SOMETIMES… Even the most talented and eager student won’t feel like practicing. Here are some suggestions to get back on the good foot as painlessly as possible. Start with the basics: ROUTINE; INCENTIVES; SUPERVISION; and DEFLECTING.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ROUTINEThe first thing to consider is the student’s practice routine: for students of all ages, interest in piano (or any musical instrument) comes both from within and from the habit of doing. You’ll likely find that a reliable routine is self-reinforcing in that good preparation results in success at lessons. Unfortunately, a poor routine is also self-reinforcing.
CONSISTENCYThe best way to ensure good practice habits for most families and most children is to establish a routine from the very beginning, and to deviate from the routine as little as possible. If practicing is simply something that is done every day, conflicts are much less likely to occur. If a student is permitted to practice intermittently (“when there’s time”) or not at all, even for a short period, it may be difficult to regain an effective routine. For students who are not starting from scratch, it may be helpful to invent a reason to renew an effective routine.
DIFFICULT FAMILY SCHEDULESDesignating specific “practice time” into a daily or weekly schedule is essential. If it’s a scheduled part of the day, it’s less likely to be missed. If the student is doing their practicing after school or in the evenings, you may try changing to morning practice, if you can. “Earned days off,” where a student might complete two practice sessions on Saturday and skip Tuesday, can be a good way to negotiate difficult schedules.
KEEP IT SHORTThe youngest students will benefit greatly from two or three short sessions per day (5-7 minutes to start).
TAKE CHARGEIt’s essential to take an active role in helping your child to make and keep their practice appointment: few young students would complete their school homework without help and attention, and practicing the piano is not much different. Resist the urge to let the student just go without practice. Allowing a young child to take music lessons without requiring consistent practice gives them exposure to music but little else—and worse, it may teach them that music study is not important or that regular practice is not necessary for success. Choose either to make practice productive, positive, and successful; or choose to try again when the child is older and/or their interests have changed.
SUPERVISE PRACTICEMost young students lack the study skills needed to make their practice time productive. For a surprising number of students, unsupervised practice is the same as no practice at all. Most students are motivated by the attention of their parents. When supervising practice, your primary task is to make the practice session enjoyable and positive. Achievement grows from enjoyment, but not necessarily the other way around.
Encourage the student to stay engaged with their practice by asking questions rather than simply walking them through the material. It is essential to find a way to give the student the guidance she needs without inviting conflict: strive to make the process, rather than the product, your primary goal—especially at first. Be generous with praise but avoid false praise by rewarding effort over accomplishment, as appropriate. Resist the temptation to criticize too often. Remember that each day’s practice is just a single step on a thousand-mile journey: if the student insists on practicing one specific thing incorrectly all week, they’ll find out soon enough at their lesson what needs to be changed.
INCENTIVES WORK!I once noticed that a very eager, very young student came to her lesson chewing gum every week. She told me that if she practices every day, her mom gives her a pack of gum before her lesson. Some children are not enticed by any incentive, no matter what it is—but of all the suggestions on this sheet, incentives have proven to be the most effective with the greatest number of students. Choose the smallest incentive likely to work for your child! If your child will accept it, a sticker chart is a good place to start.
Incentives won’t work forever, of course—but don’t worry too much about internal versus external motivation: get them into the practicing routine and the internal motivation will come next year, or the year after that. That little girl with the chewing gum grew up to be one of my most advanced and longest lasting students.
IGNORE AND DEFLECTSometimes, simply ignoring practicing complaints can be an effective strategy! Children will have peaks and valleys in their practice skills and their attitudes about practicing. Any teacher or performer will tell you that they have days when they don’t feel like practicing—this happens to all of us. Deflect negative student remarks and behaviors and give it a few weeks….you may find that the problem clears up on its own.
WHAT ELSE CAN I TRY?Don’t quit yet! Here are some additional suggestions to consider.
HOW BAD IS IT?If the child is willing and just reluctant, then maybe the problem is not as serious as it appears. Practicing is a hard job for a child; for many, independent practice may be the most difficult task in their day. Consider the possibility that a certain amount of low-level negativity may be normal. Also: a mildly negative attitude towards practicing may not necessarily reflect a similar attitude towards music.
SURFACE ATTITUDE VS TRUE FEELINGSSometimes children have a lot invested in a particular attitude. If they give a (very) little fight every day about practicing but then they sit down, work productively, and do well in lessons, it may be possible that their true feelings are not as negative as they may seem.
CHANGE YOUR REPERTOIRETalk to your teacher about changing the student’s repertoire. The older and/or more advanced a student is, the easier it is to give them choice about what kind of music they learn, but even the youngest beginners can be given some choice if the parameters are carefully planned. If the student has a couple pieces that are hard and that they don’t like, probably they won’t enjoy practicing very much. Changing the repertoire may help. Assigning more (common) or fewer (less common) pieces may help. Assigning easier (common) or harder (rare) pieces may help.
TAKE A BREAKSometimes, students just need a break. They get off on the wrong foot, reinforce bad habits and/or thought patterns, and it’s tough to get back on track. Taking the summer off (or even an entire semester) will result in a lot of lost ground, but it may be worth doing if the student is suffering from serious burnout. It may or may not be helpful to explain the purpose of the break ahead of time. While the summer is the best time for a break, it may be possible to squeeze in a mini-break at another time of the year.
CONSIDER GROUP LESSONSThe average student both enjoys the group lesson more and is more likely to practice at home when they’re in a group class. Groups also move more slowly in the first year or two, so a less rigorous at-home practice routine may be possible. For older students, choose to participate in whatever group activities (recitals, supplementary classes) your teacher offers.
DO YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TEACHER?Not every teacher is the right teacher for every student. Maybe switching teachers would help. This doesn’t mean that you have a bad teacher—personality conflicts do happen and sometimes they are unavoidable. Changing teachers is a big decision, not to be taken lightly—but don’t rule it out completely. It’s almost always better to try again with a new teacher than to quit lessons entirely. It’s also important to make sure your teacher’s expectations are in-line with what your child can happily deliver.
For example, if your teacher requires six hours of practice per week, and your child resists, you may find they are perfectly happy to put in three hours per week. Be cautious about shopping for teachers with reduced expectations for the obvious reason that reduced expectations will result in reduced achievement—but also keep in mind that slow and steady progress will one day result in greater attainment than fast progress followed by burnout.