Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teaching How to Practice

getting students to practice piano

I often get calls from students that want to start piano lessons, but they don’t have a piano yet. Maybe the best thing for my wallet would be to tell them, “No problem. Let’s get you started!” But that really wouldn’t be the most ethical approach. As we all know practice is the most important part of lessons. Regardless of how good of a teacher you are, your students will absolutely never learn music well without practice. So they obviously need an instrument to practice on throughout the week.

Even though as teachers we know that practice is the most important part of lessons, for some reason most teachers tend to just say “Practice this.” Then they proceed to assign a bunch of measures that the student is supposed to “practice” throughout the week. Don’t be that teacher.

HOW You Practice is More Important than How LONG You Practice

Playing and practicing are two different things. If you just tell a student to practice some section, without instruction, they will no doubt play the section, not practice it. Playing is reading through a piece of music with no goal in mind other than reading through it. Practicing is focused with a goal. You practice what you cannot play well. If you can play a section well already, it doesn’t need practice.

Spend Your Lessons Teaching Practicing

For at least the first few months that I teach a student, I focus in on HOW to practice. These explanations often take up the majority of the lesson, but it is time well spent. Once my student practices correctly they progress unbelievable fast. The students that don’t apply these principals rarely get much better.

Memory

When a student is practicing memorizing a piece of music they should understand how their brains store information. They should have an understanding about how short-term/working memory and long-term memory work.

They should understand how long they last. They should understand how to move information from their short term memory to their long-term memory. If you need a refresher, or you were never taught how this works, this article on memorizing will put you in the right direction.

I’ve explained how the brain memorizes information to students as young as 5. Sometimes it takes a few lessons of repeating for them to understand fully. But don’t give up, or not try, just because you don’t think a student can handle the information.

Small Sections

As a teacher, we need to make sure that students aren’t “practicing” a piece of music from playing from the beginning over and over and over. Students will typically want to practice what sounds good. That means they are playing the parts they know over and over as well.

A better way to practice is to take a small section, sometimes a measure, sometimes just a couple of beats. The student would then play that small section through multiple timesĀ until it starts to feel comfortable. Then the student would move on.

One small section should end where the next section begins. Then once two sections are finished they should be played together, which helps avoid any breaks in playing. Once connected, a new section should be started. The key here is to take super small sections. Small enough that the student can focus in on every small detail and not repeat them correctly multiple times in a row. Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, everything should be added at the beginning of this stage.

Don’t Over Practice

I have no problem with students practicing hours and hours every day. Many teachers might disagree, but I think with a few exceptions the more practice the better. But it has to be effective practice. The key to not over practicing is not to limit your overall practice time, but to limit your practice time on any one section. Our brain needs sleep to learn. Very often students reach the limit of what they can learn in one sitting on one particular section and they continue to pound away.

We need to teach our students to practice a small section for a small amount of time. When it starts to get frustrating, they’ve practiced it too much. At that point, they would need to move on to something else and come back to it the next day. The secret to having extremely long effective practice sessions is working on a lot of different music, or at least a lot of different sections.

Sleep is the best practice aid out there.

Get the Parents Involved

When it comes to teaching young children, we just cannot expect them to practice as focused as we need them to on their own. Maybe some older students, and some particularly prodigious younger students can practice the way we tell them to, but most children just won’t be able to.

They may understand the process, but understanding and doing are two very different things. As a teacher, you’ve likely spent thousands of hours in a practice room, so you should know better than anyone how difficult it is for even a seasoned professional to stay focused, how can we expect this from a 7-year-old?

I personally believe that having parents sit in on the lessons is a good way to go. When the parent listens they get a clear understanding about what you are asking their child to do during practice. Then the parent would ideally sit with them and make sure practice went the way it was supposed to.

Some teachers are understandably hesitant about this. If you’re one of those teachers, then think about recording exactly how you want the student to practice and sending the recording to the students parents. This way you can have the best of both worlds, no parent in the lesson, but they still understand what is expected of them and their child.

Conclusion

Of all the things you can teach your students, how to practice really is the most important. We can’t be there all the time, but what we teach them can. The more you focus in on having them practice correctly, the better your students will get, and the more enjoyable lessons will be for everyone.

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