by Philip Johnston

When students won’t practice

When students don’t practice, there’s a reason. Don’t wonder, start testing—we look at 18 different experiments you can run to turn things around.

wontpracticeI DON’T CARE HOW BRILLIANT YOU MIGHT BE as a teacher, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with a serial non-practicer that resists threats, rewards, guilt-trips and cunning alike. They’ll turn up to your studio underprepared, their parents will mutter darkly about stopping lessons, and you’ll be filled with the determination that something has to be done…

…but what? What more can you do when it feels like you’ve tried everything already?

This article looks at 18 different experiments that you can run when all else feels lost—experiments designed to discover why your student is not working in the first place. Like any experiments, the results can be surprising; it’s amazing how often a practice block can be removed by a relatively painless and hindsight-obvious change. The point of the experiments is to discover if such a solution is actually staring you in the face, untried.

If after all that, the student still is not working at home, then at least you know you have genuinely tried everything. You might be better off without them.

In the meantime though, all you need is a spirit of adventure, and a willingness to pose the most valuable and opportunity-laden question any teacher can ask:

…“what if…?”

(1) What if…you were to schedule extra recitals?

roundkeyboardALPHANon practicers create a problem, because they’re not the only ones who will look like an idiot if they flounder up there

Even the most recalcitrant of students don’t like to make idiots of themselves on stage, which is why studio recitals tend to generate a practice frenzy in the weeks leading up to the big day. Non practicers create a problem, because they’re not the only ones who will look like an idiot if they flounder up there. For the studio’s reputation, there is a temptation to simply omit such students from the programme.

But instead of insulating your non-practicers from the demands of performances and competitions, sometimes it’s worth throwing them into even more…for many students, nothing overcomes inertia like a ticking clock and a spotlight.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(2) What if…you created a student exchange program?

A couple of times each year, consider doing a student exchange with another music teacher in town. Their students come to you for a couple of weeks, your students go to them.

What difference does that make? The novelty of knowing that you have to play for someone different usually produces a burst of practice.

If you are worried about your students enjoying these lessons a little too much, set up the exchange with a teacher who teaches a different instrument. (Some of the best piano lessons I had were from other instrumental teachers)

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(3) What if…you ran a Practice Competition?

For students with any sort of competitive spirit —which is a lot of students—a well organised practice competition can have them practicing like maniacs. (For lots of ideas, check out the free monster guide to running Practice Competitions here at IMT). Students all record how much practice they do, they bring in the details to the lesson. You compile the results, create scoreboards that nobody can ignore, and give fabulous prizes to the winners in a variety of categories.

Most practice in a week. Most practice in a single day. Top 3 practicers on a weekend. Most number of days without missing practice. Greatest number of days in a row with at least 30 minutes. Most improved. Most consistent…

There are more categories of prizes than the Academy Awards, helping to ensure that just about everyone will qualify for an award of some sort. There’s nothing like recognition to spur you on, so if that means you have to award a student their “Third-Most-Practice on a Wednesday Morning” certificate, so be it.

They might not be practicing for musical reasons, but this sudden frenzy of practice will definitely have musical benefits. And their certificate above their piano might just keep them practicing harder for a while afterwards.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(4) What if…you set up Practice Schedules?

In weeks that fly past, with children busier than ever before, some things simply don’t exist unless they appear on their timetable somewhere…there just isn’t room.

Instead of relying on your students to practice when the urge co-incides with the opportunity—which is like waiting for Mars to line up with Neptune and Halley’s comet—it might be worth sitting down with them and actually chiselling the practice into their weekly schedule.

Chat with their parents, write down the times that seem to suit, so that practice becomes a timetabled part of their daily routine, just as surely as school, homework or sports commitments.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(5) What if…you abandonded Practice Schedules?

roundkeyboardALPHAWhat can you do when it feels like you’ve tried everything already?

The flip side of the previous experiment is that some students actually work better without timetables boxing them in. If a student is not working well, despite the fact that their parents have tried to turn their lives into a routine, consider the possibility that it might be because their parents have turned their lives into a routine. Tell them that the deal is they get to choose when they practice (that’s the bonus for them!), as long as they prove that they don’t need a timetable.

For an even more extreme version of this chaos-theory practice, they might work better with the unpredictability of Practice Triggers (see pp 348-351 of Practiceopedia).

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(6) What if…practicing were a temporary chore quarantine?

It can just be something as simple as a T-Shirt, laser printed with “Leave me alone, I’m PRACTICING!” (Most local copy shops can do this easily enough).

When the student puts it on, their family is not allowed to disturb them with frivolous requests such as washing-up, bed-making or garbage-taking-out. It’s like a force-field that makes them immune to chore requests.

BUT… this particular force-field only actually works while they are practicing. Just putting the T-Shirt on doesn’t do anything; the student has to activate it by practicing.

It’s a little sly— using a student’s natural dislike of chores to get them to practice more— but hey, if it works…their house might be a mess, but at least they’ll be playing well.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(7) What if…parents were more/less involved in the practice room?

Whether the impact is positive, or a calamity, the degree to which parents are involved in the practice process can have a powerful bearing on how their kids feel about practicing.

The trick is not to make judgements, but simply to invert everything. Ask your hands-off parents to sit with their kids while they practice. Ask your always-present parents to leave their kids alone for a couple of weeks.

Just to see what happens.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(8) What if…parents were more/less involved in lessons?

We all have some parents who come to every lesson, and others who need to introduce themselves at the end of year concert.

If things are not happening in the practice department, it might not be enough to look at parental involvement at home—you might also need to try changing the extent to which parents are involved in the weekly lesson.

Ask your always-there parents to wait in the car for a few lessons. Just to see what happens.

And try to be flexible with your timetabling of the drop-and-run students so that normally absent parents can actually stay for the lesson. Again, just to see what happens.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(9) What if…you showed them new ways to practice?

For some students, practicing is boring because they only know one way to work. (Usually variations of “play it over and over again”). Instead of just sending them home with a list of what needs to get done, try equipping them with half a dozen different ways to go about it. Then let them choose which techniques they’d like to use.

If you’re stuck—and you want to help them discover chaining, skimming, blinkers, cementing, zero practice, bug spotting, isolating, one way doors…and loads more besides…there are 376 colour illustrated pages of ideas and games in Practiceopedia, cross indexed and sorted by the type of task they need to complete (eg. speeding pieces up, performance preparation, learning a brand new piece)

(10) What if…they had to mix up where they practice?

Promise a reward if they can log practice sessions in the 14 different locations—one for each day in the fortnight—and then sit back and watch this strangely compelling trick work its magic. Their focus will be on earning the reward, and coming up with fresh practice locations, but in the meantime, almost without noticing, they will have practiced every day for two weeks.

roundkeyboardALPHAThe point of the experiments is to discover if such a solution is actually staring you in the face, untried.

So what are their options? Starting gently, it could be as simple as having the student rearrange their practice room so that their music-stand faces in the opposite direction to normal. Maybe they practice sitting down instead of standing up.

When was the last time your students practiced in the bathroom? (Singing in the shower sounds so good, why wouldn’t their clarinet scales sound better with the extra reverb?)

What about learning some new notes in the garage? Or sightreading in the backyard? Or inside their cubby house? Or while sitting in a tree? Or a practice session at grandma’s house…

Whatever the setting, the change of scenery for each of these sessions can help turn otherwise here-we-go-again practice experiences into something new and fresh. Just remember how much more fun homework seemed for a while when your bedroom had been freshly rearranged…

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(11) What if…you found better repertoire for them?

For ideas on finding repertoire gems in unexpected places, check out our IMT monster guide to Finding Great Repertoire. Pianists might also want to check out a new way of previewing concert repertoire at IMT’s repertoire browser.

This is no time to be puritanical about content though. TV themes, movie music, pop songs, advertising jingles, hackneyed classics…all the things that make us as musicians cringes and cry “why would ANYONE want to play that?”. But these pieces still need good intonation, appropriate phrasing, precise rhythmic control, good fingering…think of the piece, painful though it might be, as a delivery vehicle for more important ideas, rather than an end unto itself.

You need to remember that your students were not brought up in conservatoriums the way you were, and being allowed to play the theme music to the Simpsons might just have them reaching for their instrument more often than you think.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(12) What if…you changed how many pieces they have to juggle?

Different students respond differently to this— some enjoy the uncluttered desk of only one item to think about, others are bored unless they are working on six different things at once. If your students all seem to be working on exactly 2.5 pieces though, then it’s time to start tailoring things a little more to the individual.

The next time you have a student who is not practicing, look at how many pieces they are wrestling with (or supposed to be wrestling with) each week, and change their load. Drastically.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(13) What if…you changed the number of daily practice sessions?

The spin you can put on this is that you are offering students a choice, which means that they have some ownership over the type of practice that follows:

They can elect to practice for no more than ten minutes at a time, as long as they fit in several sessions in a day. This is often a better way to work for younger students, or students with short concentration spans—we know this as teachers, we just don’t always remember to give students permission to work that way.

Or, for those students where the issue is simply getting started, you might want to recommend that they forget about multi-sessions, and combine all their sessions into one big session, so that they only have to start once.

Again, you’ve turned things upside down.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(14) What if…a few days each week were Official Practice-Free Zones?

Practice-Free Zones are days on which there are no expectations that they will practice at all. Even their parents are not allowed to nag them.

So instead of practice being an invariable and inescapable daily grind, their schedule might look like this:

  • Monday PRACTICE
  • Tuesday PRACTICE
  • Wednesday **Practice-Free Zone!**
  • Thursday PRACTICE
  • Friday PRACTICE
  • Saturday **Practice-Free Zone!**
  • Sunday **Practice-Free Zone!**

This would mean that they are never more than two days away from a holiday of some sort. (And isn’t that how life should be?)

It may feel as though this compares badly to seven days a week of practice, but remember, this is a student who has not been practicing at all until now. So the comparison is not four days instead of seven—it’s four days instead of one (or less!).

(15) What if…each day had a chance of being a Practice Free Zone?

Taking the last suggestion a step further…Let’s imagine that the student is going to practice for four days in the week.

What if the student didn’t know in advance which days were Practice Days, and which were Practice-Free Zones? They would have seven cards—four would say “Practice”, the other three would say “Holiday!”.

They shuffle the cards, and at the start of each day, they would draw one. (they obviously don’t replace the card in the deck once they have read it.)

If it says “Practice”, then today is a Practice Day. Bad luck, off they go to the practice room.

If it doesn’t…well, if put your ear to your window, you’ll probably hear the “woo-hoos” coming from their house. Good luck to them, and they deserve to enjoy the break.

As long as they continue to be bound by the “Practice” cards, their parents will agree to be bound by the “Holiday!” cards. No nagging.

Sounds fair to me.

It might work for your student. You won’t know until you test it.

(For lots more ways to intelligently randomise the entire practice session, see pages 262-269 in Practiceopedia)

(16) What if…you dressed up the whole thing as a Quest?

Many students respond well to a challenge – particularly if the challenge is an acknowledgement that they are special in some way. You can’t use this idea every week, but as an occasional tonic for students with vivid imaginations, it’s hard to beat.

Let’s imagine that you have a student who has been doing some intensive rhythm reading work with you. At the end of one of the lessons, you might want to quietly mention to them:

“Listen, you rhythm reading has improved so much that I was thinking…hang on…nahhh….you wouldn’t be interested…forget I said anything…”

When they press you to find out “wouldn’t be interested in what???” (and they will), tell them that there is a piece in the cupboard that defeats all but the best rhythm readers. A legendary piece that is covered in dust, because most students are too scared to even try it…but there was something about how you were counting those eighth notes today that made me think…here…let me show you.

Go to the cupboard with great ceremony, pull out the piece…slowly, like you are an archeologist unearthing a great ancient treasure.

Tell them that many have tried to learn this piece in a week…but none have succeeded. Blow on it to remove some of the cobwebs. Most younger students will be wide eyed at this point, with their full attention on the book itself, as if waiting for it to illuminate the room with some ancient magic.

Let the room fall silent, and look at them with all the earnestness of a legendary figure commissioning a great quest. Lower your voice to conspiratorial levels, and tell them that if they succeed, you will put an inscription on the book with their name on it, so that all future students will know they were the first to master it. Tell them that whatever happens in the challenging week ahead, their counting today was awesome. And that you have the oddest feeling they will succeed.

Place the book in front of them, and let nature, and curiosity, run its course.

Ask yourself, if you were the student, what would you do?

It might work for your student. It might not. Although it often does 🙂

(17) What if…you change the weight of your student’s workload

Not to be confused with changing the number of pieces they work on, this targets the the weight of the workload. There are some students who will immediately resolve not to do any practice at all if they think their task for the week is too demanding. They figure that since it’s impossible, there is no point in trying.

And there are others who won’t start practicing in the first place because they think their workload is light enough that they can breeze through it in a few minutes the day before the lesson.

You’ll need to spend quite a few weeks trying different numbers for this particular combination lock. If in doubt, err towards giving them something you know they can easily get through – that way they start to free-associate “practicing” with “easy” and “completed tasks”. Then, taking advantage of that mindset, you can gently crank up the expectations without them noticing. (I know, I know, you have to be sly to be a music teacher J)

It’s an easy thing to tweak, but getting it wrong – and more importantly, allowing it to stay wrong over a period of several months – might not only discourage the student from practicing, it may have them quitting lessons altogether.

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

(18) What if…you change the type of work they do?

Not practicing is not always a message from the student that they aren’t interested in working at home at all. It might not even be a message that they are getting too much or too little work. It just might be that they aren’t interested in doing the sort of homework you currently set them. Find the right sort of work, and they’ll practice it.

For example, there are some students who are quite happy polishing existing pieces, but loathe learning new notes. If their to-do list for the week reads “Learn the Gigue and your new etude”, don’t be surprised if they come back the following week with nothing done.

Similarly, if you have a student who doesn’t mind playing pieces, but would rather saw their own leg off than practice scales, you are wasting your time—and theirs—setting large quantities of scales for them to look at at home (they won’t). If scales are that urgent at the moment, find some pieces that are scale intensive, and sell those pieces to your student instead.

Given that most students’ preparation is a mix of technical work, learning new pieces, polishing old ones and theory drills, there’s plenty of scope to turn the dials to try different ratios in the mix—and if necessary, temporarily abandoning one type of activity altogether. You’ll be able to talk them into that activity at some point in the future.

But you won’t be able to talk them into anything if they quit first—and there are few ways of alienating a student faster than consistently setting them work that they can’t stand. (For lots of ideas on different work requests you can issue, see pages 360-363 in Practiceopedia).

It might work for your student. It might not. You won’t know until you test it.

A final word…and a confession…

Experimenting to fine tune your motivation skills is a powerful technique…but I haven’t been completely honest with you.

The central argument has been that you run need tests to find out what motivates your students, and what leaves them flat. After a while, the tests will have done their job, and you modify your teaching to reflect what the experiments revealed.

The only problem is, we’re talking about people, not French Fries. You can’t just run the tests once, and then apply the results into perpetuity.

At the very least, every time a new student walks through the door, you’ll need to experiment all over again to find out what makes them tick.

But more importantly that, every time that student shows signs of changes of any sort, you’ll need to run the tests all over again. What works for them when they are 6 years old probably won’t work for them when they are 8. And certainly won’t work when they are 14.

When they stop being a beginner, and are working on intermediate repertoire for the first time, you’ll need to test all over again.

And every time something external to music happens that can affect their outlook on the world—a divorce or bereavement, problems at school, a sudden discovery that they are gifted at tennis, moving to a new house, a new sibling, a new instrument, new friends, a new cultural craze or Harry Potteresque phenomenon…you’ll have to test all over again.

Every time they even start to dress differently, or talk differently, or their body language changes, or their musical tastes alter, or their lesson time changes, or they come back from holidays, or they change subjects at school, or pull a face that you just haven’t seen them use before, or suddenly talks less than usual in a lesson, or suddenly won’t shut up,. you need to test again.

So what does this mean? That as teachers we are condemned to having to experiment, tweak, observe & adjust all the time? That the goalposts that are our students keep shifting?

You bet! And it’s the single most exciting part of what we do. Not only does it make for dynamic, motivated students, but it will ensure a stronger sense of connection between the teacher and every single student in the studio. Teachers are forced to discover dozens of surprising things about their students that they never suspected before.

And for all the talk about experimentation, and different ways of practicing, there is no motivational tool—nothing—that is as powerful as that connection itself.

More IMT resources to check out

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