Music Teachers: How to Push the Practice Reset Button

Aargh!! It’s lesson time and here comes that nasty passage. Your student’s execution sounds no better than it did last week. Or for the two weeks before. Did he even practice at all? Did she just blindly plow through those four measures thinking it sounds fine? No amount of explaining, cajoling, pleading, demonstrating, or drilling seems to make any difference. Another week rolls by, and still no improvement. As a fellow music teacher, I feel your pain.

It’s endemic to players young and old, beginning and advanced; we practice incessantly, but far too much of our practice produces far too little in the way of results. Those poor results, unabated, can easily cascade into a whole series of painful, crippling problems. As a teacher and/or performer, you’ve most certainly experienced one or more of these at some point:

  • boredom, arguments and complaints about having to practice
  • lack of progress, demotivation to the point of quitting altogether
  • inconsistent technique, performances and auditions
  • crippling stage fright

Every teacher knows the story; a young student’s first notes are marked by much enthusiasm. But once reality sets in, that enthusiasm can quickly turn into impatience, frustration, boredom, or quitting altogether. When things go bad, parents, students and teachers alike seek out the cause. Was it lack of “talent?” An over-scheduled student? Poor practice habits? The wrong teacher? While all of these factors do make a difference, we often overlook the elephant in the room.

In a perfect world, student, teacher and family would share a common set of goals and expectations for their music “project.” Of course, in the real world that rarely happens. Many parents and students love the concept of taking lessons much more than the mundane reality of making them successful.

Students can have mixed feelings about even participating at any level. Some teachers bend too far in accommodating situations that aren’t fully productive. And sadly, some musicians simply using teaching to fill out their work schedules, with little regard for their own teaching skills or the long term benefit of the student. Too often we tacitly support teaching relationships are dysfunctional for one reason or another.

The Big Lie of Music Lessons

As teachers who care, we certainly give much of our time and energy for the benefit of our students. As much as we give, we often gain equally in that process. For me, working one on one with students has provided a window to my own musical past. In my students, I can sometimes see many a reflection of my own failings as a young violinist.

For me, practice was far too often a waste of time. As far as I can tell, that’s still true for most students today. That’s simply because we’re confused about the purpose of practice. We see it as a secondary task, in service of making music more beautiful. For parents and students alike, practice is the “necessary evil” of learning an instrument. It’s an obstacle and an annoyance, an impedance to our real goal. In the face of this belief, those who succeed do so only by sheer force of will.

These feelings stick around for a lifetime. It’s a type of baggage that even hinders the musical progress of adult students and professionals. It’s not for lack of good teaching. But, culturally and in all practicality, the practice “rut” is tenacious. It pulls us into its tractor beam, as it sucks the joy out of making music.

It’s a popular belief that the music lesson is the place where you learn to play songs. On the surface that seems reasonable and logical, but it’s a bit of a white lie. As truly professional teachers, we must come clean. We must be clear that it’s our job to provide a framework, skills, support and a process. That it’s the student’s and/or family’s job to absorb and incorporate that process.

We must push the “practice reset button” and make it clear to parents and students alike that learning songs is in the domain of the student, as is the responsibility to fully participate in the teaching process. I refuse to be the babysitter who is scheduled between between soccer and dance lessons.

Practice is its Own End

Practice is a beautiful devotion. Practice stands as its own art form, separate from learning songs or learning to play. When you see, feel, believe and live this great truth, you will transform almost every part of your musical life. And only then can you lead your students along that path. All great teachers know this, but only the very best make it the heart of their pedagogy.

Yes, there is much “content” that bogs us down as teachers. We often emphasize that content over process, and our students are only too happy to follow that lead. If we teach only “to the performance,” we’re not creating complete musicians. The bottom line can be tough to swallow: as teacher, you can’t solve every problem that your student will encounter. But, you are duty bound to create self-sufficient musicians who embrace the process of experimentation and self-discovery.

Making it Crystal Clear

Ideally, you’re not teaching your students songs or pieces. Instead, you are teaching them how to practice. And, believe me, this simple concept will not soak in overnight. It deserves a continual featured slot in your teaching. It’s a world view shift that simply won’t stick in a student’s (or parent’s) mind if it only comes up when running into tricky passages.

I find that a great music lesson is one that is clear in its emphasis. Limit the details specific to the piece at hand, and highlight the tools that will apply across many pieces and situations. Make these tools clear and accessible to students and parents alike. Then ask your students how they might practice a passage. Finally, tell your students that they’ll be asked to demonstrate their practice routine at the next lesson. My number one question to students (and increasingly to parents of very young students) is “what practice strategies can be used here?”

Stock up on Strategies

A decade ago I was privileged to work with master violin teacher Nancy Lokken, who introduced me to the “Power of Twinkle A.” That simple motive of four sixteenth notes followed by two eights has become invaluable to me as a practice and teaching tool for pitch, double stops, string changes and more. The moniker is so memorable that I can use it as a verb. “Please Twinkle-A that passage at measure 39,” I might say to a student.

But don’t stop at a single Twinkle variation. Use them all. Better yet, assemble a tool chest of practice strategies that you like and, most importantly, give them names. I consistently use and ask students to perform routines called “countdown,” “start-stop,” “go simple,” “take away” and more. Emphasizing these “practice strategies” by name, and consistently featuring them in your studio can bring amazing transformation in your students’ results.

Burton Kaplan wrote “Music is an intuitive art. Practicing is a conscious managerial skill… Most musicians have never been taught the management skills they need to effectively coach their own practice.” I couldn’t agree more, perhaps with the addition of this thought: Learn to embrace your practice management skills. Grow them to the level of art, and share them with your students.

Set the Stage

For my own studio, I’m increasingly candid with new families with each passing year. I embrace students that are interested in process of becoming a musician, more so than a particular goal. My new refrain, “I teach kids how to practice and master the violin, which may or may not include your favorite song.” It’s a truly practical approach with benefits that can reach far beyond the music stand.

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Teachers: How do you reset your students’ practice button? Your comment is welcomed!

Bill Alpert is a Los Angeles area teaching and performing violinist, and co-founder of the award winning Alpert Studio of Voice and Violin. He writes about practicing at http://InvincibleViolinist.com

Bill Alpert

About the Author

Bill Alpert

Bill Alpert is a performer, teacher and author with a unique focus on personal development and mindfulness viewed through the lens of violin study. Mr. Alpert's resume includes recordings, performances and film scores with artists such as The Moody Blues, Pepe Romero, Tina Turner and Johnny Mathis. The co-founder of the award winning Alpert Studio of Voice and Violin in California, he is professionally active in the American String Teachers Association and the Suzuki Association of America.