up.

4.  Practice as proof of good teaching.  Practicing could be seen as a measure of how inspired the student is by the teacher, or how moved the student is by the piece of music they are learning.  Can a teacher match every student with the perfect piece of music?  Or is it better (cerainly easier!) to follow a curriculum and stick with it?  (Of course, it’s not so hard to track what a student has done and follow up with the right music, given the lesson history reports in Music Teacher’s Helper.)

5.  Practice as a means to a reward.  In one sense we all know that the ultimate reward for practicing is the appreciation of music and an ability to express it, play with others, and develop thinking and emotional skills.  But of course, here I mean the idea of practicing consistently in order to earn a prize.  For example, there’s the Suzuki 100 days award, for 100 continuous days of practice.  After a few weeks of consistent playing, a student builds music into the daily routine, schedule, and thinking process.  The downside is the risk of teaching a student to merely endure practicing rather than engage in it.

6.  Practice as a key to confidence and dignity, or a means of avoiding embarrassment.  With a recital coming up, a student may jump into a practice routine so as to maintain some pride in their own performance.  Planning recitals and other performance opportunities is one way to keep students going, and the performance is a great reward in itself, a measure of progress and a way for others to notice and appreciate it.

7.  Practice as a mirror of lesson work.  A good teacher inspires curiosity and problem-solving skills in a lesson, skills that can be mirrored at home in the form of practicing.  To what degree should we directly and explicitly teach practice skills, as opposed to modeling them by the way in which we teach?

8.  Practice as a requirement of studio policy.  Some teachers require a certain number of minutes of daily practice, with the threat that they’ll drop a student who doesn’t measure up.  This can underline the value of lessons, highlight the student’s commitment, and weed out those who don’t toe the line.  Of course, the downside here is that such policies can be insensitive to ups and downs in a student’s life or interest levels, and it relies on fear, which is not usually a long-term motivator.

Surely this list is not comprehensive.  Tell us your thoughts.  Add a comment below, and let us all hear from you!

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]

4 Comments

  1. Chris

    Thanks for this list, Ed. Teaching a student how to practice is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can impart. I’ll be following this comment thread for more interesting ideas.

  2. J. Nemith

    This is a great list of practice viewpoints. I’ve thought of another one: Practice as a developer of self-reliance. When students learn how to solve problems on their own, it can be greatly motivating and serve as a big confidence-builder. Please see my post here for more on this topic.

  3. T. Phillips

    I am an eleventh grade high school student who is in his second year of private lessons outside of my extensive in school music studies. I plan go into a music career and teaching was one of my choices, when I first started lessons everything was easy for me because I was better than my lesson teacher thought I was, so I got by with sightreading my new material just before my lesson, but she found out, and gave me four college level solo’s, and I love the way they sound, so I have been practicing those all the time, I think each person wants something from lessons, and you have find that for them, so they can become a great musician, thanks to my teacher, I know have gone from playing trombone because my mother made me, to learning euphonium, tuba, alto sax, piano and guitar, all because I love the music.

  4. Stengel99

    Good insight. Too often we (or at least I!) treat practice as homework and assign it as a chore. But you’re right; it should be a reward, a treat, a pleasure, a joy!

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