In the next few weeks, in schools around the country, students will be arriving at their first instrumental lesson of the academic year. Once the initial excitement and enthusiasm begins to subside, how do we continue to motivate our students to practise?
During my time as a teacher, I have heard many excuses for not practising, including (but not limited to):
• I left my instrument in school
• I was too busy
• I didn’t realise I had a lesson today
• It was too hard
Although some of the excuses we hear in school are legitimate (“I had exams all week”), students are clearly more likely to practise when the content of their lessons is stimulating and engaging, and the teacher motivating. Lessons, and by extension, practice, should always be varied, full of musical purpose, and dare I say it – fun.
Think back to your most memorable inspiring lessons as a learner; the enthusiasm and feeling of “I can do it!” that would have you rushing home only to get your instrument out and get practising. As teachers of any discipline, we are responsible for motivating and engaging our students and must continually be on the lookout for ways to make practising more attractive.
The key to getting the best out of our students’ practice time is to provide a variety of activities and formats tuned to the individual. We have the luxury of one-to-one lessons, and we must use it to the fullest advantage. With these points in mind, there are a few ideas we can incorporate into our teaching to spice up our students’ practise routine.
1) Make practice fun
Google it and you’ll see that this statement tends to polarise music teachers. Some agree wholeheartedly, whilst others maintain fun practice cannot be achieving anything worthwhile. While I think that the answer lies somewhere in between these two opposing arguments, a fun instrumental music practice session can be defined as a rewarding, energising and engaging experience with positive outcomes for player and teacher. Making practice fun does not mean trivialising it, but encouraging students to approach their practice time with awareness, creativity and positivity.
Try to ensure that students always have a variety of pieces at different levels of playability at any one time (Schenck 2006). So, they may have a piece that they know really well (A), plus a piece (B) that they are less familiar with, and piece (C) a new piece. Piece A can reinforce the “I can do it” positive mindset, but also empower students to work on technical activities (tone development, fingering, articulation etc.), whist learning pieces B and C at varying stages. Practise can also include opportunities for creativity for both teacher and learner (see paragraph 4 for more ideas).
2) Change the vocabulary
As teachers, we often talk about students ‘playing’ instead of ‘practising’ their repertoire. Why not embrace this idea, encourage students to actively engage with their pieces. This could take the form of playing from memory, or creating an improvisation based on the opening phrase, or playing a concert to family and friends. Enabling students to play in this way can foster independence and passes ownership of their learning journey on to them. Those students who play without intent are likely to progress less quickly than those who have a focus, but encouraging students to play at every opportunity promotes confidence and familiarity with the instrument.
3) Less is more
Practising without awareness leads to a reliance upon established unconscious patterns (think brushing your teeth). In the case of instrumental learning this can mean that students can both unintentionally reinforce errors and develop inefficient practice habits. Ask your student to play through a piece observing only one aspect of their playing. This might include the lightness of the staccatos, or the smoothness of the fingering, or the shape of the musical line. At the end, ask them to assess the same aspect on a scale of one to ten. Repeat twice more, continuing to maintain this attentive awareness without self-criticism.
4) Create opportunities for student-led practice and creativity #takeawayhmk
Taking inspiration from this fun classroom teaching resource developed by @teachtoolkit, develop your own plan for student-led practice sessions. In my version below, beginner students choose one starter, one main and one dessert option for each practice, building up points over the week. The choice of activities is left up to the student, but within a framework that encourages a wide range of activities and techniques, enabling students to take responsibility for their own practice.
5) The hare and the tortoise
For students tackling pieces at the edge of their technical ability, whether a beginner or a more advanced learner, practice sessions can be intimidating and frustrating if not prepared with care. Slow, deliberate practice is one of the most efficient methods of dealing with such problems, providing that students are equipped to approach the task with their musical senses engaged. This enables them to play accurately whilst paying attention to other aspects such as tone quality, freedom of movement and articulation. For example, Stephen Hough suggests playing a fast semiquaver section in four note groupings – the first four at performance tempo and the next at half speed, then reversing the speed for each group.
6) Incorporate aspects of students’ experience from outside the lesson
Ask students what they are learning about or enjoy doing outside of their instrumental lessons, and use themes from these as a springboard for lessons and practice. This could include building upon the projects they are taking in their general musicianship classes, but also other subjects. What about composing a piece as a soundtrack to their favourite book? Or learning a piece from the period of history they are studying?
Practising can be very rewarding if approached with awareness and creativity. By talking to our students and ascertaining what makes them tick, we can develop practice routines that play to their strengths and give them the confidence to tackle repertoire and technique at the edge of their ability, and ultimately become the musicians they already are.
Gane, P.M. (2006), Making Music: Creative Ideas for Instrumental Teachers. Oxford University Press.
Harris, P. (2014), The Practice Process. Faber Music
Harris, P. (2006), Improve Your Teaching. Faber Music.
Hough, S. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100070997/the-practice-of-practising/ (accessed 27/08/2015)
Kageyama, N. (2015). Is Slow Practice Really Necessary? [Online]. Available from http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/is-slow-practice-really-necessary/ [Accessed 27/08/2015].
Morrison McGill, R. (2014), #Takeawayhmk is #Unhomework [Online]. 28th January 2014. Available from http://teachertoolkit.me/2014/01/28/takeawayhmk-is-unhomework/ [Accessed: 27/08/2015].
Mills, J. (2007) Instrumental Teaching (Oxford Music Education Series). Oxford University Press.
Schenck, R. (2006), Spelrum: en metodikbok för sång- och instrumentalpedagoger. Bo Ejeby Förlag
Syed, M. (2011), Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. Fourth Estate.
Te@cher Toolkit, #takeawayhmk