How many minutes do you ask your students to practice? I’ve come to this question from many angles–as a teacher, colleague, parent, and as a student (long ago!). It has led me over many years to create a few new aphorisms in my teaching.
1. The more you play, the better you get
That’s a saying I’ve developed for my students. I have seen some very fine players with terrible-looking technique, or at least technique I wouldn’t recommend. So how did they get to be so good? Because they love it, and they play a lot. They’ve figured out how to adapt to the way they play, and make it work for them.
The student who is so afraid of making mistakes or getting stuck with bad habits that they just don’t play very much is simply not going to get much better. I think some teachers may need to rethink the fear of bad habits. It’s our job to reshape and improve how students play. If progress in one area creates a bad habit in another, we fix it! If students enjoy themselves by playing a lot and becoming more conversant with their instrument, but make some mistakes or build a bad habit — we fix it! That is our job. I do not think it’s our job as teachers to make a student so afraid of screwing up that they can’t experiment, or look ahead in their book, or try something new and different — as long as they honor our requests to practice what we ask of them.
2. The more efficiently you play, the faster you get better
This is the carrot for getting a student to understand and follow instructions. It’s true that the more you play, the better you get, but if you pay attention to the teacher’s expertise and do things right, do them more efficiently, you’re going to get better a lot faster.
3. It’s not the minutes that count, but the consistency
If a student finds a time in their daily schedule to practice — even if only a few minutes — this consistency makes their instrument a routine part of their day. They keep their hand in. They get comfortable with it. They get curious about whether they know something better than the previous day. They feel their oats, and try for a little more than they did a few days ago. And when they do have more time to spend, they are happy to make use of it, and are conversant with the instrument.
If a student is required to practice a certain number of minutes a day, and cannot measure up to the request, they may just hold off practicing until they have the required time available. Waiting a week to practice an hour is not going to be very rewarding, whereas even 5 minutes a day can lead to a very productive hour of practice when the time becomes available.
My daughter reached a point in her piano practice where the teacher said she needed to practice 60 minutes a day. She never felt she could measure up. Before that, she would stop at the piano when passing by and play/practice for a while. After the 60 minutes were required, she felt that what felt like a few minutes in passing (but could have added up to a half hour) was a drop in the bucket, and she just stopped playing nearly as much. When she did manage a practice session, it was with reluctance. However well-intentioned the teacher’s request was, it had a negative impact.
With beginners I suggest 5 minutes a day, knowing that if they do get the instrument out it’s likely they’ll get into it for more time because it’s fun. My required daily exericises take 3 minutes. Sometimes I tell students to pretend they have to go to the bathroom an extra time each day — surely they’d make time for that! Practice while on the toilet, even — no, just kidding!
4. It’s not how many minutes, but how much you care
A few weeks ago, my wife, a dancer and teacher, and I, arrived at the same conclusion as we spoke of both teaching and performing: what really distinguishes a good student and a good performer is how much they care about what they do.
We all respond to someone who honestly cares about what they’re doing. Caring leads to depth of expression, to clarity of technique, because someone who cares tries to get things they way they want them. It’s a very different quality from someone who is good at what they do because they follow instructions, want a good grade, or are afraid of doing something wrong.
Sometimes I will tell students that it’s not how many minutes they practice, but how much they care that counts. Often they visibly relax when they hear this. They know how much they care. But they’re never sure how much they should practice; in fact, I’ve never heard anyone say they practiced enough. It can feel like a bottomless pit of expectations. But if they really care and enjoy the music, they’ll get themselves to where they want to be.
5. If you like it, play it again; if you don’t like it, don’t play it the first time
Some students balk at playing a tune a second time, and I tell them this little saying of mine. Then they realize it’s not really about me telling them what to do, but about their enjoying the music and allowing themselves to get into it, rather than to just get through it.
The second part of this saying suggests that a student might not want to learn a piece of music because they don’t like it. Maybe that’s just the way it should be. It’s true that students like a piece better once they know they’re able to play it, but often they do have a gut feeling about whether they like some music or not. Why not let the student be engaged in selecting music they like? They will be more involved and determined to learn the piece, and it’s excellent training for life after lessons: how to judge music you like, and how to dig into a challenging piece and come out on top.
Sometimes it’s good for a teacher to be flexible with a curriculum and allow the student to engage in music selection. It may be that after struggling with their selected music, they might enjoy coming back to a piece they originally balked at. I recall one time reading through a book of tunes and coming across several pages of mediocre tunes. A year later I tried to find that group of mediocre tunes but could not — I had learned more about that music and found that those tunes were not so bad after all! What a delight to allow a student to discover this, rather than force them into the next piece of music just because it’s on the next page!
6. When you run out of aphorisms, stop writing, especially if this is the sixth one and you promised only five
This saying is one I’ve never used before but I must say, it makes sense. I better stop writing! Let us hear from you — add a comment below if you’d like to share some of your own insights and aphorisms.