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.

What is Rote Learning and Why Should I Teach By Rote?

teaching by rote

Rote piano teaching seems to be experiencing a resurgence.

But what does it mean to teach by rote?

Webster’s has two definitions for the word.

  1. “The use of memory usually with little intelligence.”
  2. “Mechanical or unthinking routine or repetition.”

I don’t really appreciate the first definition…

Little intelligence?

I guess Webster is trying to say that there’s no formal process for solving a problem such as an algebraic formula or the scientific method.

But it sounds demeaning!

The reality is that this method of learning is an excellent way for students to quickly discover musical patterns and develop their ear.

The following is a quote from the mid 20th-century Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki. I firmly believe his thought process.

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.

The primary concern among piano teachers in teaching the Suzuki method is that it takes so long to begin written notation.

So, why not adopt a hybrid approach? Why not teach music by rote and traditional notation at the same time?

There are several benefits to teaching by rote.

  • It forces students to quickly identify musical patterns.
  • It helps student’s ears develop more quickly.
  • It helps students learn precise rhythm and correct fingering.
  • It allows students to play more exciting music at an early age.
  • It paves the way to excellent musicianship.

Alfred Schnittke is one of my favorite composers and musical thinkers.

Schnittke advocated that the future well-rounded musician would feel at home with various styles. In other words, she would play jazz, classical, pop, and other styles equally well.

Do you know any musicians that can masterfully play in different styles?

Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, and Yo-Yo Ma come to mind.


So now that you have a good understanding of rote piano teaching and its many benefits, you may be asking, “what makes a good rote piece?”

Above all, patterns.

Music is all about patterns. Well-crafted music is full of familiar patterns to help listeners grasp the main themes and ideas.

Here are a few fantastic rote selections listed by Natalie Weber at the Music Matters Blog.

  • A Day in the Jungle by Jon George
  • Bumblebee Toccata by Lynn Freeman Olson
  • Buzzing Bee by Mark Nevin
  • Castle Days by Kathleen Massoud
  • Cross Current by Ted Cooper
  • Devil’s Night Dance by Catherine Rollin
  • Dragon Hunt by Nancy and Randall Faber
  • Dream Echoes by Nancy and Randall Faber
  • The Fly by Nancy and Randall Faber

Candle in the Night, The Music Train, and Running in Circles are three excellent rote pieces that you can find in the PracticeHabits.co store.

I love what Amy Greer has to say about scouring for rote piano pieces on Tim Topham’s brilliant Creative Piano Teaching Podcast.

She says that a good rote piano piece is a piece that’s easier to teach by patterns than traditional notation. If it’s simpler to learn from the music, then it’s not an ideal rote piece.


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

As always, thank you for your ongoing support of the PracticeHabits.co community. I appreciate you.

Your friend,

Chris

Improvisation in the Lesson Room

Improvisation

My three-year-old (Oh! excuse me) my three-and-a-half-year-old, Emma, is now interested in the piano.

Let me define interested here –

It’s early in the morning, and we (my wife and me) hear the pitter patter of little, sticky, bare feet across our rustic 1950’s wood floor.

We listen to a big CLUNK as Emma pushes the black fallboard of our mid-1990s Kawai Upright out of the way.

Tiny partially painted fingers begin caressing the white and black keys from low to high.

Next, dissonant clusters resound as groups of black notes are pressed with preschool force.

It’s not the most pleasant sound, but that’s okay.

She’s improvising.

That’s right; our three-and-a-half-year-plus-a-day-and-a-second-old is improvising!

I’m a huge proponent of dedicating a small part of the weekly lesson to improvisation.

Why, you ask?

Children learn to speak before reading, right?

Well, why should it be any different with music??

A child must first learn to speak the musical language before learning to read music from a page.

Consider this quote from an article featured 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.

My daughter is learning to speak music.

And I’m encouraging it!

Now, I’ve never been one to lord practice over my children. (I have a six-year-old as well – Abby.)

Instead, I’ve adopted a different approach –

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Abby.”

“Can you give me a pliano lesson??” (No mis-spelling. That’s how she says it. My daughter plays the pliano.)

Believe me – she doesn’t have to ask twice!

You can’t force small children to play. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t.

Abby has declined my offer to give her a lesson plenty of times. And that’s okay.

I want HER to make the decision to play. And so far this approach is working beautifully.

Now, back to improvisation.

Webster’s dictionary defines to word “improvise” as follows –

Improvise – to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously.

I feel like I need to define the long “e” word!

Extemporaneously – done, spoken, performed, etc., without special advance preparation; impromptu.

Emma (my youngest) did not prepare her ebony and ivory improvisation well in advance or its execution. She just saw the keys and went to playing.

And this is a beautiful thing! Children need this opportunity!

Freedom to explore possibilities is essential to the learning process, especially as it pertains to music.

Are there ways you can begin incorporating improvisation in your studio?

Maybe you already do.

Are there things you can do to enhance the time devoted to improvisation?

Consider this –

1.) The Ostinato (a recurring rhythmic idea as found in Ravel’s Bolero) is a beautiful canvas on which the young student paints with his or her improvisatory colors.

(Example – Play a quarter note ostinato on a low “C” and then have your student improvise with a “C” in his left hand and a “G” in his right hand. You’ll be surprised at just how clever youngins are!)

2.) Next, change your ostinato pattern up slightly. A minute change may trigger your student to come up with something different as well.


Thank you for spending a few moments with me! I hope that you’re walking away with some nuggets to help you in the important work you’re doing.

Consider some of the lead sheets in the online music store to help you teach your students the art of improvisation.

There are some nifty Christmas arrangements in ALL twelve keys available right now!

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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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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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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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.