Practicing

Tips for how to practice well, or how to encourage students to practice

“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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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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How much of your teaching depends on a student’s self-discipline? Is self-discipline natural to them, enforced by parents, or taught? What even is self-discipline?

Lots of studies have shown that self-control leads to success in learning, and in life itself — and yet, a new book reviewing psychological studies on this subject suggests that many of us may have an outdated understanding of self-discipline.

New Year’s resolutions are infamous for uncovering how hard it is to follow up on our annual bold promises to knuckle down and get everything right in the new year.

We try to deny it, but we know it’s true — forcing yourself to be disciplined often means fighting with yourself. The toll it takes is not only emotional, but physical. One study showed that it causes premature aging of immune cells.

Forced willpower is stressful — it increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety levels.

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, just published a book in January called Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.

He has found that compassion, gratitude and genuine pride (as opposed to hubris or arrogance) actually act to lower the heart rate, blood pressure, and to decrease anxiety and depression, while increasing people’s motivation to take on and persevere in difficult tasks.

Why? Because these emotions involve relationships with people. People go out of their way to help others, to do for others, to fulfill promises. Studies have actually measured that people who feel these emotions are willing to persevere 30% longer at tasks than people who make themselves do the work out of self-control.

Relationships are rewarding; self-control is in itself lonely and can actually be harmful over the long term. There seems to be an epidemic of loneliness these days, and its health effects are becoming better known.

How does this tie into teaching music? It makes us think about our priorities.

Here are a few ideas:

Generosity — consider giving students some materials free or at cost. Giving a few extra minutes at a lesson or outside of lessons if students have questions. Help them look at a new instrument even though you may not be paid for that time. Give an annual certificate or gift! Lending a hand in these ways will make many students grateful to you for your help. All teachers have run into students who may take advantage of their time, but you can draw lines, and to really motivate your students, it may be best to err on the side of generosity.

Friendly relationships with students are huge motivators for students, and we have choices all the time on how to build these relationships. Music Teachers Helper is a great aid by providing transparency for billing and payments, reminders of upcoming lessons, and emailed lesson notes, for example. When simply teaching a skill, it’s worth being aware of your language and whether you are building a relationship or forcing compliance.

This is not about treating students with kid gloves but about genuine connections. It is important for students to feel challenged and to see that they can rise to those challenges, but how the challenges are delivered can make or break your relationships. There are teachers who feel the need to use threats, demands, and even practicing contracts, but these types of interactions are likely to increase stress and reduce long-term success. The same can be said about the focus of some music teachers on teaching a fear of mistakes rather than a desire to play musically.

Social elements in learning — creating a community feeling can have a huge impact on student loyalty, sense of compassion and gratitude. Including group classes, recitals or playalongs, hosting a music party, and having one student help another can all help build relationships that motivate learning far better than enforcing old-style concepts of self-discipline.

I like to think that there are two kinds of discipline — external and internal. The external kind is the kind you often see exercised by school administrators, through rules and punishments, in the hopes of building good habits through tough love, and yes, fear. The internal kind you see instilled by good teachers who model enjoyment and quality, and develop curiosity, desire, and yes, fulfilling relationships with the teacher and other students.

As a music teacher, you certainly have thoughts on this far-reaching subject!

I hope you will share your comments.

 

Photo by Angello Lopez on Unsplash

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