Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Top Ten Clues Your Student Hasn’t Practiced

As an independent music teacher, I would love to think that all my students practice more than enough to accomplish their lessons each and every week.  But the reality is that students are busy and life often gets in the way of those practice sessions that I think are important.  And I can usually tell before a student begins to play that they haven’t cracked open their piano books… can you?  This is a slightly humorous list of how to know when a student hasn’t practiced.

10. When they walk in the door of your studio, they can’t look you in the eye.  Most of my students are pretty fun, engaging people.  And they almost all greet with me a warm hello and a great big smile… unless they haven’t made it to the piano all week.  And then they might not make eye contact, or they might just mumble hello.  I know it’s because they don’t want to disappoint, so I just double my efforts to smile and make them feel welcome.

9.  They can’t seem to find the piano in the room.  A student that has practiced and learned their lesson well usually makes a bee-line for those precious ivories.  But if a student hasn’t practiced, it’s usually the opposite.  Suddenly, the pictures on the walls, the waiting chairs, and the area rug become very very interesting.  And I just smile and tell them how much I’m looking forward to hearing them play.

8.  They talk… a lot.  I find that those students who are on the quieter side tend to get exceptionally talkative when they are less than well-prepared for their lesson.  I hear the most fascinating stories about everything from tripping up the school bus steps to the hot dog that the school cafeteria served for lunch.  And what their dog had for breakfast.  And what their little sister did to her hair… Sometimes i hard to get a student to stop talking, but the key is redirection.  “That’s great, now lets hear what you learned on page 7.”

7.  They’re a bit late.  Typically prompt students will suddenly be late, dawdling their way up the steps, slowly removing their jackets, and meandering to the piano.  A big shower of enthusiasm usually helps get the ball rolling and these uncertain ones back on track.

6. They say, “That was too hard.”  To which I reply, “That’s ok.  Show me what you’ve got and we can move forward from there.”

5.  They can’t find their music.  Anywhere.  What a surprise!  I have an extra copy in the bench, just for you.

4.  They can’t find the right page.  This is when you know it serious.  Check your records and gently help them find it.

3.  They don’t know their hand position.  You can be pretty sure they haven’t even opened their book if they can’t remember the hand position (although sometimes there are exceptions).  In this case, I usually ask them about their practice time for the week.  And then we start from scratch.  It’s ok.  Life happens to all of us sometimes.

2.  They practiced the wrong song, and it happens to be the same one from last week!   Well, I just let them play last week’s song for me again, and if it happens another time I have them show me their assignment sheets.  And then we start the new song again.

1.  Their music didn’t get any better from last week….  I have a few students whose sight reading skills are amazing for their skill level.  And they can be pretty convincing, even if they haven’t practiced.  I look for the subtle details, and gush about how amazing they would be if they would spend a little extra time at the piano.

My philosophy of private lesson teaching is not to turn out a plethora of concert pianists, although I would be thrilled if my students went on to have a music career.  My focus is to teach a love of music through piano playing.  I believe that if they love what they are doing, they will even want to practice.  I respect and cherish each one of my students, and although I do want them to practice, I really want them to love music.  What I find is that students go through phases of practicing a lot and phases of practicing a little.  I know they all have a lot going on, so I encourage them to be honest with me about their practice habits.  I keep it lighthearted, even when I need to remind them to keep practicing at home.  And then, together, we make a plan to help them accomplish their piano goals, become better players, and enjoy music.


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  1. Allyson

    Hi Amanda:

    Regarding #2: if you’re a piano teacher, wouldn’t your students be learning and playing ‘pieces’ and not ‘songs’ ?

  2. Amanda Furbeck

    HI, Allyson,
    Great question! My advanced students certainly are playing ‘pieces’ and more substantial musical works, however, my beginner students really do play ‘songs’ (melody, lyrics, and accompaniment.)
    Thanks for your comment,

  3. Ryan

    I also just have my students play whatever they practiced, even if it is the wrong thing. It is so frustrating sometimes when students continually do not come prepared. Still looking for innovative ways to inspire. I think one of the things I need to get better at is encouragement. Most children do something right even if it is only one thing. However I think it is appropriate to lay down the law sometimes as well. I have found that communicating in detail with the parents helps because then they feel engaged in what their children are doing or aren’t doing! Thanks for the info!

  4. Ed Pearlman

    One thing we liked about the piano teacher our kids had was that she never made them feel bad if they didn’t practice. She always had something for them to do, and this did not make them feel they “got away” with something, it just made them want to do better the next time.

    When I can see that a student hasn’t practiced, I also take them from where they are, but if this goes on a few times, I have to find out if something’s going on in their lives that’s disruptive, and in any case, I also take some responsibility for inspiring them or giving them something that intrigues them. Sometimes I will get them to indicate what they like, and incorporate that. Recently I made it easier for a student to play his tunes with his father, but making sure chords are included so his father can play guitar with him (the boy is learning fiddle).

    I also have an instructional CD so that students have something to work with at home. Sometimes this requires making sure the parents know where the CD is and make it possible for the student to make use of the CD.

    There is also the idea of setting up a goal, which could involve a recital, a session, a group number, or enrolling the student in a class where there can be more fun (and peer pressure) involved in being prepared. I do this with fiddles, but our kids’ piano teacher does this too.

  5. Ryan Record


    This stuff is very important. Unfortunately sometimes we have to be the one’s to investigate and offset a bad home situation or bad practice habits in a creative way. I have recently just started incorporating more fun music into my student’s lessons. I really should have done it sooner, but it is helping a lot of students. And yes recitals are a great idea.
    I feel like sometimes parents are uncomfortable with engaging with their kids because they don’t understand music that much. This does not have to be the case. I often find that parents are interested to learn a little bit of it any how. My goal now is just trying to find better ways to incorporate the parents in what their children are doing

  6. Nicole

    I agree with Ryan. Parental engagement is the key – even if they don’t have any musical knowledge. What kid doesn’t want to teach their parents something?!

  7. Tanya

    What a great article! I’m so glad that there are other teachers that share my view on how to deal with a student’s lack of practice. I remember my piano lessons during high school and university, and how quickly you can become overloaded with all the other commitments in your life. My teacher was just like you – kids, gentle, but also encouraging in getting us back on a consistent practice schedule. Thank you!

  8. Amanda

    Thank you, everyone for the great discussion! I’ve enjoyed reading all of your thoughts.
    I think ultimately, students need to be intrinsically motivated. We can inspire, parents can encourage and enforce, but true learning and love of music comes from the student.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Phd Wmn

    Good article. Ed’s comment is very important. As music teachers we have a bigger role than just teaching students how to play an instrument and it goes beyond items 1-10, and beyond not knowing how to practice. (Many students just don’t know how to practice!) As an example, I had a student who didn’t practice for several weeks. Initially I thought maybe she didn’t like her music, or she decided she didn’t really want to play her instrument, or she was stumped on how to approach her pieces or etc…. Then one lesson I started asking her detailed and pointed questions about how she felt about playing and practicing. It turned out her not practicing had nothing to do with music, and everything to do with her being depressed about school, family and her social life. I spent the rest of her lesson with her crying it all out on my shoulder. I didn’t teach her any music that day, but I know I taught her the value of a caring teacher.

  10. Sarah

    What a terrific article to find at the end of the week! I laughed out loud through numbers 10-8 and the whole thing brought a big smile to my face. Thanks so much for writing, Amanda!

  11. GMS

    I’m glad to read this article as well! Thank you for sharing your thoughts…I totally agree with your focus and philosophy -> teaching a love of music. I also agree with some of the comments that we play a much greater role for many of our students than just a music teacher. It’s nice to know we’re not alone out there! I just love hearing and reading about other music teachers’ experiences! Thanks for sharing.

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