Five Practice Tips for Staying in Shape During the Summer Months

practice tips

It’s Summertime again and the school year is over, leaving our students and families to plan what to do with all of their free time – A trip to the beach, a family road trip, maybe even pick up a new hobby?

It seems like every year they brush music to the side so that they can enjoy whatever vacation time they do have, only to come back to lessons in the Fall with a lot of catching up to do.

Since most students take a break from lessons during the Summer months, how can we encourage them to stay in shape with their instrument while still helping them feel like they’re getting that much-needed break?

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Here are five brilliant practice tips to help your students stay in shape over the Summer.

Stay Inspired

If students stop thinking about music and close off their emotional relationship with it, then it’s much harder to find the willpower to practice when not having lessons over the Summer amidst so many other fun distractions.

Encourage your students (and their parents) to find the time to go to concerts (of any kind) and try to listen to the music they play and want to be able to play so that it remains strong in their consciousness.

It doesn’t take much, but it’s amazing what a difference this makes in their playing!

Stay Disciplined (When They’re in Town)

Many people take extended trips out of town during the Summer, so the time they do have to practice is significantly limited.

To remedy this, encourage your students to plan out their calendar as much as possible and be sure to make a practice schedule for the days they know they will be at home.

It’s important to stay continuous in practice whenever possible, as days off usually call for some time to get back into the swing of things.

Practice sessions can be shorter than during the school year, as long as students maintain a constant (or as constant as possible) connection to playing the piano.

This is the best way to avoid that “rusty” feeling in September.

Set Reasonable Goals

During the school year, students have regular lessons, recitals and competitions to challenge them, but during the Summer they seem to be on their own.

Having goals moves them forward, and the key for efficient Summer practice is setting modest goals.

Choose 1 or 2 pieces for your students to work on by themselves so that they can bring them to their first Fall lesson in good shape.

Encourage them to have a family recital at the end of Summer to challenge them, or to make a recording of their pieces at least once.

And encourage them with all of that extra time on their hands to think about what pieces and styles of music they want to tackle next.

All of this will help motivate them to be self-disciplined.

Work to Strengthen a Weak Skill

One great way to take advantage of the Summer break is to focus on strengthening a weak skill.

Establish what this is for each student and show them how to work on it effectively.

In addition to their regular practice, they should take the time to sort through whatever particular issues they may have deliberately.

Summer break gives them the space to address these kinds of deficiencies without the stress of the hectic school year schedule.

Overall – Have Fun!

That’s what Summer break is all about, right?

So encourage your students to improvise, compose, or make arrangements of their favorite songs.

It’s good for them to do things that make them happy to be a musician.

Remind them to enjoy themselves, be inspired, and stay as continuous as possible in their practice by setting modest goals.

These practice tips will help them come out of the Summer with an even deeper connection to music and the piano!

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About the Author: This guest post about staying in shape during the Summer months is by Carter McMullen from the Baltimore School of Music. You can read more about Carter and his work below.

Carter McMullen is a piano teacher at the Baltimore School of Music. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgia State University and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, both in Piano Performance. He continued his music studies at conservatories in Paris, France and London, England.

Carter maintains an active performing schedule including solo and chamber music, instrumental and vocal accompanying, and jazz. He toured South America three times with the Chase Educational Foundation, giving concerts and masterclasses in Argentina and Chile, and has performed in concerts in France, Italy, the UK, and the US. He regularly collaborates with performance students at the Peabody Institute.

In 2017, Carter founded the Union Square Chamber Music Society, and as Artistic Director, he organizes monthly salon concerts in which he regularly takes part as a performer.

Memorization

Memorization technique

The following is one of the most efficient memorization techniques that I’ve taught my students.

It’s common knowledge that students all around the globe practice too fast. And this produces poor results!

Slow and steady wins the race.

I always remind my students about The Tortoise and the Hare.

Who wins?

The tortoise, of course.

Why?

Because he’s slow and methodical.

The hare gets cocky and only knows one speed – fast! And this ultimately leads to his losing the race.

We have to take care in reminding our students to practice slowly.

Learning the piano is a marathon, not a sprint.

So, why memorize music?

Well, we encourage our students to memorize music because it helps them internalize and bring a higher level of interpretation to their music.

They don’t have to worry so much about the notes anymore and can focus on the dynamics, phrasing, and other musical nuances.

When it comes to memorization, I like to teach a back to front approach.

It’s not a quick approach, but it yields amazing results!

Maybe you, like me, have seen students attempt to memorize a piece from beginning to end quickly.

Impatience = Sloppiness

This is why it’s so important to remind students about the long game. In the end, the tortoise wins the race!

One caveat before we dive into the technique; a student shouldn’t attempt memorization until she can play a piece from beginning to end without making mistakes.

She must have a solid grasp of the music.

Now, on to memorization.

As already mentioned, I prefer a slow and steady back to front approach.

Once students are ready to begin memorizing, I have them turn to the very back of a piece, extract the last three to four bars, and play them several times slowly along with the music.

I stress slowly here.

Once they’ve played the three to four measure phrase slowly with the music, I ask them to play the phrase from memory.

Carving out small sections one at a time and practicing them in this way forces students to pay attention to what’s going on in the music.

What are the intervals? What does the melody sound like? What’s the rhythm?

Extracting small snippets of a piece and practicing them in this way gives way to solid memorization.

You’re determining these little fragments by the phrasing, or course. You could be working with six bars phrases in your case. Or it could be less.

But I would not bite off more than six bars. This may be a bit much for your students depending on the tempo and difficulty level of their piece.

I’ve had my students repeat as little as two measures at a time.

Once students have mastered the last three or four bars of a piece (or last part of a phrase), I have them back up to the preceding three to four bars of music.

Now, have them repeat the process. Not only with the new measures, but the measures they’ve already memorized.

This technique reinforces the music that they’ve already memorized and works extremely well when it comes to solidifying memorization of any piece.

Okay, so just to recap. –

  1. Play the last three or four measures of a piece (depending on the phrase) several times while looking at the music.
  2. Next, play the passage from memory.
  3. Then back up to the preceding three or four measures and play them plus the memorized measures several times while looking at the music.
  4. Now try the passage from memory.
  5. Rinse, wash, repeat.

This approach just works!

I encourage you to approach large-scale works, such as Beethoven’s sonatas a little differently.

You’ll want to break larger pieces into smaller chunks (one or two pages at a time) and then apply the slow back to front approach.


So there you go!

I hope this quick article gives you some food for thought as you’re resting and gearing up for a new semester of teaching

Remind your students of the classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Remind them who wins the race!


So what works for you?

What memorization techniques are you using in your lessons?

I’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.

And as always, thank you for supporting the PracticeHabits community!

Student Procrastinating and Parent Involvement

work student procrastinating

Student procrastinating…

Oh, I remember studying (cramming really) for those school history and language arts tests.

Sincerely meditating on the test material, I’d allow my head to fall deeply into the center of the thick textbook memorizing dates and vo..caa…buu…lar…….y….. woooooo..r……d….ssssss (zzzzz……zzzzzz…..zzzz).

Oops! I’m sorry! I dozed off!!

Just thinking about it makes me super sleepy.

The textbook wasn’t as soft as my down feather pillow, but I made it work.

We’ve all been there!

  1. Temporarily fill brain with information.
  2. Take test.
  3. Dump information.

It’s unfortunate, really.

I used to procrastinate on my piano assignments as well.

I’ll never forget student procrastinating the week of piano festival. Oh, what a fearful experience that was!

Served me right, though!

My parents pushed me to practice, but they could have pushed harder at times.

It’s tough to strike the appropriate balance, right?

We don’t want our students to burn out. But they need to be pushed. And sometimes parents need to be pushed.

I believe that parent involvement is key to children’s success in the lesson room.

There’s perfect case study by The Center for Public Education on this topic. It’s not a quick read, but worth your time.

Unfortunately, too many parents allow piano teachers to shoulder all of the responsibility.

Sound familiar?

Many of you have told me that the two biggest problems you face in the lesson room are a lack of practice and parent involvement.

I struggle with these myself.

But there are ways to combat these problems.

One of the most efficient ways is to inspire students to practice with well-crafted and imaginative music. 

Rote pieces are perfect for early-late beginner students because they allow them to play more exciting music since they’re focussing on patterns and not note reading.

There are other ways to combat these problems, of course. But that’s enough from me.

I want to hear from you!

How do you open this dialogue with your families? What’s working for you? What’s not working for you?

Please leave a comment below.

5 Brilliant Practice Habits For Piano Students

boy practice

Effective practice habits are central to learning the piano and just about every other musical instrument.

If appropriately and consistently taught, the wise teacher’s labor of love will help guide students to excellent musicianship.

Here are 5 practice habits to aid you on your teaching journey!


1.) Slow and steady wins the race.

“Practice makes perfect.”

We’ve heard it time and time again and probably said it to our students on more than one occasion.

Practice is important. But it doesn’t make perfect.

I like this phrase better – “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

And even then, things will never be perfect.

So maybe a better saying is “slow and precise practice yields excellent results.”

I admit the statement doesn’t flow as nicely as the first, but it’s more accurate!

Encourage your students to practice in slow motion. Remind them who wins in Aesop’s classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus and faculty member Noa Kageyama has this to say about slow practice,

I had forgotten all about this [slow practice in music] until very recently, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim (incidentally, check out his personal jetlag remedy).

He revealed that one of the keys to his success (and building confidence as well) is super slow practice. A process of practicing in slow motion – while being fully mindful, highly engaged, and thinking deeply in real-time about what he is doing.

2.) Quality over quantity.

It’s not how long a student spends practicing that counts, it’s the quality of her practice.

Let me tell you a story.

Camden, one of my past piano students, fell into the “creative” category.

I was excited to take him on as a student because he exhibited more zeal for the instrument than most beginning students.

I quickly became frustrated when he showed up unrehearsed week after week.

I told his mother that he needed to sit at the piano for at least 30-minutes per day. She agreed, and that’s what he did. He SAT at the piano 30-minutes each day.

He wasn’t actively pursuing his studies. He was bored out of his mind!

I sat down with him and his mother at the following lesson to discuss a new game plan.

You see, I realized that I had been approaching our lessons in the wrong way, squashing Cameron’s zeal for the piano.

I told his mother not to worry too much if he didn’t practice for exactly 30-minutes each day. I encouraged her to let him practice at his pace – 5-minutes here, 10-minutes there.

I saw vast improvements in his playing and ability to focus. Most importantly, I didn’t squash his zeal for learning how to play the piano!

5-minutes of focused practice is much better than 30-minutes of unfocused practice.

Quality over quantity any and every day of the week.

3.) Back to front reinforcement.

Repetition is super important in the practice room.

Have students isolate small passages, such as the last four measures of a piece and slowly practice them several times before increasing speed.

Then have the student back up a few more measures and repeat the process, playing and reinforcing the previously learned passage.

This back to front approach ensures that students are working toward something and reinforcing what they already know.

This technique is so effective! And it really shines in memorization.

4.) Quickly move from one piece to the next.

I didn’t believe this one at first. But I gave it a try, and low and behold it works!

This approach works best once a student has lived with her music for a season.

Elle Kaplan, founder, and CEO of LexionCapital, teaches how this approach can help people learn and master any skill twice as fast.

Whether you’re trying to improve your motor skills or cognitive learning abilities, the key to transforming how your brain processes new information is to break out of the habit of learning one facet of a skill at a time. The advantage of this method is that your brain doesn’t get comfortable or store information in your short-term memory. Instead, interleaving causes your brain to intensely focus and problem solve every step of the way, resulting in information getting stored in your long-term memory instead.

For example, one study, gave a collegiate baseball team extra batting practice and broke them up into three groups: a control group, a blocked group, and a random group. The blocked group faced a variety of pitches in a set order, and the other group encountered pitches randomly. After six weeks, researchers found that the random group improved 56.7%, while the blocked group only improved 24.8%. That’s a massive difference! And similar results have been replicated in other sports and classroom learning studies.

Piano playing is far different from baseball. But Kaplan’s approach is worth trying with the student who has a good handle on his music.

Consider having students slowly play 8 measures of a challenging, fast-paced piece and then quickly move to a section of a much slower piece.

Repeat this process with several other pieces in a different order.

5.) Listen before you work.

Don’t discount the inner ear.

Some teachers oppose any listening prior to learning a new piece, concerned that it inhibits a student’s interpretation.

But I’m a huge advocate of listening before learning. Particularly in the formative years.

I love this quote taken from an article on the Suzuki Association of the Americas website

The early years are crucial for developing mental processes and muscle coordination. Listening to music should begin at birth; formal training may begin at age three or four, but it is never too late to begin. Children learn words after hearing them spoken hundreds of times by others.

Consider bringing several different recordings of a piece for your student to listen to during his lesson or borrow to listen at home.

The inner ear is an essential part of learning to play music.


I hope that you’ve found this article helpful and informative.

Maybe you’d like to add a practice habit to this list. By all means, be my guest! Please leave a comment below and share this article with your colleagues.

And as always, keep up the important work your doing.

Happy teaching!

Sometimes You Just Need a Different Approach

Approach Emma

I once had a student who couldn’t sit still.

Come to think of it, most of the students I’ve taught fit into this category.

Nevertheless, Ava was a ball of energy!

Granted, she was four-years-old when she began piano lessons.

And this beautiful ball of energy was one of the brightest students I had ever encountered.

But…

I vividly remember arriving each lesson frustrated and baffled on how to approach little Ava.

Did I mention she was only four-years-old??

I’ll be vulnerable here – teaching little bitties was a new endeavor, and I was out of my league.

I knew how to teach the piano. But I did not know how to teach Ava.

It was a struggle.

An epic battle between mentor and protégé that looked something like this.


“Now Ava, this note is middle-C.”

Squirm, squirm, squirm.

“Oh! This is middle-C, Mr. Chris. I’m going to teach you today!”

Run, run, run around the piano bench.

“No, Ava. Please be seated.”

“Okay!”

Squirm, squirm, squirm, twirl, sit.

“Okay, Ava. Let’s try this again. Here’s middle-C.”

“Oh!! Mr. Chris. I made up a song. Want to hear it??”


My brain was melting by this point. And this was the weekly scenario.

I needed a different approach.

I gathered the courage to speak with her mother about the issue.

Together, we decided to shorten Ava’s lessons to 15-minutes instead of the usual 30-minutes.

And her mother began sitting in our lessons.

Now I’m not a huge fan of parents sitting in the lesson room. But this was a unique situation. And it worked beautifully!

She was able to gently guide Ava’s wandering mind back to focus speaking the ancient language known as “mom.”

Both of these changes significantly improved Ava’s lesson experience.

She grew with me. We grew together.

I eventually increased Ava’s lesson time to 30-minutes and her mother began sitting in the waiting area.

Ava was not a bad student. She was four-years-old!

And I just needed a different approach.


How about you? Do you need a different approach?

Well, there’s no better time to implement change than right now.

Have a question? Need guidance?

Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Christmas Recital Time, Again?

Tree at Christmas recital

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

Christmas recitals are just around the corner.

Are you prepared?

Better question – Are your students prepared?

Many Christmas recital to-do-lists look like this –

  1. Purchase food and drinks
  2. Tune piano(s)
  3. Create and print programs
  4. Collect recital fees
  5. Remind parents of due dates and recital times
  6. Extra piano lessons (maybe make-up lessons) before recital

The list goes on and on!

It’s difficult to accomplish these things when there are so many other items on the list!

The most important item being one-on-one time with your students.

Many of you have expressed to me that the biggest problems you face in the lesson room include lack of practice and lack of enthusiasm.

Well, I’ve told you that PracticeHabits.co is a resource for you. A resource you can rely on for helpful tips and tricks when things get tough.

Things can get real tough around recital time.

Let me provide you with one super fantastic tip that’s helped me time and time again with my students around recital time.

Introducing – THE STUDENT OF THE MONTH.

It’s something so simple, yet so inspiring to your students!

They have an opportunity to work hard practicing and preparing for weekly lessons and important events such as recitals and in return their efforts they receive the prestigious STUDENT OF THE MONTH award!

Now, maybe you already have a similar program within your studio.

Awesome!

Consider reimagining it this Christmas recital season just to light a little fire in your student’s bellies ; )

What if you gave this prestigious award away to several students during the month of December and rewarded them at the end of the Christmas recital?

What an honor! What a message you’d be sending to all of your students and their families –

Practice is important. Engagement is important. Your student has worked really hard in these areas and deserves to be rewarded!

It helps light a fire in the bellies of your other students as well.

Now, I used to award a certificate as well as a special piece of music to my students of the month.

It was a win-win, really.

They received a gift for their hard work. That gift was a piece of music. The students loved practicing these pieces!

Love and practice in the same sentence? Wow, what a beautiful thing!

I want to give you something. An award that you can pass out to your students of the month.

Please accept this fun and inventive arrangement of Jingle Bells for the late-beginner to the early-intermediate piano student as a token of my gratitude for your support of the PracticeHabits.co community.

Now, maybe you’re in need of an excellent piece for the mid-late intermediate piano student. Well, check out my original composition That Fall Feeling. I know you and your students will enjoy it!


The next three weeks are going to be busy. Remember to take care of yourself and your family.

And as always, allow PracticeHabits.co to fill you up with inspiration in the form of great articles and music!

Merry Christmas!

Piano Lessons – 4 Proven Strategies to Get the Most Out of Them

Boy in piano lessons
Piano lessons are expensive, costing an average of $90-120 per month ($1,080-1,440 per year). And rightfully so! We spend years studying our instruments and hours pouring into our students each week.
 
Unfortunately, a majority of students miss a tremendous opportunity to make the most of their weekly piano lessons, squandering their parent’s money and sometimes their own. It’s a sad but legitimate reality.
 
Fortunately, there’s hope!
 

Parents don’t have to continue wasting their time and hard-earned money. They don’t have to discontinue piano lessons.

 
For over a decade, I’ve been encouraging students and parents to take full advantage of their music instruction by following these four straightforward and practical steps. And you can too!
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1.) Come to the lesson engaged and ready to learn.

Private music lessons typically last between 30-60 minutes and occur directly after school. Students are tired at the end of the school day and may have difficulty staying awake or engaging in a meaningful way. A quick snack just before the piano lesson can help with this.

Most students should not nap prior to their lesson as they arrive in a groggy state. I remember my piano teacher scolding me for napping. I also recall thinking about sleep while playing my pieces for her. I wasn’t a stellar student!

One final and important note on this – find a music teacher that engages your child in a meaningful way and inspires her to pursue her instrument beyond the weekly piano lesson.

2.) Videotape the music lesson.

Most music teachers send their students home with a weekly “things to do” list. Making a list is a good habit, but from my experience, students do not engage with the list unless prompted by a parent. For this reason, I recommend videotaping weekly piano lessons.

Music teachers cover a lot of material in a lesson. The rehearsal video is a relevant way for students to re-engage with this material during the week. Review it just before or during the first practice at home.

(Side note – the first practice at home should occur on the same day as the lesson or the very next day while the material is fresh on the student’s mind.)

3.) Parent involvement.

This one seems obvious. I believe that many parents would say that they’re involved. But I would argue that most parents are passively involved and not actively involved. Let me explain the difference.

An example of passive involvement –

“Johnny, get downstairs and practice the piano. I’ve set the timer for 30 minutes. Now go!”

It’s a great thing that you’re encouraging (making) your student practice, but there’s a better approach. Here’s an excerpt from one of my recent blog posts, Understanding the Creative Child. You’ll notice a shift from passive to active involvement.

Camden, one of my past piano students, fell into the “creative” category. I was excited to take him on as a student because he exhibited more zeal for the instrument than most beginning students. I quickly became frustrated when he showed up unrehearsed week after week. I told his mother that he needed to sit at the piano for at least 30-minutes per day. She agreed, and that’s what he did. He SAT at the piano 30-minutes each day. He wasn’t actively pursuing his studies. He was bored out of his mind!

I sat down with him and his mother at the following lesson to discuss a new game plan. You see, I realized that I had been approaching our lessons in the wrong way. My approach was stifling his creativity and ability to learn the piano in his unique way. I began asking him to bring one piece each week that he was excited to play. His eyes lit up! “Really,” he said, “I get to pick my music?” Allowing him the freedom to choose just one piece per week had positive effects on his passion for learning the instrument.

I told his mother not to worry too much if he didn’t practice for exactly 30-minutes each day. I encouraged her to let him practice at his pace – 5-minutes here, 10-minutes there. I saw vast improvements in his playing and ability to focus. Most importantly, I didn’t squash his zeal for learning how to play the piano!

Quality over quantity. 5-minutes of focused practice is much more desirable than 30-minutes of unfocused practice.

4.) Practice perfectly and slowly.

My dear friend and colleague, April O’Keefe says,

We’re all told that “practice makes perfect.” But this is not true. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

Students often sloppily play their pieces in the practice room. Time and time again, I’ve told students to restart their pieces and play slowly and accurately, often making them reset having missed only one note, even at two minutes into the music! This approach may seem harsh, but it works! Students engage much more deeply when forced to think about the music on a cerebral level.

There is no room for error, at least not in the rehearsal room.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus and faculty member Noa Kageyama has this to say about slow practice,

I had forgotten all about this [slow practice in music] until very recently, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim (incidentally, check out his personal jetlag remedy).

He revealed that one of the keys to his success (and building confidence as well) is super slow practice. A process of practicing in slow motion – while being fully mindful, highly engaged, and thinking deeply in real-time about what he is doing.

Will students continue to make mistakes? Of course! I’ve yet to meet a human who doesn’t. But the severity and frequency of these errors will grow increasingly small when preceded by thoughtful and efficient practice habits.

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Hand this 8-Page Guide out to your students and their parents. You’ll see a vast improvement in their performance and practice when they implement these 4 straightforward and efficient strategies!
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I hope you find these tips helpful. I’ve taught countless music students and experimented with many approaches to aid them in their weekly studies. These four are among the top strategies.

Implement them and I promise that you’ll see a huge improvement in what your student takes away from weekly piano lessons.