Helping Students Make the Most of Practice Time

In private lessons, my job is to guide a student to change the way they're currently doing things if the modus operandi isn't serving them very well. The bulk of lessons are spent gently guiding students to do something differently with their muscles. This task alone can be extremely difficult. Muscles are slow to change, and it can be scary to trust that a new way of using the muscles will lead to better results. A teacher must skillfully walk the student through new territory in every lesson. This role as guide and companion is challenging and rewarding. 

But the student must walk that new path on their own between lessons in order to change muscle patterns permanently. This usually means that we teachers have to teach a closely related but different kind of pattern change: how to practice. When I started teaching, I knew students wouldn't know the muscles of the larynx or the parts that move when you push a piano pedal, but it took me a while to realize that even the most basic practice techniques are just as foreign. Most people haven't had to train their minds and muscles in the way that musicians do. Here's what I've learned so far about helping a student learn to practice.

If you want them to do it at home, you have to do it with them in the lesson first.

Music uses the body, and body intelligence is a very different thing than verbal intelligence. Talking about music isn't the same as making music. While we need to talk about what we're doing, it's best to have the student actually doing things as much as possible during lesson time. I'm a pretty verbose person, so I have to continually remind myself to keep explanations short. Just because a student can talk intelligently about something in a lesson doesn't mean their body can do it well.

Tell/show the student what to do as clearly as possible. Have them do it. Bring the student's awareness to the thing they are doing as they are doing it. Get their feedback about what they just did. Redirect awareness or change what you're asking for if your original request didn't get the result you wanted. It is your responsibility to find the best way to help the student do the thing you want. Use tools like demonstration, palpation, listening, kinesthesia, visualization, mirrors, diagrams, YouTube videos, and recordings in addition to verbal explanation in order to help them. Have them try again. Change direction/awareness if needed. Get their feedback. Repeat as necessary until they can do it. 

Some students don't realize that what you're doing in the lesson is a concentrated version of what they should be doing at home. So, once they do whatever you directed them to do, remind them that they need to do it again at home every day. 

Once a student has successfully done something in a lesson, they are more likely to do it again on their own because they have experienced (1) that it works, and (2) that they are capable of doing it. 

Be very specific.

The moment I give over-generalized direction is the moment I doom a student to slower progress. Good practice techniques aren't instinctual. In the lesson, I need to show them...   

  • Which sections/exercises to practice. Each section/exercise should have no more than 2 challenges in it. Just one challenge is ideal. A challenge can be a simple as one finger movement, one vowel, one arm movement, one rhythm, one breathing movement, one volume change, one pitch change, etc. When beginning songs, a section can be just one measure, or even two adjacent chords. As the student overcomes challenges, they'll be able to take on larger sections/exercises. The 2 challenge rule always applies.
  • What to focus on in each section. One focus is ideal. For my piano students, this often includes saying the notes/counts/intervals as they play to help them stay focused. For voice students, they may need to replace the words in a song with notes/counts/intervals. Other focuses include staying aware of a particular area of the body throughout the section, listening to the tone throughout that section, etc. The mind must stay focused on something so the muscles can learn and repeat the new behavior. Zoning out means inefficient practice.
  • How many times to repeat each section.
  • What metronome marking to use. If they are not yet at goal tempo, tell them how many times they should play/sing it smoothly before they increase it, how many clicks to increase each time, and what metronome marking they should end with. (If they're practicing with a recording you made, they'll already have the specific speed.)
  • How many days (and how many times per day) to do all of that.

The more of this I can do in the lesson with them, the better.

After a student has gotten used to very specific practicing, they can be taught to figure out those very specific things for themselves. You can help them learn how to decide which parts to practice by asking them to identify trouble spots. At first, they will need cues like, "Where did you pause? Where did you feel uncomfortable?" Follow up with questions like, "Do you know what happened there?" to help them identify whether the issue is about the pitch, the rhythm, the word, the technique, etc. Then follow up with "What could you focus on while you play/sing to help you fix that?" Have them try out their hypothesis. Ask them how it's going as they do it. If they should change course, ask questions to help them figure out the course on their own as much as possible. 

Encourage them to practice the section with the focus they have chosen until they no longer have any anxiety or hesitation or worry about it. Let them know that if anxiety is increasing instead of decreasing, they should take a break, do a different section or exercises, and come back to that one later. Rather than doing only as many repetitions as they can get away with, or continuing to repeat something when it's obviously getting worse instead of better, they start working toward a feeling of confidence and relaxation.

Specific practice goals will give students the best results. Walk them through that process in lessons so they can do that same kind of practice at home. Otherwise, they will likely spend their "practice" time playing and singing without making helpful changes.

Write it down. Record it.

It's not fair to expect students to remember everything. You probably won't, either. Keeping records of those very specific assignments is beneficial for everyone. I write down the exercises/sections, repetitions, metronome markings, focus points, etc. that we discuss in the lesson. The following week, we use that list as a guide to go over what they worked on. Referring to the sheet during lessons increases the likelihood that they will remember to look at it during practice time.

I have voice students make audio recordings of their vocal exercises. When practicing vocal technique, a student should be able to focus on whatever I've asked them to focus on: breath, vowels, balance, volume, pitch, etc. The student just has to turn the recording on (remind them to play the recording through decent speakers) and sing with it when they get home. Be sure to tell them to actually practice with the recording you made. I've had many students who didn't connect the dots about why we made that recording the first week. Again, be as specific as possible.

I've developed a lesson assignment sheet over the years, and I update and change it as I see what's helpful and what's not. I divide assignments into three major categories, and students report how many minutes they spend on each thing. This encourages them to spend time on more than just songs. The assignment sheet has been helpful with adults as well as kids. Many adults are already good at keeping track of their own assignments. The ones who need more structure and direction find the sheets helpful.

For younger students, I require a parent signature. Practice minutes are tallied each semester for a practice prize. Elementary, Middle School, and High School have their own prize of $10 iTunes Gift Cards, and the grand prize of a $25 gift card goes to the student with those most minutes in the whole studio.

I recently added a student's choice category. This encourages students to show me what they're doing "for fun," and lets parents know that it's good for students to play and sing things outside of their assignments. I include Student's Choice minutes in their weekly practice totals up to the amount that they match in their other three categories combined, which encourages them to practice their assignments more so they can count more of their Student's Choice minutes.

What are some things you've learned about helping a student practice well? Share in the comments below.