Why Do So Many Music Students Hate To Practice?

2011Symposium_1_2I hated it, others music teachers I know hated it or even still do, and many of our students hate it–we a have all hated to practice our instruments. I find this disturbing and strange. I no longer hate to practice, in fact if I go many days without practicing, I can’t stand to be away from my instrument any more. So it may be fruitful to attempt to answer the question of why so many hate to practice by comparing why I used to hate it, to why I don’t hate it anymore.

My experience with this has had three stages. I hated to practice when I wasn’t very good. I struggled for my first couple of years of band in school, and because I didn’t sound good and was struggling to do in my lessons what most of my friends were doing without much effort, I became discouraged and didn’t want to practice. This resolve on my part may have been enough to end my playing right there were it not for two inescapable facts: my mother, who had studied piano as a child, refused to let me give up, and insisted on sitting with me while I practiced, and helping through my assignments. She did everything she could think of to keep me playing;  I even remember her dancing around the room while I played “The Merry Widow.” The other fact was that although I hated the struggle I was in, I loved music. Just how much was made evident when finally my failures and the band director’s advice finally convinced my mom that there really wasn’t much point in my continuing. But then something unforeseen happened: I began failing at everythingpractice else in school. Luckily, an alert teacher made the connection, had me placed back in band, and immediately my grades went back up. I don’t think even I knew how much I loved that clarinet.

With new hope, and a glimmers of future success peeking through, I began my comeback, until everything finally “clicked” and I was on my way to being successful playing the clarinet. The better I got, the more I enjoyed practicing. In high school, I couldn’t get enough of clarinet concertos by Weber and Mozart. At that point, I used my study halls to come down to the music suite and practice. No one had to force me to practice anymore. This was the second stage.

The third stage, which I am still in, started when I began my studies with Kalmen Opperman. If there was ever anyone who could one moment make you feel inadequate and small, and the next moment like you could be a world renowned clarinetist, it was Kal. He didn’t just teach clarinet, he taught life. He knew that if you had your head on straight, that was half the battle. He knew that nothing would come easy, even for the very best, and that the only guarantee of success was to simply be so good, even those who didn’t want to hire you would be forced to admit they had to. I grew as a clarinetist while studying with him more than I could have hoped or imagined would be possible. What he gave to me was worth more than perhaps even he ever knew. The ghosts of my past failures were finally put to rest. I believed in myself, and would never allow myself to loose what I now had.

piano practiceI enjoy practicing today because I have reached a level of playing that is satisfying,  and good enough to play professionally. But I know that mediocrity is only weeks away if I neglect my instrument, so I gladly practice often. So how can my story benefit your students? Here are some suggestions. First, play for your students, not to show off, but to let them see what you can do, and what they can do if they follow your teaching closely and practice diligently. Second, convince them that it’s only a matter of hours. Practice is infinitely more valuable than talent and natural ability. I have a modest amount of both, but have achieved a great deal more than my talent and natural ability, whatever that is, would indicate.

Third, set your students up in really exciting performances. Maybe a community volunteer theater needs a musician for their show. Push for your student to play there. Maybe there is a festival band or orchestra with entrance by the school director’s recommendation. Talk to the director and convince him or her to recommend your student. Fourth, go to your student’s school performances, regional and all-state concerts. The personal investment in them that this kind of support demonstrates is powerful. Students will do practically anything you ask when they see that you are genuinely interested in them and what’s important to them beyond your classroom or studio.

If you are playing professionally yourself, introduce your student to other musicians you play with, and arrange for your student to substitute for you at a performance now and then when you are unable to play. All of these things are encouraging, motivating, and really important to a young player trying to get a start in a tough business. Once presented with these kinds of opportunities, and the affirmation that they are capable of playing in these situations, a student will run to the practice room. All of us have very little difficulty finding the motivation to things we enjoy and that bring us affirmation from others, especially significant others like teachers, parents, and friends.

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