The second greatest challenge a private music teacher has after attendance is getting students to practice. However, your job isn’t to make a music student practice; it is to make them want to practice. When you look at it from this perspective, it may help change your approach. I’m not talking about an occasional week where the student was out of town or too busy to practice, but a student that perpetually doesn’t practice. The responsibility for the student’s motivation to practice comes primarily from you, the music instructor.
Does Brow Beating Work?
If a student has a track record of not practicing, your “browbeating” or “guilting” them into it is NOT going to work. All this does is make the student feel bad about the lessons and may cause them to quit. If a student tells me they haven’t practiced this week, I tell them it’s ok and focus on practicing more the following week. Your negative comments won’t change the past. So music and piano teachers, let’s stop doing this, ok?
But How Do You Motivate Them to Practice?
The first step in motivating a student to practice is finding out why they’re not practicing. This kind of thinking takes discernment on your part. Here are some possible reasons and solutions for a student’s lack of practice.
Problem: Too Busy
Being too busy is probably the biggest reason for a student not to practice or at least the biggest excuse. For children whose parents put them in so many programs and school functions, their (lack of) time is your biggest competitor, not only for practicing but also for getting music students. Adults have so many responsibilities that it’s difficult for them to put in the time to practice.
Solution: Schedule Practices
Since a week can go by without practicing, having the student schedule a time to practice will help make it a routine. I suggest practicing before or after homework, school, or dinner for kids. Or practice at the same time as the lesson itself. For adults, it could be before or after work. Whatever time works the best when they’re fresh and have undistracted time. Also, tell the student to practice even if they only have 15 minutes sporadically. Multiple 15-minute practices can add up to sufficient time and are better for a beginner student.
Problem: Confused about What to Practice
I believe this could be why students do not practice, even though they may not admit to it. This reason may be the most challenging to discern. Some students will assume it’s their fault for not understanding and may not ask you questions. Others might be afraid to ask you questions if you had already explained it. Another reason a music student may not understand is a lack of clear and concise assignments.
Solution: Ask a Lot Of Questions and Give Clear Assignments
The most important thing you can do as a music teacher is to let the student know they can ask ANYTHING of you, even if you had already explained it. Never let the student feel intimidated to ask you questions or feel they’re not smart enough to understand. I tell my music students I will explain something a million times if needed! And to make sure they understand, I always ask them questions after explaining a new concept. Also, make sure your assignments are written down and are clear and specific. After writing down the assignments, again ask them if they have any questions. Asking them questions will give you more insight into their thinking. And it sets the tone that questions are good, making them more at ease to ask you questions.
Problem: Non-Realistic Goals
I’ve heard teachers (and parents) tell a beginning student to practice an hour a day. That’s unrealistic and will cause the student to fail ultimately. The discipline of practicing is something learned, just like learning the instrument itself. The beginning student not only doesn’t have the discipline, but they also don’t have enough information TO practice for that length of time.
Solution: Short Practices Done Often
For the beginning music student, the best way is multiple, short practices. For ages 4-8, I recommend 10-20 minutes at a time. This time frame doesn’t sound overwhelming to the beginning student. As the student progresses, the longer they can practice. The beginning of each practice is when the student is the freshest and gains the most improvement. I tell my students to start each practice with the most challenging parts.
Problem: Family or Personal Problems
Life is messy at times, and you may have a student going through family or personal problems. I don’t recommend asking personal questions since you’re there as a music instructor only. But what if their problems continue and hinder their practicing and learning?
Solution: Be a Good Listener
Without asking personal questions, you can ask the student how they’re doing. I usually start a lesson by asking how their week has been. By showing them you care may be enough to have them focus on the lesson. However, if the student is troubled, asking how they’re doing may help them open up. I don’t suggest giving your opinion on their situation, but sometimes listening is all that’s needed, and giving them your empathy. Giving them the gift of music may be the help they need and may encourage them to practice.
Problem: Not Interested In Music
The lack of interest is the most challenging of all and may not have a solution since music is not everyone’s cup of tea. I once taught a little boy for one year. No matter how much I tried to make the lessons fun, he hated it. His mom was diligent in making him stick with it. However, after a year, I asked him if he liked to play the piano. He said no, of course. Then I asked if he liked the “sound” of the piano, and again he said no. That’s when I let his mom know after a year that I didn’t think it was in his DNA to play the piano.
However, I wouldn’t have suggested he stop after only a few months of lessons. A beginner’s first 6-12 months is the most challenging and can be the opposite of fun. It’s good to remind the student to give it time, and the better they get, the more fun it becomes. However, if a student is still not interested even at the intermediate level, there may be different approaches you can take before giving up.
Solution: Different Path
The late beginning to early intermediate music student is an excellent time to show them different styles or songs or ask what they’re interested in. You can add these to the regular assignments or change the entire lesson. Or, if your student has only played by reading music, you may want to change to by ear and improvisation, or vice versa.
A Final Note
Finally, I don’t tell my students to practice; instead, I give them assignments. During the lesson, they either pass or don’t pass them. I’ve noticed that students want to do well to pass, motivating them to practice. Their reward is my accolades when they’ve done well and get to move on to the next assignment. For the young student, I give points when passing each assignment or practicing five times in a given week, with a prize after so many points. You’ll be amazed at how the music student will have time to practice when there’s a prize involved!