Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Building Practice Habits That Work

The New York Times dropped a bombshell for educators today.

Benedict Carey’s Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits looked at some of today’s widely accepted learning theories and found many of them lacking as they relate to study habits. Some of the supposedly debunked learning theories include:

  • setting a regular study schedule in a fixed place
  • matching study and teaching styles
  • specific learning modalities, ie. “visual” learning
  • specific teaching styles

Here are some of the study techniques in the article that have been shown to help students study and learn more effectively:

  • changing locations from session to session
  • alternating different activities within one session
  • learning from a large assortment of objects rather than a single set
  • spacing multiple study sessions rather than cramming in one session
  • working toward a test or quiz

As music teachers, how can we help our students to take advantage of these techniques and create more effective practice habits?

1. Changing locations. This might be a bit difficult for piano students, but is remarkably easy for just about every other instrument. Getting students to practice in different locations within their house might be a way to create a constantly changing learning environment, whether they’re in the living room, basement or their bedroom. The effectiveness of this technique will come as no surprise to university students, who are used to constantly changing quarters in their frantic daily quest for a practice room.

2. Alternating activities within one session. Most teachers probably teach this way already, carefully budgeting their teaching time between repertoire, technique, ear training, sight reading, and theory. However, it would appear that the important thing to do is instill that same way of working when teaching students about practice strategies. Variety is the spice of life when it comes to practicing. Fortunately, our brains are hard-wired to make the connections between these multi-threaded activities.

3. Learning from a large assortment of materials. This strategy is not difficult to expand on, and favours teachers who use a large number of resources rather than ones who stick to a strict pedagogical method. Listen to multiple performances on YouTube. Make your students learn more pieces. Talk about the time and place in which a work was written. Assign works from differing styles and time periods. Find ways for your students to attend more concerts. The brain will discover how everything relates in its mad desire to learn.

4. Multiple practice sessions. Rather than sticking to a fixed practice time every day, find ways to break up practice sessions and experiment with practicing at different times of the day. When learning extremely difficult new music, I learned that breaking up my work on a piece into 3-4 short sessions per day rather than 1 longer session resulted in greater retention and results compared to longer single sessions. Maybe that coffee or Facebook break might be worth it after all.

5. Working towards a goal. Again, most areas have a sizeable infrastructure of accomplishment already in place. Recitals, festivals, and exams might be just what your students need to give them that extra bit of fear incentive to make them work just a little bit harder.

What practice advice would you give after reading the conclusions of Carey’s article?

About the Author


  1. SuiteLinks: Sept 8 « Piano Addict

    […] SuiteLinks: Sept 8 By Piano Addict, on September 8th, 2010 Good Study Habits? […]

  2. Marcus

    I find that this blog is more in depth than the one with I appreciate your words.

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