Keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is to create lifelong musicians and keeping in mind that I want my students to grow to love the piano, my objective is to train students to be independently responsible for their own piano practice. Students will govern their own practice when they want to it and see the value of practice. I use the following age-related guidelines in my studio.
Preschoolers ages 4-6 — Parents supervise practice
My preschoolers work on things like ear training and keyboard exploration. What I expect is for them to spend five to ten minutes going over the music we worked on at the lesson. I ask parents to be nearby and help when necessary. The preschool program I use is very relaxed; my goal is to introduce the little ones to the piano and build some basic musicianship. I want this stage to be fun and engaging, so I use lots of games and off-the-bench activities.
Elementary students ages 5-11 — Parents remind children to practice.
As soon as students are ready (usually about the time they begin reading words), I transition them into Book 1 of the Paloma Piano series and note reading. At this point, they should be able to practice by themselves. But, I have found that my elementary school-aged kids won’t remember to practice without a reminder. I ask parents to set a consistent daily practice time and remind their child to practice. I tell my students that when their parent tells them to go practice they should do it right away.
Middle and High School Students ages 12 and older — independent practice.
Since the ultimate goal (as per my Mission Statement) is to have students become independent musicians. I expect my older students to take full responsibility for their own practice.
These age-related suggestions are just guidelines. As teachers, we know what works best for each individual student. I have some ultra-responsible, super-motivated younger kids who don’t need to be reminded to practice. (I love it when this happens!). Some older kids may still occasionally need reminders and help with organization when it comes to practice. As teachers, we must use our best judgment.
Here are two interesting tales of practice gone wrong
When I was a kid, I took piano lessons along with my friend—Stacy. I was twelve years old when I started and was very motivated. Stacy… not so much. Her mother’s solution was to set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes and make her sit at the piano and “practice.”
I’m pretty sure you can figure out how well that went.
Stacy took lessons for a long time. She turned into one of the “piano lesson casualties.” She quickly became one of those people who took lessons for years but grew up not being able to play anything. What’s the moral of this story? It’s not about how many minutes you spend sitting at the piano. It’s about what you do while you are sitting there.
I had a clever student who owned a digital piano with a record button. His solution to fulfilling his allotted practice time was to record himself playing something once and then hit the playback button until his 30 minutes were completed. When I told his mom he wasn’t making progress, she was mystified and insisted that he was indeed practicing for 30 minutes every day. He was a bright young man, so I knew something didn’t add up. His sister finally told me what was really going on. This was annoying, but I had to give the kid an A-plus for ingenuity.
Focus on Tasks Not Time
I don’t tell my students how long to practice each day. I work with each student to develop detailed specific tasks and practice goals to meet on a daily basis. I will ask older students how much time they have for practice in the coming week and what they think they can accomplish. Younger students decide how many times they can practice a particular piece or skill each day.
I record everything in a notebook that students can bring back and forth to their lessons. I find this low-tech solution works well. It makes it possible for students and parents to have a written, easily accessible record of what the child is supposed to be practicing.
I also write the date and assignment on the actual music score. I use plastic tabs to bookmark the pages in the notebook and all music books. My goal is to make it as easy as possible for my students to find their music and the page in their assignment notebooks.
I work hard to train my students and their parents to depend on the notebook to guide them as they practice. I often do a practice-practice the last five minutes of the lesson where I will say “Let me see how you are going to practice when you get home”. I am checking to see that they will first open and look in the notebook. If they don’t, this is my chance to reinforce this. If a student shows up without a notebook, I ask them and the parent where it is.
I usually purchase notebooks for my students when back-to-school specials are running. I do find myself having to “harp” on the notebook issue with some students and parents. I’ve replaced more than a few notebooks that have gone missing or have been eaten by the family dog. I recommend a piano bag so students can keep all of their music and their notebook together. I do whatever it takes to make my students understand that following a plan is the key to making progress. Is it easy? No. But it’s worth it.
Creating Practice Assignments
Involve students in creating their weekly practice assignments and be very, very specific when it comes to assigning tasks. With beginning through early-intermediate students, ask them how many times they will practice something each day. Once you agree on a mutually acceptable number, record it in the notebook and write it on the music.
Ask intermediate through advanced students how much time they will have to spend practicing in the coming week. Then devise a specific daily practice plan that involves things like, how the metronome will be used and which practice techniques will be implemented to accomplish a realistic practice goal for the week.
When you involve your students in setting their own practice routines for the week, you shift the responsibility from the teacher (or their parents) to the student. This works best because each student decides and plans for his or her own practice. This makes it the student’s responsibility. The student has control, which works because let’s face it, it’s human nature that nobody likes being dictated to. But when students set their own practice times, they take ownership of the process and are more likely to follow-through.
With existing students and families, I sometimes have to revisit the issue of practice time. If I find my students are falling off the practice wagon (which happens from time to time). I am prepared to go all the way back and revisit my Mission Statement and their original piano goals. I do this to encourage and remind my students to keep their eyes on the destination.
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