Monday Mailbag – Getting Students to Practice

I have a lot of students who like piano but just don’t put in very much (if at all) time during the week practicing. Do you have any advice and/or programs for that? I am a very “user friendly” teacher, the kids all like me and I give them popular music they enjoy to go with good method music (Faber Series) yet with their busy schedules, sports, video games, etc… I still have a huge problem with practice. What do you suggest?

This is the million dollar question, isn’t it?! I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently because I just presented a workshop at our state music teachers conference on this topic. I see it in some ways as a creative challenge – what can I do as a teacher to inspire and motivate my students to practice consistently? In some ways, I suppose our work as teachers would be less exciting if all of our students automatically practiced every day without us having to invest any energy into getting to know them and figure out what appeals to them, right? 🙂

Most of my students now are very diligent practicers, but it’s been quite the process to get to this point! Here are some varied tips that I’ve found helpful:

  • Only accept students into your studio who want to take lessons. Very rarely will I accept a student who doesn’t want to take lessons, but is being required to do so by his parents. Along with this, I make both the parent and student state during the initial interview that they will commit to practicing consistently.
  • Reserve the right to dismiss a student for lack of practice. It is clearly stated in my policy that a cause for dismissal is: “The student consistently fails to show diligence and determination in home practice.” I’ve only had to do this once, but it’s nice to know that it’s an option if lack of practice becomes a persistent problem.
  • Have high expectations for your students and expect them to live up to them. Sometimes I think we do ourselves and our students in by letting them get by with minimal or no practice for extended periods of time so that it becomes acceptable. My students know that I expect 5-7 days of practice a week and that’s what most of them aim for. They are also required to record their practice in their assignment books so that I know how much they’ve practiced. (This is all in theory, of course…I have my fair share of students who have difficulty locating a pencil with which to mark their practicing, or who slide by some weeks on 1 or 2 days of practice… :-))
  • Create a culture where dedication and excellence is the norm. This is one of the reasons that I design year-long practice incentive programs. I want the whole atmosphere of my studio to be full of fresh, exciting goals and challenges that will inspire each student to do his/her best and reach for new musical heights. Nothing works perfectly, but each year we are learning and growing and trying new ideas.

Obviously, there are many things that contribute to a student’s practice habits, but I think one of the key things to remember is that diligence begets success, and success begets diligence. The two go hand-in-hand. One of my overarching goals as a teacher is to help my students develop disciplined practice habits so that they will be successful, and to help them be successful so that they will be more disciplined in their practicing. It takes a balance of fun and creativity, coupled with high standards and firmness to achieve this, but it sure is motivating to me as a teacher to work toward this end. My students want to play the piano well and I want to do everything I possibly can to see them attain this goal!

This is a favorite topic for most of us teachers, so I’d love to get some input from others as well! What do you suggest for helping students develop better practice habits?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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