Music Teacher's Helper Blog

“But I could play it perfectly at home!”

We’ve all heard it, and most likely even said it ourselves in the past.. Why is it that our students feel they know a piece of music perfectly, but then crumble in the lesson? What tools can we give them to prevent this from happening and to build their confidence regardless of the situation in which they are playing?

Scene One: Said student is practicing in the comfort of his own home, and on his own instrument. Chances are, no-one is listening to him, and he is feeling calm as he works his way through the material for the week. In such a relaxed environment, insecure sections don’t matter – passages can be ‘fluked’ or just scraped through and the student is sure he actually knows it. It is important to emphasise here that the student isn’t lazy or not trying or not practicing, but truly believes he knows the piece. Because the difficult passages work when playing beginning to end, he feels there is no need for further work or to isolate these sections.

Scene Two: The student arrives at the lesson feeling confident that he can play his pieces and is most likely eager to show the fact that he’s been practicing. He starts a piece well, but as a harder passage approaches, a few wrong notes creep in, followed by a few pauses, before he stops altogether and moans “but I could play it at home!”

The first thing I say to my students is “I believe you.” It is important not to undermine their efforts and not to lose their trust. Also, it is quite obvious straight away if they have genuinely put in some effort or not. Remember that they are playing an instrument that they only play once a week, or if they bring their own instrument, they are still in a different environment, and to top it off, they have their teacher listening to them! All of this equals a more stressful environment than home, and their mind has these distractions and pressures to overcome.

What is really happening, is all their insecure passages are being highlighted. The difficult passages they aced at home are lost by distraction and as frustration sets in, the harder they try, the wore things get. Number one rule, don’t feed their frustration, or follow suit. Put them at ease, explain why things have gone wrong, and if it is too much to work through that piece at that time, move to another activity or piece of music until they are calmer again. There are also a number of practice tips that I offer to my students as a way of building confidence and testing how secure they are with their pieces:

  • Play the piece in sections and also in different orders – close your eyes, point to a part and start there, even if it is half way through a beat. This shows how secure you are and stops total reliance on muscle memory.
  • Double the speed – this decreases the amount of time allowed to process information and tests how well a piece is truly known. Any areas with pauses, or that are slowed down, need more attention.
  • Record yourself – the extra pressure will show insecurities, and you will notice any pauses you were not aware of while playing.
  • Have someone else listen to you – it will test your focus, show areas that need more work, and over time, will desensitize you to the external distraction.

The above are common practice techniques, and any good practice methods will build confidence and eliminate unconfident playing. These are just the techniques I recommend to my students as a way forward. If there are any other tips you suggest, I would love to hear them!

About the Author

Brandon Pearce
Brandon Pearce is the founder and CEO of Music Teacher's Helper, a web-based software program to help music teachers manage the business aspects of teaching music lessons.

A piano teacher and computer programmer himself, he created Music Teacher's Helper as a side project to manage his own students, and in 2004, made it available for music teachers worldwide.

Since then, it has grown to supp... [Read more]

1 Comment

  1. How To Practise

    It is a very tricky area this one. I think the last tip you give (have someone listen) is the most useful as it puts a little more pressure on the student.

    The student you outline would not be a concern to me. They are obviously working at home and the improvement will show – even if the do stumble in lessons.

    I would be more concerned about how you deal with the student who does not practice at home and uses the same excuse – much harder to deal with.

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