How to Motivate Students to Practice: tips from Music Teachers National Associations
Make a weekly schedule for each student on their assignment notebook and have them fill out the number of minutes they practice and have a parent sign it.
—Hazel Ramsbotham NCTM, Aurora, Colorado
If a student has practiced very little, say to him or her “For the next 10 minutes I want you to pretend you are practicing at home and I won’t say a word.” It is very revealing.
—Judy Bonnell NCTM, Littleton, Colorado
Genius is the ability to avoid work by doing something right the first time. Never make mistakes in the practice room! (These gems were found in the depths of the music bench from a previous convention or conference!!)
—Jeanette Praetorius NCTM, Littleton, Colorado
I started having students write on a small sticky note the corrections they need to make in a piece. Finding that they could remember only one or two things that we talked about, I set the goal smaller than I had in the past. Many students had busy parents and the children were on their own to practice. This helped so much. Pieces came back fixed! They began to use terms better, legato, staccato and so on. We reviewed those notes before they played the piece of the lesson and I asked them if they thought they were successful. I hope this also carried over into their schoolwork––math, spelling, social studies and so forth.
Part of the enjoyment of private teaching is to think up a solution to a problem, unique to your studio and find that it works.
—Shirley McMeeking, Littleton, Colorado
Cut sticky notes into small strips to mark trouble spots on a student’s music that needs attention. It is very satisfying to take them off when the goal is accomplished and also saves the music from so much writing.
I set personal goals for myself––like pay attention this week to rests, or dynamics and so on—make sure details are not getting sloppy.
Don’t forget to laugh with students and keep perspective.
—Darlene Harmon, Denver, Colorado
My students all make a pledge to learn four new measures of music a day. This at least gets them on the bench with an open score, looking for those four new measures! Repeated sections don’t count. Four measures almost always turn into eight, and the student is hooked!
—Ann Markey, Denver, Colorado
After drilling a musical passage for a time, if the student is making more mistakes instead of improving, try getting his mind off of it by playing something else then come back to it. The subconscious mind will work on the passage while you work on something else and you’ll find the student can suddenly play it.
To teach the importance of using good practice skills at my monthly group lesson, I used a toolbox with common tools and tape good practice tips to each of the tools in the toolbox. The visual aid helped reinforce the concept of using the good practice tips from their toolbox.
I made a chart of these tips for the students to put in their assignment books.
1. Break song into sections
2. Create a new rhythm for a difficult section or pattern
3. Analyze the scale/chord make-up of the piece
4. Start at the end and work backwards
So in their lessons this year, I kept asking “what practice tips do you have in your toolbox that will help you better learn this piece?”
—Ardith Sloan, NCTM, Highland Ranch, Colorado
Slow practice makes fast progress.
—Linda Collins King, Littleton, Colorado
When I discovered that most students do not look in their assignment notebooks, I stopped using them. I use large paper clips to mark the pages of their music, lots of colored sticky notes for instructions and we stack the open books on top of each other so they close as one. The students can then rotate the piece they begin with and are less likely to forget to bring one of their books.
—Judy Johnson, Loveland, Colorado
Emphasize to the student that practicing is like a game—it is fun! It shouldn’t be thought of as a chore. It requires time (but so does a game) and concentration (but so does a game). The goal of the game is to improve and the reward is that you have improved—like winning a game!
—Debi Strick, Loveland, Colorado
I give students small motivation charts and a sticker to place on them for every hour of practice time. The student with the most sticker charts and most hours of practice gets a special practice trophy and compact disk at the recital.
—Pat Smith, Montrose, Colorado
Sight read at each lesson: Clap 3 times
Finger 3 times
Play 3 times
To mark corrections on a score, I use sticky notes. When the correction is made, I remove the note. Not only does the score stay cleaner, but also I make a flower for the younger students out of the sticky notes. It makes them a bit more eager to complete their corrections!
—Sheila Vail, Cincinnati, Ohio
I always say to students, “You can learn a piece quicker if you will play notes slower and more carefully in the beginning stages of practicing.”
—Submitted by Ursula Cauffiel Newman, Scottsdale, Arizona
Have students photocopy their piece and cut out each phrase. Then arrange the piece on a new piece of paper with one phrase per line, like a musical poem.
—Submitted by Stuart Robinson, Durham, North Carolina
Learn pieces backwards, from the last measure to the first. This helps prevent over-practicing of the beginning and neglect of the ending.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->— Submitted by Stuart Robinson, Durham, North Carolina<!--[endif]-->
Make a sign for the studio, as well as individual cards for students, saying: “Remember This! Practice Makes—Progress! Perfection is an impossible goal! Always strive for excellence.”
—Submitted by Karen Rae Mord, Savage, Minnesota
Give points for well-prepared lessons, memorization, performance, festival participation and so forth. These points accumulate and, when students reach 100, 200 or whatever level you determine, they receive trophies. The trophies are presented following recital performances. This is very motivating, particularly for elementary and junior high students.
I used a small tape recorder for one of my students who claimed to be practicing. (His mom was a single working parent—the student was claiming hours of practicing time— patently untrue.) The tapes were a great tool; at first they monitored his practice; later on they became a useful record of his progress.
—Submitted by Lynn Fleming, Damascus, Maryland
The best tempo to choose for a new piece is LAT or LAS, not LAK. LAT is like a turtle. LAS is like a snail. LAK is like a kangaroo. Which two are the best starting tempos?
—Submitted by Billie Leach, NCTM, Shreveport, Louisiana
Using pads of larger colored sticky notes, I write one small task the student should do several times (their age is a good number), such as a phrase ending, scale passage and so forth. They get one shot of M&Ms for completing the task, and I put the papers on a wall for a rainbow effect. It raised the level of playing for everyone in one month’s time.
When a student consistently is poorly prepared for a lesson, I limit him or her to one piece and, if there was improvement shown at the next lesson, I add another brief selection.
—Submitted by Beatrice L. Frank, Arlington, Virginia
When a student is really struggling with a section, a few notes or the like, I throw a small, white mouse into the string area of the piano. Then, I lift out the mouse and say, “Well, no wonder those notes were wrong. There’s a mouse inside the piano playing the wrong string.” This lightens up the lesson, often takes the pressure off and allows the student to continue. Many times the mistakes will magically disappear. You may think this is a game only for young children, but think again. This actually is fun with any age—even adults.
—Submitted by Diane Graham Raudensky, Thompsontown, Pennsylvania
On the bulletin board in my studio is a sign that says: “Remember! Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only good practice makes perfect.” Every student has to tell me at least one “good” way they can practice each piece in their assignment.
With more advanced students who are always rushing to and from too many activities, there is a tendency to practice their music while feeling rushed. This leads to tension and a feeling of unsettledness in their playing. I emphasize to these students that how they feel inside while practicing is very important—to practice even difficult passages in a calm focused manner—not with impatience or nervousness. Practice should feel good inside.
—Submitted by Nancy Nicholson, NCTM, Providence, Rhode Island
Three Time Rule: Play each hand three times in a row without a mistake. Then attempt to put hands together. This is for discipline and accuracy. It provides short-term goals.
—Submitted by Kristine Wilbur, Portsmouth, Rhode Island
Practice fast music slow and slow music fast.
—Submitted by Manabu Takasawa, Kingston, Rhode Island
If the student cannot get the right character of a piece, ask him or her to record the piece at home, then listen to it. Sometimes students don’t listen to what they are doing.
—Submitted by Diana Smirnov, Johnston, Rhode Island
Hold a “Practice Makes Perfect” month to coincide with Music in our Schools Month. Students receive a calendar and document practice times for the entire month (on their lesson assignment). At the end of the month, students turn in their calendars, signed by parents, and prizes are awarded to the top five finalists.
—Submitted by Gail Heywood, Rudolph, Wisconsin
At the first lesson of a term, ask each student, “How old are you now?” Relate to the student what is typical of his or her age group. Then ask, “In what ways are you now ready to accept responsibility of successful practice?”
Each student has a paper keyboard on a display. They may place a sticker on each key as they pass technique requirements for that tonality.
“Don’t eat the elephant all at once.” Encourage a student to work in small increments.
Keep a scale chart so students feel competitive to learn scales.
Have all students fill in practice time on a monthly calendar that is collected at the end of the month and kept in the student’s file. In January and April, the parents visit a lesson and the teacher, parents and students all discuss practice habits and general progress.
Speed Limit: No faster than you can play perfectly.
Have students decide on a “goal of the month” and help them stick to it. Make sure to do weekly progress checks!
Motivate students by charting their progress through levels of technique and the like.
Encourage awareness by using a digital camera to record a student’s playing technique, discuss together and then follow up with practice videos.
Develop a practice journal for students of all ages. On the left-hand page, the teacher can write goals, expectations and suggestions for practice; on the facing page students can list their daily goals and report their daily practice. This is a very successful way to organize and focus practice.
Every year, February to March, we have “Memory” Mania. The students earn 10 points per page they memorize—any music from the past year is eligible, even technique books. Then at the end of six weeks, they “cash in” their points for prizes. This year’s record was 75 pages at the elementary level, 45 pages at the intermediate and 60 pages at the advanced. The prizes are valued roughly at a penny a point. I feel that a $4.00 investment for me to inspire them to memorize forty pages is a bargain. The prizes vary from music education, fun musical items, sheet music and books to other nonmusical prizes. Candy, cookies, chips and pop are always a hit with the junior high students.
—Submitted by Brandy Pancoast, NCTM, Kettle Falls, Washington
Make progress slowly. Take time to learn it right.