Six Ways to Stay Motivated When Your Students are Not Practicing

We, as music teachers, believe that what we do is important to the development of young people.

We look for those moments when the music suddenly grabs the student and they show glimmers of that passion we see in ourselves.

Instead, we repeatedly see students whose music seems to get progressively lower on their priority list.

We know they are playing video games, spending time on Snapchat, building massive things on Minecraft, but, “you didn’t have time to practice this week?!?!?”

Maybe we should just cut them loose.

But—This is our chosen profession. Or, it chose us.

So how do you keep the joy in teaching when it seems your students have joy in everything else but learning?

1. Focus on the big picture.

Not every child we teach will choose music as a career. How many of your childhood friends did?

It’s not really about grooming the next concert pianist or headlining soloist. It is really just about teaching them to love music.

Music is awesome. It will still be awesome if they only look at their music in the car on their way to you.

So instead of stressing about their upcoming recital, stress over making it an enjoyable experience.

2. Small victories are important.

Celebrate the little accomplishments they get with you.

Watch them carefully as they tackle a difficult passage in your presence.

Look for the sparkle in their eyes when they accomplish something. Look for those moments when they are searching for your approval.

When you see those eyes: the sparkling or searching eyes, you can leave the lesson knowing you reached that student.

3. Teach your students to practice.

They aren’t putting in the work at home, use their lesson time to teach them to practice.

Teach them your method that you use to get through difficult passages.

Go over a few measures the way you would practice and say, “Do you know what that was called? Practicing. This is what you do at home. Let’s go through these step again. I know how much I struggled in the beginning learning how to practice.”

Then, go through the same steps again to remind them how to do it.

We focus so much on the results of the practice time, we forget to teach our students how to practice.

They don’t have the tools in their belt that we do to overcome difficulties.

Too often, we have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner. They do not realize that playing from the beginning to the end is not practicing.

They do not know how to isolate measures. They do not know how to identify the parts that need work. Instead, they look at the parts they already know.

Most importantly, they do not know how to overcome frustration.

Teach them how. One note at a time.

Well-crafted and FUN sheet music is a great way to inspire students to practice!

4. Remind your students (and yourself) why it’s important to practice.

Do they even know why they are supposed to practice?

What’s your answer when someone asks why they are supposed to practice?

We practice to develop muscle memory so when nerves kick in, the hands know what to do.

We practice reinforcing what we learned in our lesson.

We practice so our teacher can instead focus on making real music-dynamics, phrasing, articulation, making the music speak so that we and our audience become breathless.

5. Give grace to your students.

Sometimes your students need your forgiveness without them actually earning it.

Sometimes music just has to take a backseat in your student’s life. They may not tell you everything that’s happening at home.

Their one respite from the world’s judgment and difficulties may be sitting in your studio.

Make that time count.

Show them that in your studio, there is no judgment. There is simply expression without words.

Give them that.

6. Realize that it is not about you.

Students are not skipping practice because of some issue they have with your teaching.

They are not setting out to offend and insult you.

While you spend much of your time thinking about music, they simply do not. They have not gotten there yet.

It is not about you or me.

Teaching music is about teaching students that some things are worth working for.

There are no shortcuts in music.

If they aren’t going to put in the time to be the best they can be, you just have to let that go and teach what walks into your studio.

One final thought…when was the last time you really practiced?

About the Author: April O’Keefe is co-founder and current Associate Director of SoliMusica Academy.  She graduated from Georgia State University in 2002 with a Bachelor in Music Performance with a focus on cello performance.  She taught at East Cobb Middle School from 2004 until 2014.

While teaching at East Cobb Middle School, the orchestra program grew from 120 students to over 275 students.  Under her direction, the orchestras consistently received superior ratings at local and regional Large Group Performance Evaluations.  Many of her students participated in select ensembles such as the Cobb County Middle School Honor Orchestra, Georgia All-State Orchestra and the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra.  Mrs. O’Keefe has been actively involved in the Georgia Music Educators Association serving as District Twelve Honor Orchestra Chair and District Twelve All-State Audition Chair.  She also actively serves and clinician and adjudicator throughout the metro-Atlanta area.

Since 2008, April O’Keefe has served as music education assistant for Kennesaw United Methodist Church.  While in this position, she has worked with and organized children’s choir, children’s handbells, and various summer camps.  She also created a barbershop ensemble, taught an adult violin class, and served as interim Music Minister directing adult choirs and adult handbell groups.

Mrs. O’Keefe lives in Kennesaw with her husband, Paul, five-year-old Carson, and two-year-old twins, Logan and Molly.  Paul is a violinist, Carson is just beginning his musical journey on violin, and the twins are enjoying watching – for now.

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27 Replies to “Six Ways to Stay Motivated When Your Students are Not Practicing”

  1. Great article! “We practice so that our teacher can instead focus on making real music..” love that!! Thanks also for the reminder that the lesson is not about me.

  2. Such encouraging thoughts! All of us have students who either don’t practice at all, or very little. It can become very frustrating. I appreciate all these thoughts, views and alternatives to that frustration!

    1. It can become frustrating. For sure. As you point out, thankfully, there are alternatives to that frustration! I choose to remain positive and remember why I do what I do. And I know you do too, Debra! Best to you in your important work today.

    1. True, Cheryl! Instilling encouragement and confidence is important in our society. We never quite know what our students are going through at home or at school. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I often tell my students that my job is not to teach them to play a specific piece but to give them a toolbox to use at home to play a variety of pieces. I give several methods of how to work on a piece and explain different ways of counting as well. We can’t assume our kids know what to do when they get home. I tell them about muscle memory by making an analogy of stubbing your toe getting out of bed… after you do it 2 or 3 times and your toe REALLY hurts… you will pay more attention getting out of bed the next time… so pay more attention to that fingering/#, b, rhythm… etc

  4. I am a student and my teacher is always motivating me when it comes to practice. I admit that working full time and daily household chores prevent me from practicing as much as I should and she is very understanding and appreciates my honesty and the effort I do out in to learning new pieces.

    1. We go through different seasons in life. Some seasons allow us to dedicate more time to practice than others. Keep up the excellent work. Your teacher is blessed to have such an honest and hardworking student!

  5. “It’s really about teaching them to love music.” That is so important. When they can feel that excitement and joy in creating music or even just listening to it, I truly believe that is a reward in itself.

  6. Lots of good and timely reminders in your article. I was once also told to find something to praise when a student plays for me – even if the work hasn’t been done – sometimes the best we can manage is to praise the choice of ‘finger 2 at the start of bar 3’.

    1. Agreed, Karen. I like this approach. Listen for the good first and then critique. And as you say, sometimes critique isn’t beneficial. I always go back to the idea that I don’t quite know everything that’s going on in a student’s life. Not that I (we) should never critique and/or have high and realistic expectations. Thanks for this different angle!

  7. Lots of great ideas on how to get a child to love music. And sometimes I do do the practice at the lesson! But they do get excited when they can play a few of their pieces

  8. Great points, every one. #3 is so important. If I don’t teach them how to practice, how can they possibly know?!

    Great reminder that music will always be great, even if all the music they get to is in the lesson, so we need to make that time a positive one.

    #5: I do have some students in really hard situations, and the lesson is a respite in the chaos that is their life. If they never practice at home, at least they have a warm, welcoming, supportive 30 minutes, and can experience music as a positive part of their life, not yet one more thing they can’t do or have to feel guilty about. Rote pieces, duets, improv & composition are particularly good for this type of student.

    Thanks for the reminder to step back, keep the big picture in mind, and remember that we are teaching students, not music. It’s all about them, not us!

    1. I love what you say here, Rachel – “at least they have a warm, welcoming, supportive 30 minutes, and can experience music as a positive part of their life, not yet one more thing they can’t do or have to feel guilty about.” So true. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! And keep it up 🙂

  9. Playing the piano is fun! I show them their part w/ my hands. We play games, play along with backup music files, use iPad worksheets and have time for rhythm sticks in 1/2 hour! I think it’s a team concept: mom brings you, I teach you, and you practice! Students will most likely practice a song that they love. Oh, how they love to see/hear their progress on sound/video files. Passion for music and beautiful smiles are so encouraging! Great article, thank you!

  10. So true. I usually feel bad for the parents or grandparents who are paying for the lessons; how they must feel when they ask the child to play something they learned in piano “practice” and the child is not successful. Most parents do ask me when piano “practice” is rather than when piano lesson is. That is the difference. I try to stress that practice takes place at home and lessons move us forward.

    1. I know what you mean, Martha. Keep doing what you’re doing though! Stress it 5, 10, 15, 20 times if you have to! “Practice takes place at home and lessons move us forward.” So true!

  11. My teacher did not stress technique and skills. I played at piano and did the books but eventually dropped lessons. She found a different talent in voice. It was easier and I enjoyed it. That talent has flowered over the years. And piano has done much better than when I was lessoned. It is a matter of practicing tough passages that makes it work. Only a few will find it, like it, and enjoy it. But thats ok. Those who dont, do better at somethng else.

    1. I like this, Ollie. I’m glad you were able to pursue your voice talent. And I love that you came back to the piano. Sometimes seeds are planted and we have to know when to water and fertilize as teachers. But sometimes, we just plant seeds. Thanks for sharing.

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