“That was great. Now imagine how good you’d be if you actually practiced….” my teacher chided. I heard that statement a countless number of times. I always loved to PLAY piano, but I never wanted to actually PRACTICE piano. “Practice makes perfect, “ I heard over and over again. “If you want to play well, you need to practice!” Nowadays, I actually do enjoy practicing most of the time, although occasionally I find that my old habits still creep in. Suddenly, I am at the bench playing for fun instead of wood-shedding those tough spots that need a lot of attention. It’s those times that my dear, public school, music teacher hubby calls from the next room, “Honey, PERFECT practice makes perfect….” And he’s right.
I see the same tendencies in my students. They love to play, but practice? Not so much. Some are willing to practice because they love the fruit of their efforts – being able to play well. Others practice because their parents insist, and some practice the least amount possible. A few have become so adept at sight-reading that they can play their lesson well without a lot of practice. I want to see them all excel, so I have to creatively find ways to encourage my students to practice their lessons. But I don’t ever want to come across as mad, or mean, just because a student didn’t have time to sit at the piano. I remember coming out of a number of my lessons in tears because my teacher yelled at me for not practicing enough. It became so stressful that I quit taking lessons for a year. Thankfully, I loved to play enough that I eventually found a new teacher who encouraged me and helped me prepare for music school.
So how do we encourage our students to practice without being overbearing? How do we help them make their music lessons a priority when they are already so busy and over-scheduled? How do we instill in our students the value of studying a piece of music or a style of playing that isn’t their favorite?
Teach students how to practice. I think this is one of the most important things a teacher can do. Students don’t come to lessons knowing how to practice; they have to learn it. With all of my beginner students, we work our lesson time just like I want them to structure their practice time. For instance, when a young student learns a new song, I have them study it first. Then they look for their hand position and play through the piece. Next, they play it and say finger numbers, then they play it and say letter names, and lastly, they play it and say the rhythm. Obviously, this only works with beginners since more advanced lessons require multiple notes, complex rhythms, and varied fingering all at once. But the benefit of playing and saying is that it uses more parts of the brain at once, creating more complex connections in the brain, and helping all the parts of music to come together better. It also helps the students learn faster. Better yet, it sets them up to be able to sing and play together. Finally, I ask them to play the song (while singing if they would like) and just enjoy it. We practice practicing at every lesson so that the students gets a good handle on just how to learn at the piano.
Outcome based practicing. When I was in band, we had to practice a certain number of minutes each day. And every day, I stared at the clock, fiddled with my instrument, and avoided practicing my music as much as possible. I did the bare minimum, waiting for my jail time to be over. What I prefer for my students is outcome based practice. Each lesson incorporates a set of ‘goals’ for the student to accomplish that week. For beginner students, the goals essentially boil down to maintaining what was learned in the lesson and developing good practice habits. For more advanced students, practice might involve learning a difficult run, bringing a slow piece up to tempo, or incorporating dynamics into a song that has been sounding a bit mechanical. Since the goals are tangible, it helps make practice time more interesting. Practice may take more time or less time, depending on the music that particular week. It helps the students avoid that clock-watching mentality which makes practice seem long and boring. I use an assignment sheet at each lesson with a chart. Students can check off each goal each time they practice so they can see where there efforts are going.
The two minute technique. I recently read about a practice technique that only takes two minutes. The concept, created by Hans Jensen, means you only practice for two minutes. You choose one very small, very specific goal, and work on it very hard for two minutes with no interruptions. You work very intensively, but only for two minutes. Then you put it away until the next day. This helps you prioritize your practice time. It also keeps you focused because you know its only for two minutes.
Relationship building. I find that when students are new, the novelty of lessons and the excitement of learning helps them to practice. This is the time to capitalize on and help them develop good practice habits. But eventually, the honeymoon will be over, the novelty will wear off, and students will have to show a little discipline to keep on keeping on. But if you have a good relationship with your students, they will naturally want to please you, and it will help with their desire to practice.
Incentives. Incentives can be a fun way to help your students practice more. Right now, my studio is having a little contest. Students earn points for completing particular activities each week – for instance, 10 points for each time they practice (there are guidelines as to what constitutes as ‘practice,’ though), 5 points for attending lesson, 5 points for being on time with all necessary materials, and 2 points for achieving their music goals. The student who earns the most points at the end of the month will win an MP3 player. Everyone will win some sort of prize, and there will be bonus points for extra credit throughout the month. Naturally, students get the most points for their practice time. The goal is to help them build solid practice habits.
Practice log. Practice logs are a great way for students to keep track of their progress. You can provide paper practice logs as part of their assignment sheets for easy tracking, like mine. Better yet, students can log into Music Teachers Helper and record their practice time online, making it easy for you to keep an eye on their progress. This is especially great for those students who thrive on computer time.
Encouragement. There is nothing like good, old fashioned, praise to help a student desire to succeed. Words of encouragement for a job well done, a pat on the back for an honest try, and a sincere smile of appreciation are never unheeded.
Hopefully, your students will all love to practice and it won’t take much reinforcement to help them work on their lessons at home. But I honestly believe that the time spent in one on one lessons is beneficial musically and emotionally for each and every student, whether or not they are able to practice at home. Practicing just makes it all the sweeter.