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February 14, 2017

Teaching Music Students How to Practice: A Step-by-Step Guide for Teachers

Use this precise method to resolve problem areas, plus advice for parents!

by Adrienne Schroeder

In my 5 years of teaching piano and horn, I’ve noticed a trend among students: many of them have no idea how to practice.

If you’re a teacher, you may discover poor practice habits when you start to experience “same lesson syndrome”: needing to address the same “problem area” in your student’s music week after week, with no change from lesson to lesson.

These problem areas are usually exacerbated by students falling back on poor practice habits, often without their even realizing it.

So how do we eliminate these habits and teach our students to be better practicers?

First, let’s define what practice is not.

Namely, practicing–or at least effective practicing– is not playing a piece over and over from beginning to end, though that seems to be the default for many students.

In most cases, repeatedly playing a song from beginning to end only glosses over and re-enforces problems like unsteady beat, incorrect fingerings, ignoring dynamic/style markings, wrong notes and rhythms, flat fingers, etc.

Here’s the effective practice method I teach my students. It’s a step-by-step process I’ve found to be very successful because ultimately, it empowers students to teach themselves.

I hope that using it helps your students become better practicers!

Ask questions.

One of my very naturally talented students always got the notes quickly, but would race through her music and miss tons of details.

So I asked her these questions:

  • What does a typical practice session look like for you?
  • What parts of the piece could be better?
  • What would you do to make it better if I wasn’t here?

My student said that during practice she usually plays her piece from beginning to end, and that she didn’t know what she would do to make the song better if I wasn’t there.

I walked her through the following problem-solving process, and helped her identify a few key areas that needed to be isolated.

Note: It’s important to go through the whole process together during a lesson so you can be sure the student gets it, and you can practice it together.

Follow this problem-solving process with your student.

1. The first step in solving a problem is knowing a problem exists! So first, help your student to recognize there is a problem that needs fixing.

This requires awareness from both the student and the teacher, who can help shed light on the problem(s) they see. (Younger students usually need extra help with this.)

2. Once it’s identified, isolate the problem area.

Take it out of the context of the piece to zero in on what’s happening.

3. Begin taking away variables.

I tell my students to think of it as a science experiment, and we are trying to discover the source of the problem.

Usually the first variable to take away is tempo, which means slow it down. My parents–who are both musicians– used to say, “Slow practice for fast results.” As much as I hated it as a kid, it’s true!

If it’s not fixed by tempo, then we know it must be something else. Test other variables by playing each hand separately, simplifying the rhythm, double checking the notes, etc.

4. Once the source of the issue is identified, fix it slowly.

This could mean figuring out the correct rhythm, fingering, or note(s). Next we “lock it in” by playing it correctly multiple times on its own.

5. Gradually add back in variables like the original rhythm, tempo, and all components of what the composer wrote.

Execute it multiple times correctly this way, but continue to isolate it from the rest of the piece.

6. Finally, add the former “problem area” back into the original context of the piece.

You may still need to slow it down, but that’s usually just to get the flow of transitions. Isolating has already addressed the root of the issues in that specific spot.

This process is second nature to me, but I realized that I learned this at some point in my musical training. If my students don’t also learn this tool, how can I expect them to use it and be smart, efficient practicers?

The awesome results!

After going through this process with my naturally talented student and devising a new practice plan, she became a completely different player. The following lesson showed that chronic issues had mostly vanished, and she started playing much more freely and confidently.

As time has passed and she has built the skill, she can now easily identify a spot that needs isolation and say, “I should probably do this by itself, shouldn’t I?”

This is the end goal – to provide students with the tools and skills to be their own teachers!

With this method, practice and lessons become more productive. Students get through more repertoire because they’ve become efficient problem-solvers.

Not only do they play more repertoire, but they play it at a higher level. Because students are solving technical issues during their own practice time, we can use lessons to work on more advanced elements like expression and storytelling.

Essentially, they learn to improve at a faster rate and get a lot more out of their music making!

Advice for parents.

My advice to parents who want to take an active role in helping their students improve at practicing: know that quantity of practice is secondary to quality.

If a student is following these steps during practice for 10 minutes daily and addressing issues in their playing, or at least trying to address issues, that is much more valuable than running a piece over and over for 30 minutes.

Two chunks of 5-10 minutes each might work better for some kids as well.

What to do if your student is not engaged.

Students who are not engaged or are not enjoying piano usually will not put the effort into practicing effectively.

Teachers and parents should be aware if a student isn’t enjoying their music. Often, a teacher just needs to get creative and tailor an arrangement to teach a particular concept.

I personally have arranged pieces for students that highlight a skill that needs work. And I often use one of their favorite tunes so they don’t mind putting in the time!

The bonus for using this method? Awareness and problem-solving are lifelong skills that can help students be successful in anything they do. The results and benefits only begin at the piano.

Adrienne Schroeder

About Piano Power Teacher Adrienne Schroeder

Adrienne Schroeder is a musician excited about all genres of music and the lasting impact it has on the lives of others. She is an active freelancer in the Chicago area as a performer and music educator. Adrienne completed her master’s degree in horn performance at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and she earned her bachelor’s in performance from Central Michigan University. Raised in a musical family, Adrienne received a solid foundation that fostered a passion for creating and sharing music.

Adrienne’s teaching philosophy is all about making the most expressive, artistic music possible in the most efficient way possible. She focuses on mental preparation and explores how attitudes affect the quality of performances. She meets each student where they are, creating effective habits in their playing and having plenty of fun along the way. Mastering an instrument takes courage, responsibility, and consistent practice. Adrienne works to instill those values and work ethic in her students. Her goal is for them to learn valuable life skills and develop a lifelong appreciation for music and the arts.

To read more great practice tips, check out 12 Tips for Creating Ideal Music Practice


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