Let’s talk about our practice expectations

Lack of practice is an issue that most piano players grapple with at some point – and it is something that teachers don’t always handle graciously and with understanding.

A Teacher’s Complaint

One teacher in the UK – given the opportunity to vent in an anonymous column for The Guardian newspaper recently – devoted almost the entire article to this frustration, with only a brief introduction claiming that he or she actually enjoys music teaching. Here’s how the teacher described his/her feelings:

“When a child does not practice, cannot remember note names or values week after blessed week, despite every didactic trick I have up my sleeve, my heart clenches in despair.”

The writer goes on to clearly place the “blame” for this problem at the door of parents:

“All I ask of a child is to set aside 10 minutes a day for music practice. But a child also needs to be encouraged, cajoled, praised and rewarded … So come on, parents – stop throwing away your hard-earned cash; cease wasting everyone’s time and take responsibility.”

Skimming the reader comments following the article, some felt it was written simply as an excuse to attack “middle-class parenting”, despite the fact that these parents actually represent probably the most loyal constituency for music education. And inevitably, some hit back, pointing out that perhaps the teacher simply wasn’t inspiring their pupils and/or giving them an adequate grounding within the lesson.

Looking more deeply at the problem

I would suggest that responsibility for progress is actually shared between teachers, students and (in the case of children) their parents. And success is far more likely if there is a constructive dialogue and mutual respect between these parties.

It seems to me that there were two basic principles of piano teaching which the writer in The Guardian missed:

Firstly, independent musical learning is rarely instantaneous for the beginner, and it must be supported by a good musical understanding. In this instance, the teacher bemoans the fact that some of his/her pupils still cannot remember note names and values “week after blessed week”. This raises an obvious question: how then are they supposed to practice independently at home? Effective independent practice seems impossible if even the most basic foundations aren’t yet in place.

Independence blossoms as understanding grows.

Secondly, the author mentions deploying “every didactic trick”, as though teaching is primarily about method. But piano teaching isn’t simply a series of didactic tricks; first and foremost it is a responsive relationship, requiring a personal connection. Does the struggling student perhaps have learning difficulties, personal problems at home, or at school? Such complex life issues cannot be ignored or dismissed under blanket judgments such as lack of talent, laziness or poor parenting.

Independence blossoms when confidence is nurtured.

Almond Blossom

Planning and Expectations

So let’s start by looking at our own frustrations as teachers: what is really behind them?

Perhaps we are focusing too much on our own agenda, and don’t like to see our plans for a pupil postponed by what seems, at face value, to be lack of effort on their part.

In recent years, a lot of the training for instrumental teachers has been influenced by classroom and group teaching methods. Given how much piano teachers have to learn from classroom colleagues, this has been extremely helpful. However, we must remain mindful of the differences between individual and group lessons.

An obvious advantage of individual lessons is that we can get to know each student on their own terms, and better tailor the lessons to the particular journey that they are on. Such flexibility and responsiveness can have a positive and a profound impact on our attitude towards lesson planning and expectations of pupil progress.

Our lesson planning assumes that recent expectations will have been broadly met by the student. In order to be more responsive in our approach during lessons, the real planning that is required is for us to have a deep, broad and secure subject knowledge and a creative ability to adapt.

Making excuses and missing lessons

When a student hasn’t practised, they are likely to fall back on one of the many stock “excuses” that teachers regularly hear. I use the word “excuses” because so many teachers, parents and players seem to start from the position that if no practice has been done, the student has somehow let the teacher down.

Given this may not really be the case, here are some questions for teachers to consider:

  • What happens if students do not meet my expectations?
  • How can I encourage a greater enthusiasm for music?
  • Am I thinking more about what is going to help the student, or my own reputation?

If pupils don’t come to a lesson at all unless they have practised, this is particularly illuminating. Perhaps they feel disappointment in themselves, or a fear of the teacher’s rejection. This applies equally to adult students and children, and often parents also get in on the act. But these aren’t positive emotions, nor are they necessary if the relationship between teacher and student is working well.

Personally I suggest to students that if they haven’t been able to practice, it is even more important that they come to the lesson, so that I can help them get their playing back on track.

Digging deeper for explanations

Teachers must bear in mind that a pupil may not wish to divulge the real reason that they haven’t practised. There may be personal reasons beyond the scope of the teacher/student relationship. In such cases the student may well give a phony excuse (“I was too busy this week”) or none at all. It seems to me that considerable emotional intelligence is needed on the part of the teacher to properly manage this situation :

  • A child may be having difficulties at school, academic or social, or be caught up in family issues or conflict at home.
  • A young adult may have had a breakup with their significant other, have money problems, concerns for their parents, or stress at work.
  • An older adult may have health problems that they don’t want to talk about, or be stressed about their children.

I am not suggesting that the piano teacher assume the role of therapist – simply that we be sensitive, have empathy, and avoid judging students when they haven’t practised as much as we might like. Without prying or intrusion, we need to remember there is always a bigger picture.

Let’s stop thinking in terms of “excuse” and start thinking in terms of “reason” so that we can have a more positive attitude and rapport with our students.

Busy Lifestyles

One obvious reason for limited practice is that our modern lifestyles are busier than ever. This is not all bad however. When addressing the question of competing activities, we must remember that fresh air, physical exercise, rest and relaxation are all essential for a healthy life.

Learning to play the piano certainly requires sacrifice, and not just for the student but for their immediate family too. We cannot simply dismiss wider family commitments as an irrelevance or irritation. In helping all interested parties to find a good balance that incorporates a student’s musical development, it is again our role to provide sympathetic advice rather than judgment.

Raising awareness of these issues will inevitably sometimes result in lessons stopping, if only for a season, so that a more healthy life balance can be achieved. When this happens, isn’t it better for the context to be a positive and supportive relationship, rather than for students to quit lessons forever as the consequence of a teacher’s harsh judgment or misunderstanding?

beach footy

What to do in the Lesson

Once we have determined not to judge our students or assume the worst of them, we need a positive strategy for adapting lesson content.

And of course there are a great many ways to use the lesson time well, rather than simply condemning the student and sending them home untaught. This is especially true for the teacher who has properly understood the importance of teaching music “sound before symbol“.

The fundamental shift that some teachers may need to make before they overcome their sense of frustration with pupils is this: the emphasis of a lesson must shift from assessment to instruction. And while this may seem blindingly obvious, it is easy for all of us to get the balance wrong at times.

Here are some of the basic lesson activities that require no specific preparation on the part of the student:

  • Musical Games, flash cards, clapping and singing
  • Aural Training and Listening activities
  • Scales and Exercises
  • Other activities developing technique
  • Sight-reading
  • Music Theory
  • Recapping previously learnt repertoire
  • Listening to and discussing recordings
  • Working on repertoire – hands separately, and then together, discussing interpretation, memorizing short passages, etc.

Depending on the level and ability of the student, there is plenty to work on in any piano lesson, regardless of independent progress made since the previous session.

Starting with Enjoyment

As the legendary Wanda Landowska is quoted as saying,
“I never practice, I always play.”

It is my absolute conviction that the students who will make good progress and continue playing the piano for many years to come are the ones who start from a point of enjoyment.

When teachers and parents nurture enthusiasm, practice will invariably follow, and it will be of the productive sort that’s fundamentally motivated by the internal goals of the student. And in the medium to long term, this is what is essential in order for students to succeed!

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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