Top 5 Reasons Why It’s Taking So Long

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!

23 thoughts on “Top 5 Reasons Why It’s Taking So Long

  1. Great post. Good reminder. But I think many students don’t progress because they aren’t putting in the time.

    • David, I completely agree that not putting in the time is the most significant hindrance to progress. In this article I’m exploring what hinders progress when the student is spending hours at the piano without seeing a result.

  2. On Practice without a purpose: Very occasionally I see kids where the extrinsic motivation to play a musical instrument comes solely from the parent. The student doesn’t seem to want to play and therefore passively plays for half an hour while Mr Brain is off on a lovely holiday and no progress is made. All the teacher devised strategies make no difference because the child doesn’t want to be there. Does anyone have suggestions for this problem? It seems like if I could find some way to make music relevant to the child then the problem would be solved but mostly this issue occurs with hugely over committed kids and music is just one more thing that they have to do and have no control over.

    • This is so sad but I’ve seen it happen – I have a student just like that. Exceptional talent but very little motivation. It was even harder when his parents expected him to do exams. At least they are not insisting on that any more. He’s now of an age where he could quit if he wanted to and I’m really not at all sure why he wants to continue. One of the hardest things I find as a teacher is to remain motivated to teach such a student. Their lack of motivation really demotivates me 😦 (and I love teaching btw).

    • I remember as a teenager I had a sense that the music I was playing wasn’t “real”. It was just the exercises set out in the AMEB books. Looking back I now realise my teacher knew that and was just introducing me to “real” Beethoven and Mozart when I quit. If she’d asked my I would have said (I think) “I want to play Beethoven!”. 🙂
      The problem was I wasn’t playing the music I was listening to. These days its really easy to make the music you’re playing the music you are listening to. From about 3rd grade (AMEB) onwards you can download professionals playing a lot of the syllabus for about $1 a track (see the hyperion and chandos websites, although chandos is down while I type, as well as amazon). You can listen to excerpts for free and there are lots of recordings of good pianists on youtube. So you could send your student off with a list of pieces to listen to and let them choose.
      Of course all this presupposes they like classical music. 🙂

  3. A few years ago I came across an unusual word to use for breaking a piece into bits – ‘morcellate’. I use it especially for young pupils as they seem to enjoy unusual words. Describing what the word means is a good opportunity to get them to understand the concept.

  4. More than very occasionally for me, Eleanor.
    But a percussion colleague says he only once had a student who didn’t want to be there.

    Usually the student had requested the drum lessons, but on this one occasion, Mum was a drummer and wanted her daughter to be, too.

  5. Another reason could be that the student doesn’t like the piece or can’t see the value in becoming conversant with it and perfecting it.

    Too often, this is because the student only wants to play pieces she has heard, or doesn’t like anything that sounds like it might require some work.

    Or is that only my students?

    • David, have you ever defined the word to any of them, or just assumed that because yuou and your piani teacher colleagues obviouslyknow what it means to practice, that your 9 year old pupils must know as well?

      Tell me the exact words you use to explain precisely to your students what it means to “practice” a piece. Not the words you imagine they must think when you use the word, but the precise words you use to describe to them what they must do when they get home, and why.

      I have read a proper, useful, practical description of how to practice and WHY to do it that way on ONE teacher’s blog ONCE. Once. Ever.

      • Janis, can you tell us if you have the link to that ONE teacher’s blog or post? Interested to read it.

      • Nicole’s response to Janis here brought me back to re-read these comments. With the benefit of more than two years distance between writing this post and now rereading it and the comments I would like to answer *this* comment a little more specifically.

        Janis, piano teaching is a completely unregulated profession. It is perfectly possible that there are *many* teachers teaching who do not teach their students how to practice – and perfectly possible that there are teachers out there who haven’t learned to practice themselves!

        But professional piano teachers, teachers who have trained to be teachers, who have gained piano teaching diplomas such as the AMEB’s ATMusA or LTMusA or the ABRSM’s LRSM (Teaching) or Trinity Guildhall’s ATCL (Teaching) or LTCL (Teaching), who invest in their own ongoing professional development, will have a quite involved understanding of how to teach students in regard to practice praxis. And they take a pride in developing their students’ skills as independent learners.

        As to a blog post that will tell you how to practice – there are many fabulous blogs these days (and I’m now writing in late 2013) with all kinds of insights and ideas into ways to approach practice. But the right way for one student to practice one passage will be different to the right way for another student to practice that exact same music: a blog cannot spell out the solution to each student’s repertoire-specific issues.

        And that’s what it comes down to: practice is essentially problem-solving. Ideally, teachers will (over the course of ongoing lessons) model a variety of problem-solving approaches bespoke for the musical challenges germane to the repertoire, as well as the kinds of problem-solving approaches that suit the physical and creative experiences of the student. In addition to modelling these approaches teachers need to guide students into a mature application of these techniques in their own independent practice. And in part, it’s that challenge of taking a child from the practice perspective of a 5 year old through to the practice perspective of a 16 year old that this particular blog post is trying to address….

  6. Hi David, my students often only want to play what they know too. I find it a delicate balance that I often get wrong, trying to broaden their musical experience without putting them off for life! I wonder how this can be done more effectively?

  7. When I do my own practice, I find that I really want to play through the whole piece too! I do that because I want to enjoy the music, and perhaps that is how some students feel.

    So, I think students should be given permission to do the play-through, but of course the challenge is to have them learn to do this attentively. Then they need to have the strategies to deal with the problem areas and, as Elissa says, this is where teachers need to get them past the practice sessions of early years, when it was easy to learn an entire piece quickly.

  8. Excellent article – #5 certainly resonates with me as there is a lot of pressure here (Canada) to get students into grade 1 and then do at least a grade a year. The exam system can certainly take over the studio and the learning and appreciating of music.

    I like your wording – “teaching to the extreme of a student’s capacity” – it makes everything hard all the time. While a handful of students thrive on this, most don’t.

    Thanks for the reminders!

  9. I recently decided (perhaps inspired by this blog) that I had to go back and play through easy reportoire to create a stronger basis for my skills. If that makes sense. So i got out my old 1986 AMEB syllabus and set myself Clementi Op 36 No. 1, Chopin Mazurka Op. 7 No. 5, scherzo from Haydn Sonata no. 3. All of these are simple pieces, easy to memorise, the probem is getting them to sound musical but I also set myself Bach prelude 927. I think the setters of the syllabus would be surprised to know that I just can’t play this stupid thing! So many notes! Hands going this way and that way. Nothing technically hard about it, but I can’t play it through after about 2 months without stumbling, with or without music!
    I think that sometimes a piece of music just isn’t compatible with a students brain, or concept of music, or the music that they were exposed to as a child or the particular technical challenge of a piece is harder than the syllabus setters realise.

  10. Despite my being very keen on learning the piano as a child, I didn’t have the opportunity. At 18 I started work and bought a piano and started lessons. As I look back now 40 years later, (I will turn 60 this year) I can see the reasons why I did not succeed as well as I wanted to. The first was,as some have said, I had never heard the music I was learning before – a very important factor. When I was 42 I started learning in earnest again and then the biggest problem was, as Elissa said, learning pieces too advanced for me. I struggled so much but I did make some progress. I believe now that if only I had learnt easier pieces I would have enjoyed it more. I sat Grade 5 exam and passed it – just. Then I sat a Grade 6 exam and failed. I can’t believe now that my teacher straight away put me onto Grade 7 with the aim of sitting that exam. No wonder I don’t want to take lessons now!!! Nowadays I really enjoy going through Elissa’s Getting To books, and most of all the CD which inspires me to learn more pieces – especially the more modern ones!!!

  11. “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?”

    I’ll ask this differently: How do teachers allow students to go on and on for years without ever bothering to tell them what they mean by “go home and practice this?” The meaning and value of the word “practice” doesn’t just magically teleport itself into a student’s head. Math teachers don’t tell kids to go home and “practice” math, they give them exercises designed to work the skills in, and then expect them to be completed. They don’t tell them to “practice” writing; they explain to them what a five-paragraph essay IS, how it’s structured, and how to write one with worked examples.

    I studied for eight years starting at a young age, and I was never told what it meant to “practice this,” so I never did it right. Would have been nice for the adults to bother to tell me what the word meant.

    • Janis, your reframing of the question is of course the real question. And most of the time (let’s say 90%) it certainly is a failure of ‘teaching to practice’. [The other 10% of the time I refer readers to reason #4, where the student simply doesn’t believe the teacher – and in this case the only solution is for the student to have one or more other teachers confirm the teaching of the first teacher.]

      I’m hopeful that articles like this will bring the issue of ‘teaching to practice’ to the fore in the consciousness of piano (and other instrumental) teachers. The history of piano teaching is certainly replete with lessons that constituted not much more than listening to a student play a piece of music followed by advice to do ‘more’ practice. It’s not (and has never been) an acceptable pedagogical strategy.

  12. Nice piece. I’m guilty of at least 4 out of the 5 sins you’ve discussed here, and giving each them a few moments thought before sitting down to practice seems like a great way forward.

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