Teaching piano practice: Just 0.3% of a student's week? You're kidding right?! - Creative Music Education
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Teaching piano practice: Just 0.3% of a student’s week? You’re kidding right?!

By Tim Topham | Deliberate Practice

May 16

teaching piano practice

How to teach piano practice

Have you ever calculated just how little time you get to spend with your students out of their total working week? It’s a fascinating and insightful exercise and its result should dictate much of what we do with students during lessons.

Last year, I read a fantastic book called “The Practice Revolution” by Australian piano teacher Philip Johnston (a must-read for all instrumental teachers by the way). It has made me totally rethink my approach to teaching, setting goals, using a practice diary and what I actually do on a lesson by lesson basis.

Consider this: if you’re teaching 30 minute instrumental lessons, you are seeing a student for  just 0.3% of a his/her available time in a week!

That’piano teaching tim tophams less time than the time they get for a school period, for sport training, for band practice, for homework time and considerably less time than most kids will spend on their iPhones and Facebook everyday.

Recently, I have come to realise that with my young and teen beginner and intermediate students, I seem to spend as much time teaching them how to practice as to how to play! Perhaps this isn’t surprising, but I have never really thought about it much until recently.

In my opinion, expecting kids, who struggle to even manage their own daily routine or remember what to bring to school, to magically be able to structure a concise and effective hour-long solo practice, is ridiculous!

We have to teach practice skills – both to students AND parents – as much as we teach playing skills!

Ideas for teaching practice

The key for my students each week is achieving goals. I try not to recommend a set amount of time that they have to sit at the keyboard; rather, if they have achieved the goals I’ve set them by the next lesson, they have done the work. As long as you set achievable but challenging goals, time becomes somewhat irrelevant, clock-watching stops and parental nagging can subside (at least a bit!).

The best bit: if students follow my practice tips, they can reduce the time it takes to achieve their goals, streamlining their practice. Given that most kids are so time-poor these days and that music practice often comes off second-best to other after school activities, this is vital. Let’s face it, the goal for many students is to do as little practice as possible. More and more, this is a necessity.

Practice Tips for Students

So what are a few of the tips I use?

Let’s look at scales.

We all know the merits of practising scales and arpeggios, but we also know that if students practice their scales mindlessly and with deaf ears (as many do), they will need to spend ten times as long on them to achieve a set goal as they would have if they had focussed.

In order to do this, I suggest some of the following challenges which force the brain to focus:

  • Playing in rhythms
  • Using the metronome
  • Playing with different dynamics or articulations between the hands
  • Playing with eyes shut
  • Looking at a different hand to the one you normally look at

There are obviously many more suggestions like these and they can be used in combination to be even more effective. The key is for students to realise that if they can text message and practice at the same time, they are not challenging themselves enough and will need at least twice as long to get something right.

Related: What I’ve learnt from asking more questions in music lessons

Students need techniques that force their brains to doing something harder than is necessary (like putting accents on different beats in scales) in order to reduce the time it takes for the brain and fingers to “get it”. It also ensures focus and concentration.

The other way I help students with their practice is to be very clear about what I write in their practice diary.

Not only will I set a goal (eg. “all highlighted sections of the Bach hands sep”), but I also set an at-home test so they know if they are ready for the next lesson (eg. “All highlighted sections of the Bach hands sep at 100 on the metronome, three times in a row, no errors”).

This test should be conducted a few days before the next lesson, so they have time to rectify any issues.  In this way, students know how much practice they still need to do and gives them confidence that they will be ready for the next lesson.

These are just a couple of ideas for teaching students how to practice, and there are of course many more. What is important is that we don’t assume that students will be able to structure an effective practice session themselves. Some can, particularly as they get older, but many simply cannot. With just a few simple but clear suggestions in their diaries each week, you can make all the difference!

Leave your thoughts below

What are your top practice tips for students? How do you keep it interesting and keep them focussed?

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About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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