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Doing More than Saying “Just Practice!”: Tips on Encouraging Successful Practice Habits

As the famous joke goes when asking for directions - “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer - “Practice, practice, practice!”. As easy as is to tell someone to “just practice”, we know that consistent practice can be challenging for some students and most teachers know, lack of consistent practice is often the root cause of many issues revealed at lessons. As with any habit, getting started is often the hardest part. Here are three areas to “practice” that will help your students in develop consistent and lasting practice habits.

1) PRACTICE Setting a Purpose and Goals with Students: The Root of Motivation! when is the last time you and your students reflected on the reason why they were studying their instrument or piece? Is there a purpose to their lessons besides moving to the next page, book or level? Is there any intrinsic motivation to learn how to play or are they taking lessons because they are simply forced to do an activity? When a student is struggling to practice consistently, the first question to ask is whether the student has a sense of purpose and goals set that will in turn drive their motivation to practice. Students with no purpose or goals will often lack the motivation to practice. Uncover the root of why they are taking lessons and if necessary, help students set goals and “uncover” what sparksthem to pursue music lessons. This will give student purpose and drive their practice!

When asked, students may share an inspiration or musical influence which they want to emulate, whether it be a song or performance they witnessed. They are inspired to try themselves or love the feeling of playing a piece/style of music (or even better, the process of learning!). Adult students are often driven by a love of the sound or fulfilling their lifelong musical passions, whereas younger students may be a bit unsure of why they want to learn an instrument at first. Many haven’t spent time reflecting the “why” part of lessons. Whether they were told they would take lessons or want to do try out a new “activity”, it can be helpful in reflecting with younger students on why they want to pursue music learning. It is often helpful to guide students unsure about their motivation on what their favorite music style, song or performer is and if they want to play this music. Sometimes simply asking if a younger student “likes the sound” of their instrument is very revealing as to the root of their motivation. If a student does not like the sound of an instrument or has no motivating interest in playing music or a particular instrument, no amount of practice reminders will remedy issues with “remembering to practice” as the root of the problem is that they may lack intrinsic drive to study music. Unfortunately for some, this may indicate that music lessons may not be the right fit for their needs at this time.

For most students, however, talking about what they like about music/their instrument and what they want to be able to do (goals) is empowering and often leads to students building trust that their instructors are there to truly help them achieve their goals. Helping students think through why they are in lessons, what they want to achieve and that you are there to support them can help establish trust in the teacher as they understand you are there to help them. Once there is “buy-in” from a student as they realize you are there for them, you can then ask for commitment in return, which inevitably revolves around consistent practice. Finally, don’t forget to celebrate success! Whether small or large goals are met (passage or song completed or after a successful recital or performance), take time to celebrate and reward the achievement of goals! This only goes to further intrinsic motivation and helps students see the value of hard work and sacrifice. Sustained effort without recognition or reward yield disinterest and kills motivation. Take time to look for moment in and out of lessons to celebrate achievement, big and small. Make it a priority in lessons. This yields the motivation needed to drive students to continue practicing!

2) PRACTICE Consistent Lesson Planning and Sharing Structured Notes: Helping students know what and how to practice! If the structure of lessons is chaotic or unplanned or if students have no reminders or notes to review for practice at home, most will fail at practicing well or at all. Most experienced teachers realize having a lesson plan or structure in lessons offers their students a model to help them as they navigate learning on their own in practice during the week. Students will often emulate or imitate what was taught, so having consistency in lessons format can help a student know how they should format their own practice at home (warm ups, technical development, repertoire, music for enjoyment, etc.). Plan your lessons establishing some form of consistent structure or expectations in lessons. Some students may even replicate the structure, order or flow presented at lessons, so consistency in lessons often yields in consistency at home.

Along with lessons format, most experienced teachers make it clear to students what they should practice by circling, marking or bookmarking lessons materials. This includes an emphasis on the importance of lesson notes (hardcopy or digital). Some lesson studios even established rulesabout bringing and maintaining hard-copy lesson notebooks each week that need be reviewed by students/parents (initialed or checked off weekly). Others may resort to sending digital format notes weekly (shared documents on a cloud server or email). Whatever the case, take notes and have a system of organizing and storing them so students/parents can easily access them. Provide some structure with notes and take the guesswork out of practice.

* There are some major benefits to going “digital” with your lesson notes! With the growing number of software applications and digital tools available, digitally formatted lessons notes increasingly have an edge over traditional hard-copy only notes, as digital copies can usually be shared and duplicated easily. Many cloud sharing services and email clients allow for “read receipts” ensuring you know when your students have accessed their notes. Lost lesson notes can be easily printed from a file if hard copies are needed, and limitless reprints can be made if lost. Digital format notes also allow you to quickly and easily include online links and other digital attachments that you may not otherwise normally have the time or ability to share with students during their standard in-person lesson time. There are certainly benefits to having hard-copy materials in lessons, however, it can be extremely beneficial and more efficient for students (and your own workflow!) to consider incorporating more digital format note/resource sharing into your lessons. After the world was seemingly thrust into the digital world due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most students and their parents now have had at least a basic crash course and understanding of how to access and use online services and email. Digital format note taking and communication is quickly becoming a standard in a post-pandemic digitized world.

The days of losing hard copy materials or notes are approaching an end with digital backups. Consider incorporating digital lesson notes to help you and your students stay organized and in sync. Make it easy for them! Remember: if students have to “work extra” to simply uncoverwhat you would like them to practice (looking for lessons notes or deciphering notes/symbols, etc. without notes), most students will miss practicing what is being assigned or worse yet,simply give up on practicing due to a lack of direction! 3) PRACTICE using Automated Tools and Technology to Help Student Remember! Most students find the greatest success through consistent, structured practice. Structured practice includes knowing why they need to practice (goals/motivation), what they need to practice (structure and notes), but most importantly, building a habit of practice!

Consider the wide array of technologies available now for setting up reminders! Most mobile phones, tablets and computers are equipped with free calendars applications that allow for the scheduling of repeated events with automatic alerts. Microsoft, Apple and Android all have free calendar apps that allow students to input event reminders and schedule recurring events each week. Alert notifications can usually be set and customized to trigger at a desired time when set up (for example, say 5 minutes after a student arrives from home, after dinner, or at a specific time each day). Many calendar services allow you to create recurring events with regular reminder alerts and share it with others to use on their calendars. Many students are capable of setting this up themselves, however, consider investing a little time in sharing a calendar reminder or helping a student set up automated calendar reminders themselves on their personal devices. This small investment of time can pay dividends as students who may struggle to remember practice in their daily routine will then be alerted to practice at set times. 5-minutes of setting up recurring reminders can pay back ten-fold or more with students remembering to practice without any additional effort on your part or theirs! Some operating system platforms, such as on Apple’s iOS and or Google’s Android platforms, allow for free geolocation-based reminders! This means, when you leave or arrive at a specific location, your device can trigger a customized reminder or alert to pop-up automatically depending on your location! Simply inputting a reminder to alert when you arrive/leave a specific address (location services permissions need to be turned on for this) will trigger practice reminders when most beneficial for your student! These can be set to recurring, so a student could set their phone to alert them with a practice reminder say every time they arrive home from school, automatically each day! Better yet, many newer phones and devices that utilize a virtual assistant (think Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, or Apple’s Siri) oftenallow you to simply ask, or press a button to ask, a virtual assistant to set up a specific or recurring reminder to fire off at any specific time, day or location, all with your voice! No more clicking through menus, searching through options, or manual programing necessary. Automatic reminders can be a game-changer for those struggling to build consistent practice habits.

Using technology to save time, keep better records and help offer students reminders as to what and when to practice is certainly a win for the busy music teacher. Buy yourself back time and help your students build strong practice habits by learning how to use and implementing these free automated tools and technologies available today. Help your student realize their motivation, provide structure in guiding their practice time, and use automated technologies to help students build consistent practice habits!


Robert Fisher Music Teacher: Piano, Voice, & French Horn Digital Media & Marketing Admin The Catoctin School of Music


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