Monday Mailbag – 6 Steps for Teaching Students to Practice Well

These two questions are very similar:

How do you encourage your student to practice correctly when they are at home, especially when their parents have no music background and cannot hear the mistakes to correct their piece?

I have a three piano students from one family (girls aged 10-12) who practice at least an hour a day…I find sometimes that so much practice means that they play certain mistakes REALLY well! Do you have any thoughts on this?

One thing that occurred to me a while back is that since students don’t automatically come to lessons with an understanding of how to practice effectively, the way we introduce and go through pieces at the lesson will tend to be their model for how to practice at home. Yikes! This meant that my former method of sticking a new piece on the music rack in front of the student and saying, “Alright, why don’t you just sight-read through this once and see what you think” had to go. This may be moderately helpful for developing sight-reading skills, but it’s about the worst possible way for a student to jump into learning a new piece of repertoire.

Perhaps the best way to explain an effective approach for introducing a new piece of music to a student and giving them tools for practicing it well at home is to use a real piece of music. I did this three years ago with the piece, Twister, by Wendy Stevens, and decided to copy those steps here for those interested in a systematic approach to teaching a student a new piece of music. This is obviously more time-consuming than handing them the repertoire and wishing them well with it :-), but wow is it worth the time invested in the long run!

For starters, I would make sure that the student who is going to learn this piece already has experience playing cross-hand arpeggios and staccato vs. legato between hands. So, without further ado, here are the steps I would use to help a student successfully learn Twister:

1. Play the piece for the student up to tempo. I know there are different schools of thought on this, but I almost always play new repertoire for my students. They can develop their reading skills from their method books; with these supplemental repertoire pieces, I want them to have a vision for what they can accomplish. It’s hearing cool-sounding music like this that inspires them to aspire to new heights.

2. Ask the student to make at least 5 observations about the piece. This helps me see what they are most aware of, whether their perception is that it’s too hard, whether they like the piece, etc. Then we develop and discuss those observations. In a piece like Twister, I would expect them to notice things like: there are staccatos and accents on some of the notes, the time signature is 3/4, the dynamics go from piano to forte, you use the pedal at the end, your right hand moves into higher octaves, there are a few sharps and flats, etc.

3. Identify what key the piece is written in. For younger students, identifying the key of a piece means figuring out the scale upon which the piece is built. Twister is in c-minor. I have them play the c-minor pentascale and chord, and in this case would have them demonstrate a c-minor cross-hand arpeggio (this is setting the stage for a future step!).

4. Label the form of the piece. I’m definitely not a form and analysis expert, but together we look for how long the phrases are (8-measures mostly), whether subsequent phrases are the same or different than the first one, and any patterns within the phrases. For example, in the B-section of Twister, I would briefly highlight the concept of a sequence and show them how three of the 2-measure patterns follow the same interval pattern with each one moving a note higher than the one before. We would likewise look at the places where the right hand moves up in octaves repeating the same pattern. All of this gives the student an overall picture of the piece and makes it easier to learn.

5. Tap the rhythm hands together with the respective hands tapping each part. We do this together at a slow tempo, with me keeping a steady pulse throughout the piece, thus forcing the student to keep going even as they make mistakes (which they almost inevitably will!). As I’m tapping, I incorporate dynamics and articulation elements, but I don’t expect the student to do so at this stage. After we’ve gone through the whole piece like this, we choose one section to focus on first. For Twister, I would teach the last 8-measures first for several reasons: it sounds cool!; they’ve already played the first four measures without even realizing it when they played their cross-hand arpeggios for number 3 above; and it encompasses most of the elements that will be encountered in the rest of the piece.

6. Successfully learn the selected section. I would have the student tap and count the last 8-measure section again, this time moving their hands up or down on the fallboard to portray the octave changes. Sometimes, depending on time constraints, I also have them finger it out by “playing” on the fallboard the fingers that they will use when they actually play it. Once they determine that this feels easy, I let them try it on the piano. I make sure that they incorporate the dramatic crescendo at the end and finish with a brilliant accented staccato. And of course, the rhythm and notes must be correct! With this section “under their belt,” they are ready to go home and apply the same practice strategies to each additional section of the piece. I let them learn the sections in whatever order they choose – forward, backward, or random.

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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