For those of who play orchestral instruments and guitar, recorder, keyboard, accordion, harmonica, ukulele or whatever, disciplined practice is still necessary for advancing and achieving success. At the same time, we all have students who are less than willing to bother practicing. It also happens fairly often that a student will claim to be practicing, but shows little or no advancement since the last lesson. So what is the solution to the problem of a music student who is not, will not, or cannot practice in preparation for their music lesson?
Before anything can be done, be sure you have taught your student how to practice. Provide him or her with a specific practice routine, and a specific method for practicing each part of their assignment. For example, you might want the student to begin by playing the chromatic scale for two octaves, ascending and descending in 6/8 time at mm = 60. Then, practice the E major scale three octaves, ascending and descending, sixteenth notes in common time, mm = 72. Use a different articulation pattern (all of which you have written in the cover of the child’s lesson book) each time you play the scale, and play the scale enough times to get through all of the patterns each day. Next, practice the etude, then the sonata movement, and then finish with whatever you like, for the last 5-10 minutes. Write all of this down every week in a list.
If the child wants to play but is struggling, they may have lost interest and motivation to practice. Our job as teachers is to get them over the threshold so that they are experiencing enough success to begin being motivated to practice. Most students who want to succeed only need an approach to practicing that they can handle on their own at home. It’s important to find out exactly how they are practicing. I like to tell the unprepared student, “forget I’m here. Just practice as if you were at home.” Let them practice for 5 minutes without saying a word. Stand behind them so they can’t see you. Then take them through the same passage step by step, guiding them through practicing it correctly. It’s not enough to tell them how to practice, they must show you they know how to practice so that they can replicate the approach at home. It’s also a good idea to invite the parent to stay at the lesson, and instruct the parent along with the child. Teach the parent how they can help their child when s/he practices. Teaching a child and a parent how to practice usually takes most of a lesson, but it is time well spent.
At the next lesson, if the child again hasn’t made any progress, find out if they used the practice method and routine you taught last time. Again have them practice five minutes on their own, only this time, tell the student you want them to show you that they are practicing the way you taught them last week. After watching for five minutes, address any problems. If the child hasn’t practiced correctly all week, they still have old habits to break and new habits to form. Tell the parent exactly what to look for and insist that the child practice correctly. If the parent is not involved, have the student keep a practice log that records what they did in the order they did it and have them bring it to the next lesson. The important thing to remember is that the child will always do what they practiced. If they practiced a wrong note, they will play that note wrong in the lesson. View mistakes as errors that went uncorrected all week, and stress the importance of paying close attention to what is played and catching and correcting each error before it becomes a habit. When improvement is shown in any aspect of the assignment, recognize the improvement, and connect the success to the student’s effort at practicing. This will build confidence, and motivate the student to continue practicing. Once benefit has been established from practicing, the student will not want to return to his or her old non-practicing ways, and you and your student will then have a positive, enriching relationship.