Do you teach your students how to practice?

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    Over the last few years I have had several students who transferred to me from someone else. Each time I have found, after they had been with me for a while, that they really didn’t know how to practice. My most recent work-in-progress, who I’ve mentioned on here before, is very talented, but had this same problem.

    I’ve addressed the problem with each of these students by having them come to my home occasionally to practice so that I can hear what they are doing. I ask them to plan on being here for at least 2 hours and preferably 3. From time to time, I go to them and work with them for a couple of minutes and then leave them alone again. This has worked quite well, and has helped to change their (inadequate) practice habits. I want to state clearly here that in no way am I blaming the former teachers of these kids. I think that most students develope their own practice habits right from the begining and that these habits will only get them so far, but will not work on harder repertoire.

    I’m curious to know if you teachers have run into this problem and how you have dealt with it.


    I have the same experience.


    Diane- I like your ideas very much. And they address the most common problem. That is, focusing in on the problem areas and not playing the whole page because the student keeps missing two beats in the middle of the page. Along with that I find that many students will always start from the begining of the piece and when they trip or crash, back up and play the difficult spot once and continue on. I simply can’t understand why they don’t grasp the need to play that spot 15 to 20 times in order to fix it.


    This is a key issue. Teachers with a large studio don’t have the option
    of going into every students home. Also, those like me who work
    primarily through a community music school are not permitted to teach
    lessons at another location for legal and insurance reasons. As a
    second option, it would be worth having a monthly, or weekly class in
    the evening with demonstration practice sessions for all the students
    and their parents to attend. Students could take turns being upfront
    with their guided practice session. This is an idea I would really like
    to formalize because sometimes the parents can benefit as well. There
    are occassions where the teacher can instruct the student one way, but
    the parent takes over at home imitating whatever habits were ingrained
    in their own experience. This class setting would also serve a
    secondary purpose of practicing performing. Recitals would consist of a
    similar audience, so the familiarity factor would be in place. It may
    be best to offer a class for the absolute beginners, one for
    intermediate and another for advanced, just to keep it very relevent to
    the student.

    This year I am proposing to conduct sessions to reduce performance anxiety at my
    school. I will say this practice session idea is really gold. Very good to bring
    this to everyone’s attention.


    Julienne- You’ve got some good ideas there, and I understand that it would be impractical to have every student you teach practice occasionally at your house. But if you can do it(have the student practice at your house) it’s very helpful and revealing. When my very talented student came here to practice, he played for three and a half hours with not break. I encouraged him several times to take a break but he didn’t want to. At the end he said,”This is the longest I’ve ever been able to practice with no interruptions. At home there is a lot of stuff to distract me.” I called his mother that night(both his parents are VERY supportive) and told her that if he says he’s going to practice from 7 ot 8PM, that there are to be absolutely no interruptions during that hour. If a friend of his calls, tell him to call back after 8.

    But also, while he was practicing, I heard him do several things wrong. When he made a mistake, he’d play it again once and then go on. He didn’t make what I call ‘variations’, for example, playing arpeggios as block chords, or running sixteenth notes in uneven rhythm, etc. When he understood that he had to practice a difficult passage 15 or 20 times, he would back up way too far to start it, instead of starting one or two beats before the problem. The point I’m making is that it can be very very helpful to hear a student practicing alone while you listen from some other part of the house. Maybe you could try it on a student who is really having trouble and not the whole studio. Maybe you could talk to the parent and ask them to put the tape recorder on for a whole practice session. Then you could listen to it as you drove someplace or whatever and analyse it, and then discuss it with the student at the next lesson.


    Yes, I absolutely spend time on how they should practice. It is up to them to implement it. I know I didn’t when I was young. I think it is important for students to have private space to practice in, free of disruptions, distractions, and Mom listening to every note. Too bad so few houses can provide this, especially these new kinds where everything is open.


    A brief comment on the repetitions of a problematic passage–many conscientious students will drill a difficult spot by reeling off a whole bunch of repetitions without pausing even a beat in between them.


    Saul- are you counting mom’s listening to practicing as a problem?


    Diane- What a horrible story! I guess the fact that I only take students who have been playing for a while means that they are motivated to practice and have supportive parents. I’ve never run into anything like what you describe. My problem has so far been limited to students who put in the time but don’t get as much out of it as I think they should.


    I have a little trick I use to get kids to isolate a passage. It’s called the “ten penny” method, and it also works with M&Ms that they can eat if they finish successfully.

    Take ten pennies or M&Ms and line them up on the left side of the music stand. The student chooses a section of music that they think they can play perfectly with no mistakes. If they play their section perfectly they can slide a penny from the left side of the stand to the right. The goal is to play the passage perfectly 10 times in a row, and slide all the pennies from the left to the right. If they make any mistakes along the way, ALL the pennies go back to the left side.

    Usually the first time I try this with a student they choose a section that is too big, and they play it too fast. They soon realize that to finish the exercise they must choose a small section and play it very slowly. The kids seem to really like the challenge of this exercise and it’s a good way to get them listening to whether they are really playing perfectly, rather than just playing something over and over again wrong or sloppy.

    Good luck!



    What a fantastic idea Kimberly! It adds just the right spark of fun to help the student focus. I’m going to have to try it. 🙂

    Diane, that is a unfortunate story. It sounds like it would have been
    best if you could have practiced at a school and simply not play music
    at home. How frustrating! A human being is always more important than
    the music they play. If the experience of music making is not
    strengthening the individual, building confidence, developing
    potential, bringing joy, there is simply no point.

    It can be useful to ask students questions about what their practice
    sessions are like, so some of this info can come to the surface. I have
    encountered some problematic dynamics as well. I have learned that in
    the Suzuki method they will sometimes offer parent classes when a
    student begins lessons. This is to instruct the parent about what is
    the appropriate and helpful way to support practicing. This sounds like
    a good idea for traditional teaching as well. This can be an especially
    significant problem because:

    A. Music teachers have not been required to have certification for many
    years, so it’s not uncommon for a parent to have misguided music and
    practice habits, and very distorted ideas about music in general.

    B. There can be a great deal of emotional baggage between a parent and
    child that uses the practice session as an opportunity to express it.
    When parents project their own needs onto their children it can be a
    real mess.

    If nothing else, there is some value in writing up a “manual for
    parents” regarding practice which could outline the appropriate
    boundaries. I completely recommend “The Inner Game of Music” by Barry
    Green because he gives strategies to get rid of our inner critic that
    is just not helpful to the learning process. I can’t imagine having an
    “inner critic” in the flesh. I understand Beethoven’s father pressured
    him to be another Mozart and somehow he managed to hold on to his love
    and meaning in music.


    Kim- Your 10 penny idea is great and reminds me of something I heard many years ago. A vocalist friend of mine went to New York to work with one of the top vocal coaches there. The coach did the same thing with the singer, using I think marbles, and moving them from one bowl to another if the singer made a mistake. The singer told me that at first he thought it was ridiclous, but quickly learned that it sharpened his attention to what he was doing.



    Yes, I think that’s the key, and what Rosalind was also saying. The point is to get the student to understand what they’re doing wrong, by listening carefully, and not just keep repeating mistakes. It is hard to get younger students sometimes to stop and analyze something they’ve just played so they can fix mistakes, rather than just repeating a passage over and over and not thinking about it. It’s definitely a challenge!

    Of course this exercise only works if a student can tell if whether what they’ve just played is correct or not!!! Sometimes that’s an even bigger issue…



    Kim-I agree with everything you say. The fundamental problem for teachers is that, whatever the student repeats the most(i.e., plays a passage wrong over and over again), that’s what they learn. So the challange is to get them to start off on the right foot at the begining of the learning process on a piece so that they don’t have to unlearn the wrong way of playing it. I’ve scolded my student several times by saying,”You’ve played this passage wrong for a week, and now you played it right once. Which way do you think you learned?”


    Well, I think there has to be an age at which practice becomes independent of the parent’s aid, depending on the child’s ability to remember instruction and practice well. I’m not saying they shouldn’t help them stay interested and focused, but it seems to me it should be a private activity, just like lessons. It depends on the characters involved, motivations and dependency. I saw a mother who acted like a classic stage mother, talked through 75 percent of the lessons, made career decisions for her teen, even though she really knew nothing about music. Here was a student who was caught in a dependency, smothered, and placed on a track not necessarily best for her, or so it seemed, as she did not communicate very directly.

    I avoid the aforementioned problems by teaching students to practice everything, easy or difficult. If they learn to start beat by beat, then measure by measure, making sure everything is correct and musical, and linked, then there are no extreme problem spots. Learning to break things down is essential. It also eases memorization. I tell students not to count each repetition in terms of the music’s progress, for you must do as many as it takes to improve, but to look at how they are changing with each repetition, how their focus improves, and everything else. Using external devices for counting reinforces the external, but the internal progress should be the focus. Nevertheless, one does lose count. I used to use an abacus and slide the beads over. Empty, thoughtless repetition does not lead to the most effective progress, though it may strengthen. If the students learn to repeat exercises, simple ones like four-note scales, and focus on the internal aspect and improvement, then it will be easier with repertoire. And you do find that each repetition has its own quality, the fifth and sixth repetitions are quite different from each other, and it begins to lock in after seven, and eight, nine, ten reinforce it. When it comes naturally, then you can practice longer segments. This is how I practice today, when I’m good, and when I’m bad, I just read through stuff. So it is as important for the professional as the student, and if I had learned this way early on, who knows where I’d be today? The mind is a powerful thing to harness, and a terrible thing to waste. I remind myself of Jennifer Hoult, who was the best student by far, when I entered Manhattan School of Music, and who had terrific concentration and could learn very complex music extremely well. I am easily distracted by environment, and only achieved ideal practice in places like Tanglewood and Camden, Maine, therefore my insistence on quiet, cell-like rooms for practice. Well, maybe a window for light and air. There’s nothing like facing up to just you and the harp and even blank walls. Then there is nothing but what you accomplish. The pride and strength one has in what one has grown to do and achieve is a wonderful thing.
    It is interesting to note the difference between students who rely on talent alone and those who work diligently.

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