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The Nonpracticing Student

“I didn’t practice as much as I’d like” is a pretty common refrain at music lessons. But “I didn’t touch it since last time” is not so easy to confess to.
practice chart
There are many reasons why a student didn’t practice.  I think it’s important not to lump them all together, but to take care to understand what happened in each individual case, in order to have an effective response.

Perhaps the foremost excuse for not practicing is that they didn’t have time. On the one hand this seems almost impossible, since it’s not so hard, and can be beneficial, to practice even a few minutes here and there, just to keep the muscles engaged, and the head in the game.  Sometimes I joke that a student should pretend they have to go to the bathroom an extra time, and practice for 5 minutes instead.  But often anxiety plays a role — a single mother may be at the end of her rope; a student may be under pressure from school; a manager could feel pressure from a deadline.  These people may not have the mental space they need to turn their attention to playing their instrument.

A student’s concern about not having time to practice should be respected but also explored to see where that concern comes from.  The student may have expectations of practicing that are too demanding.

To help avoid this last hurdle, I like to emphasize the importance and value of the simplest exercises — long notes to get the instrument going without worrying about a piece of music; hand exercises that build awareness but are so easy they hardly seem like exercises; review of music they already know, either just to play, or to try out a new technical idea.  And there is always the intrigue of learning a manageable part of a new piece of music.

Practice charts are very helpful, too — they allow a student to feel rewarded by documenting what they did and how they felt they did, even if they didn’t get to everything they wanted, or didn’t play it the way they wanted.  It still counts on the chart.

Using a practice CD smoothes out some student concerns, by immersing them in sound, as they should be.  However, finding and putting on a CD is sometimes one effort too many for a busy student.

The perfectionist is probably one of the most difficult of students, and may actually not practice because they have excessive demands of themselves — and most importantly and most troubling, the demands they make of themselves may not be very well-founded.  It takes time and persistence to convince a perfectionist to adjust his or her presumptions about what to listen for.  If you praise them for continuity, or sound, or musicality, they may simply not trust your judgment because they KNOW that one note was out of tune!  But with patience and focus, it’s possible to demonstrate over time, even to a perfectionist, that it’s more effective, for example, to temporarily pay attention to timing over intonation than have everything in its place all at once.

The worst problem for perfectionists, however, is the danger that they may lock themselves out of music for fear of making a mistake.  This might be the reason they didn’t touch their instrument this week.

As I like to tell them, the more you play, the better you get; and the better play, the faster you get better.

None of the types of students mentioned above should be a long term problem; they may be going through difficult phases.  It could be that the piece of music they’re working on or the exercises they’re being asked to do.  But even that is a temporary phase.

If the teacher reacts angrily, acts hurt, or become snide, he or she is just adding more pressure to an already pressured student.  It’s better to investigate and understand the problem, especially if it continues on a regular basis, so that you can try to puzzle out an effective approach.

Some teachers feel that good musical discipline requires strict rules, even contracts, regarding practice, including minimum minute requirements.  For many students this shuts them down when they find they can’t measure up; or it makes them lie to their teacher.

I don’t call that good discipline, necessarily, because there are 2 kinds of discipline:  external (requirements, rewards and punishments) and internal (determination, interest, even passion).  It is the internal discipline that is most rewarding and longest lasting.

The only kind of student that is a real problem for not practicing is the one who is taking lessons because somebody else is making them do it, directly or indirectly. This person doesn’t actually want to play music. If nonpractice continues for weeks with someone who is required to take lessons but doesn’t show interest, it’s time to encourage them in new directions — a different instrument or a different activity.

But for most students, let them off the hook and keep them focused on the task at hand, the music or technique you’re working on.  Often if they get a window on how to master it during a lesson, they get intrigued about trying it at home. Whether or not a student did their “homework” or no, there is always something worth working on.

It’s one thing when a student shows up not having practiced; it’s another thing when they attempt to postpone or cancel for that reason.  Not practicing is never an excuse for missing a lesson.  In fact, it’s exactly when a lesson is needed, for mid-course corrections, reminders, and to rekindle some interest.

Keep us posted with your own comments below, about how you handle the students who haven’t practiced; we look forward to hearing from you!

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

5 Comments

  1. Roland De Aragon

    It does annoy me when a student says ” I didn’t have time to practice.” But I think it’s important when a brand new student walks in the door, is to emphasize the importance of practice from a: mental, emotional, and physical perspective. There should a whole month or more teaching about practicing. Many teachers don’t even do this, they just give the student an assignment and expect them to “just do it.” I commend those teachers that do.

  2. Melanie Adams

    One week, when I asked a fairly new adult student how her practicing had gone that week, she said, “Well, let me level with you: with two kids and a full-time job, I’m not really going to practice. I’m just kind of doing this for fun.” Without missing a beat, I came back with, “Then you will never, ever get any better.” She had made huge strides ever since, because she started practicing. Sometimes bluntness works!

  3. Kristen Seikaly

    Great post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on an issue that certainly plagues all music teachers. I personally think the only thing missing on here is the issue of not knowing how to practice (although you briefly discuss that near the beginning) and how practicing can feel overwhelming to students. I like to break down practice into manageable pieces so that my students are clear on what they’re doing, when they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it. I find this helps progress immensely. Otherwise, this list is amazingly comprehensive!

    I was wondering if you had any suggestions for how to approach these issues with your students? While all of the points you bring up are certainly valid, some may feel particularly personal and therefore difficult for a student to discuss. Any pointers on starting these conversations would be great. Thank you!

  4. Ed Pearlman

    Kristen, I agree completely. There are many reasons why a student may not practice, and it could be a totally temporary personal problem, but there is always the possibility that, as you say, they don’t know how. It’s really important to let them try practicing during a lesson, to get a sense of how it feels, what works, what is sufficient, so it doesn’t seem unmanageable. One example (and you probably could offer some too, which would be good to hear about): I often use an instructional CD and although I play with students during lessons, I also take out the CD and have them work with it from time to time during the lesson just so they know how to do it when they’re home.

    As to how to have a conversation with the student about personal matters, I ease into lessons with some talk rather than leaping into the music, so there’s usually an opportunity to hear more about what was keeping them from practicing and I can get a sense of whether they are overcooked or if they are hiding a reluctance to play — which might have to do with the material or approach we’re taking, so I do try to stay tuned to that, and also make sure they have some solid accomplishments each lesson, however big or small.

  5. Simon Horsey

    I find that asking students to plan practice around events, rather than by time, has helped. They plan to do their practice 10 minutes after they finish breakfast at the weekend, or after arriving from school and having a snack during the week. One of my students used to plan practice to start as soon as he finished watching a football match on TV on a Saturday. His parents agreed this, but that he should be sitting down at the piano and have played 2 scales correctly by the time the credits finished. It seems to work for adults too, as they don’t have the feeling they have failed because something overran and they missed their practice time. I think if people create a habit such as this, then the practice naturally flows on from another activity, rather than feeling guilty because it is 4.15pm and you haven’t started practising yet.

    I also agree with you Roland. When I start with a younger student, I ask them to come for 10 minutes, every day, 5 days a week, with their parents for the first couple of months. They are effectively practising every day, with me. This way they form a good practice habit and the parents understand what is required at home once we move onto a different schedule, although I try and keep the younger students on 15 minutes twice a week for up to 6 months, if possible. It can be a pain to organise, but pays off and does tend to weed out those parents who aren’t really that committed to supporting their children. This may sound a little harsher than I meant it to be! I try to work around people as much as possible if their child seems genuinely interested in learning.