From time to time I find myself asking students “How long have you spent practicing this?”. My students mostly know that if I ask this it’s because I’m astonished at their lack of progress, so they find themselves delicately poised between wanting to appear diligent and not wanting to appear dim-witted, and an accurate answer is generally the compromise result.
Sometimes I’ve been incredulous at the ridiculously lengthy times some students have declared. “REALLY?” I ask, examining their eyes for clues of madness, apathy or innumeracy. And of course they protest that they really did spend somewhere around their stated practice time working on the alloted work.
That’s when we take a good look at exactly what they’ve been doing for all this time – and why their practicing has come to nothing. Here are the most common reasons for failure to thrive:
1. Starting at the start and playing to the end.
Oh. My. Goodness. How do students get so far into their piano studies and believe deep down in their little hearts that the best practice is practice where you are not actually practicing at all? It’s phenomenal that students can reach the end of high school (even the beginning of university/college) without grasping the futility of practicing this way. It’s even not good enough to break a piece into formal sections: true practicing means breaking down the learning challenges in the piece into single unit goals. This might mean a 4 bar phrase or it might mean a two-note slur; but nothing will be learned if the student refuses to take anything other than an overview of the music.
Students who make this mistake can be diligent and intelligent students who simply haven’t realised how much of their intelligence needs to be invested in the task of their diligent practice.
2. Practice without a purpose.
This is the practice students do when they know they have to do 30 minutes (or 15 minutes, or 2 hours) practice a day. The clock goes on and their brains go off. Generally this is the same thing as practicing without listening, but it’s a little more involved than that: students might hear that errors are occurring, but they are not driven to correct the error – the requirement is a certain amount of time at the keyboard, irrespective of outcomes or the quality of engagement with the music. The purpose of the practice is unrelated to the music and, unsurprisingly, the music shows no evidence of being impacted upon by the practice.
Practice without purpose can also occur when students feel there is no point to learning a specific piece. Students who have only ever learned pieces for examination may feel this way when assigned repertoire that will not be examined, for example.
Students making this mistake may well be motivated to come to lessons and to play the piano, but they will certainly be disengaged from the music they are learning.
3. Strategy-free practice.
Now, a student might understand the notion of breaking down a piece into smaller learning units while also understanding that they need to set genuine goals for themselves in their practice, but until they can select useful strategies for achieving goals their practice can be simultaneously time-consuming and ineffective. Most often this is due to these students not having a wide enough range of strategies at their disposal. Sometimes this is the fault of the teacher not modelling enough types of problem-solving, but at least as many times (if not more) it is the fault of the student fixing on ways of practicing that were successful in the first two or three years of tuition, methods that no longer apply now they are older and now that they are more advanced.
Students who are in this position will exhibit frustration – that their formerly successful strategies are no longer working, and that they are not reaching their clearly defined goals.
4. The student just doesn’t believe you.
You explain how to pedal the Chopin Nocturne, the student demonstrates perfectly, the lesson ends and you assume that the lesson is also learned. A week later the student returns with the pedalling just as awful as it was at the start of last week’s lesson. Did your student forget? Did they practice the technique wrong? Did they simply not practice at all? 9 times out of 10 the problem will be that your polite, intelligent and compliant student just doesn’t believe you. Maybe they’ve seen someone do it differently on YouTube. Maybe they heard a friend do it differently. Whatever the cause, it’s not that you didn’t explain properly, and it’s not that the student didn’t understand. They just weren’t persuaded.
5. The piece was too hard to start with.
Teaching to the extreme of a student’s capacity is an exceptionally common means of teaching the piano here in Australia and in many parts of the world. This is especially the case when students are locked into a “I sat Grade 5 last year so this year I’m sitting Grade 6” mentality, or some similar scenario where a student is extrinsically motivated to learn material far beyond their skills.
If students are spending 20-30 minutes a day on a new piece, engaging in purposeful practice, breaking the piece into learning challenges rather than attempting a performance every time they play, and they can barely play the piece at all the next week then you, the teacher, should know that the piece is just too hard. If the situation is not much improved after two weeks of such practice, abandon the work and select something suitable for genuine learning.
Most of these reasons come down to one thing: how we as piano teachers manage the transition of students from young beginners through to adolescent pianists. Beginning at the beginning and playing to the end is the most sensible strategy when you are learning a 4 bar piece for one hand. Practicing to the clock is equally sensible when you are 5 years old and practicing 10 minutes a day. But as our students mature and develop we need to nuture their practicing skill set (beyond the pianistic skill set we are consciously working on each week). When we do this well we save our students hours of pointless practice, giving them the tools for strategic engagement with the music they are learning to perform.
As to our students believing us?! I’ll write a separate post about that issue soon!