Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 2 (Practice, Practice, Practice!)

Click here to view Part 1.

bugs bunny weak arm

In part 1 of this teaching series, I discussed the importance of training students to teach themselves and to retain what they learn. But what does that look like? How exactly does one develop musicians, rather than parrots who can only copy what you say? Well, it starts with one of the most basic (but often the most dreaded) requirement of musical study: practicing. That’s right, the “P” word. The reaction it receives more often than not would make you think you were talking about a deadly disease to be avoided at all costs.

In reality, the opposite is actually true. Practicing is a very healthy and necessary habit. Speaking of health, consider this: practicing is to musicianship as exercising is to physical health. Just as consistent exercise is a necessary part of keeping your body healthy and in shape, so consistent practice is integral to keeping your musical skills “in shape.” It’s how we hone those skills, apply our knowledge, and grow and succeed as musicians. I often ask my students, “Do you think the professional musicians still have to practice?” The answer, of course, is a resounding “YES.” Why? Because no one is ever too good to stop practicing.

Everyone wants to be an amazing musician without putting in the work. I can tell you now–it’ll never happen. It’s like wanting the end result of a lean, toned body without ever exercising. In other words, it’s wishful thinking.

Having a healthy practicing routine is not only vital to musicianship, but it also teaches kids valuable life skills, including: self-discipline, focus, perseverance, hard work, auditory and visual observation, self-critique, problem solving, and reading comprehension…to name a few. So, when you’re tired of riding your students yet again to practice more, remember that it is important.

Okay. You’ve put up (hopefully) with my long-winded lecture on the importance of practicing. But, odds are more teachers than students will read this–so I’m probably preaching to the choir. 😉 Let’s move on, then.

skip practice

Let’s face it. Actually getting students to practice in the first place is possibly the hardest battle to win. In my experience, most students are willing to practice at the beginning, when lessons are a new and exciting thing to them. They’re finally going to play the piano and learn songs, and in no time they’ll be playing whatever they want and impressing their friends and family. Then reality sets in. They gradually come to the realization that they can’t play whatever they want after just two months of lessons. It’s a lot harder than they thought, and it requires a lot of practicing. Eventually, practice time transitions to a drudgery taking away from their already-limited play time.

Unfortunately, until the day when Matrix-like technology is invented which allows us to instantly download all necessary skills and knowledge directly into our brains, practice remains essential and there’s no getting around it.

There’s only so much a teacher can do to motivate those students with little to no desire to play their instrument, who are only at the lesson because their parents are making them. Their heart just isn’t it. That’s not an excuse for lack of practicing, though. One of those life skills I mentioned earlier was self-discipline. There are plenty of things in life we don’t feel like doing, but they still have to get done. For some, that dreary task is practicing their instrument. For me, it’s dishes–the bane of my existence. But I still wash them every day. Otherwise, we would have nothing to cook with or to eat on. Similarly, many students simply have to be taught that practicing is a requirement, even when they don’t feel like doing it.

That doesn’t mean we should be harsh, unsympathetic dictators who accept no weakness or excuse. But we shouldn’t just let it slide either, especially if it becomes a regular problem. What are we teaching them if we do? That you don’t have to do something if you’re too lazy to do it.

With all this in mind, let’s discuss briefly some options that can be employed in our never ending quest to encourage practicing.

One such option might be to have students keep a practice log. I know some teachers who do this, and some who don’t. It’s simply a matter of personal preference. When I started teaching, I didn’t use them. However, I have since become aware of how useful they can be, and for that reason I now have all my students keep practice logs. For one thing, it gives me a better idea of how much they’re actually practicing, so I know where they can improve. I definitely recommend involving the parents as much as possible, because they’re the ones who are around to make sure their kids 1) remember to actually fill out the log and 2) fill it out truthfully. Practice logs don’t necessarily work as a motivation for most students, but they certainly help you as the teacher to stay informed and to have a record to keep track of.

practice log

Another option is to sit down with the student and create a customized practicing schedule. When I first notice a student’s practicing beginning to suffer, I’ll take a couple minutes at the start of the lesson to ask them why they haven’t been practicing as much lately. Of course, it’s possible that they’ve been away on a long trip with no access to their instrument (this happens most often in the summer), or it’s also possible that you have one of those brutally honest students who will simply say “I hate it” or “it’s boring.” I’ve experienced both situations. However, the more common excuse for not practicing is “I’ve been really busy.”

I try to be understanding at first, especially if they have a genuine reason for being busy. But if it becomes a perpetual problem, odds are they’re not as busy as they think (or say) they are. That’s when I pull out their practice log or calendar (at least for the older students) and say, “Okay. I understand you have other things you have to do too. So, why don’t we figure out together what days you have time to practice and make a practice schedule?” Then we physically write in specific blocks of time for practicing. For younger students, it’s usually better to talk to the parents. They’re likely to have a better idea of their kid’s schedule, for starters, and if they’re aware that there needs to be more practicing, they’ll help see that it happens. Many families (especially those with a myriad of other after-school activities who are used to sticking to a routine) benefit from the consistency of a schedule. After all, when students claim to be busy, it’s usually not a lack of time. Rather, it’s a lack of proper time management. If they have time to play Minecraft every evening, they have time to practice their instrument.

For other students, the problem isn’t time management. Their obstacle boils down quite simply to motivation.

Perhaps the first important factor to consider is your own attitude. Kids can usually sense when you are bored, irritable or cranky. Remember that your attitude can affect others, especially children who mimic so much of what they see and hear. Instead of dwelling on the present issue of teaching “Hot Cross Buns” for the thousandth mind-numbing time, remember you are sharing your passion for music with the next generation. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” might not be your idea of music at its finest, but it is a stepping stone. I must be constantly observing my own attitude and thinking, “Is this how I want my student to feel or act?” If not, then maybe I need to pretend to enjoy myself for the time being. We all have to fake it at times. But sometimes making a mental effort to keep a good attitude helps it to eventually come easier and more natural. It takes practice, though. 😉 Plus, your students will enjoy themselves more if you do too.

Something else to try, which also happens to be a lot more fun, is rewarding them when they do practice. Some might call it “bribing.” I prefer the term “instilling motivation.”

Now, I realize we can’t expect a reward in life every time we do something right. It just doesn’t work that way. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with encouraging students to practice by giving them a goal to work towards. Most children have trouble thinking in the long-term. By giving them something more tangible and within reach to work towards, you can simultaneously implant good practicing habits that they will benefit from in the long run.

In my case, that short-term goal comes in the form of earning stamps during the school year, to be used for prizes at the end of the semester. In the summer, I usually do a special project instead to break up the monotony and to give the students something different to work on. I will go into more detail on these in a future post.

Lastly, another great way to encourage students to practice is what I call “fun music.” Occasionally, I’ll let my students learn an extra piece to go along with their method book assignments. Something they actually want to play, such as a song from their favorite movie or an easy version of their favorite pop song, or even holiday music. There’s so much material out there, especially if you are willing to do a little search on the internet. I have even made my own arrangements for my students in the past. That costs no money, and only a little time.

Obviously, I tell them that they still have to practice their other assignments. And I save their “fun song” for the end of the lesson, so they can’t play it until they’ve finished their other assignments first. This approach has two main benefits: First, it motivates them to focus and play correctly the first time, so they can get to what they really want to play. Second, they might be more willing to practice ahead of time to ensure they can spend more time on the fun song in the lesson.

In next week’s post, I will continue the discussion on practicing by addressing another important factor: practicing well.

That’s it for today! Remember: practicing is just as important to musicianship as exercising is to one’s health. Help your students manage their time wisely, and keep their parents involved. Make sure your own attitude is the example you want them to follow. You might have to experiment a little to find what motivates each child, but whatever you do, remember you are sharing your joy and passion for music with the next generation. Never forget its beauty, its value, and its ability to enrich lives while simultaneously training for important life skills (for more evidence, check out this short study on the benefits of musical education for children: Piano Lessons are Good for You).

bugs bunny piano feet

What area of practicing do you struggle with the most? How do you handle it? What has worked for you to encourage consistent practicing?



4 thoughts on “Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 2 (Practice, Practice, Practice!)

  1. Pingback: Musical Mondays Continued (or Teaching Tuesday): The Practice Directions | The Gathering Fire

  2. Pingback: Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 3 (Don’t Just Practice…Practice Well) | The Gathering Fire

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