Have you ever wondered how a student’s practice diary or assignment book can best support their development as a musician or if there’s even any point in writing things down each week? Have you ever wondered if there are better ways that you can guide your students to practise effectively during the week?
Many of us write notes in students’ books without much thought about whether this will actually help their practice, if they agree with the goals we set, whether they can even read our handwriting (!) or if it’s actually more of a reference for us to remember what they did last lesson!
I personally fall into this trap all the time and that’s why I’m so excited to have Roberta Wolff share some of her ideas this week about how to use Practice Guides to support student practice and increase students’ motivation. In this article, you’ll find heaps of great practice tips, ways of coaching students to practise and resources that you can use in your lessons this week.
Children’s lives have become busier, the demands on their time greater, and the variety of distractions: mesmerising. Students need our experience now, more than ever, as they learn to manage their time, improve the quality of their practice and feed their motivation.
A large proportion of my time recently has been invested in researching practice and motivation, trialling ideas and developing practical resources.
I believe that one of the best ways to enhance motivation and practice success is the use of “practice guides” which students use and fill out as they work. As the brain of a child or teenager is still developing, many skills that we take for granted still need to be learnt. Students have to be consciously taught how to practice and this includes providing them with the tools to carry out quality practice.
The ideas below are relevant and transferable to any resources you currently use and I also share examples of my own practice tools for students that you can trial and test in your studios.
Four Top Motivation Tips
1. Provide varied learning experiences for each concept taught: Integrated Lessons = Integrated Practice.
2. Teach and model good practice techniques: Invest Lesson time to consciously teach practice skills.
3. Support the organisation of practice through clear, helpful notes, align your aims with theirs and set weekly targets together: This keeps up momentum of the student’s success cycle.
4. Share your own practice successes and frustrations and ask students about theirs, chances are you are using the same practice techniques: Listen.
Make the Most of your Practice Notes
Practice notes are the support system available to students between lessons. Making them as clear as possible means we maximise our influence between lessons.
Helpful notes mean better practice, which means a more productive and enjoyable lesson (for student and teacher). All this ‘positiveness’ feeds motivation.
A handy palette of practice skills equips each student with the means needed to become confident, independent learners.
Tried and tested practice processes are what keep us going when that inevitable plateau is reached.
Good Practice notes will…
- Lead students in an obvious and quick way into the ‘deliberate practice zone’. Students need to practice smarter, not longer. In practice, the aim is not to create a patchwork of a piece in time for the next lesson. This cobbling together leads to frustration and superficial learning. In practice, the aim should be to unearth weaknesses! By shifting focus onto this we move into the area of deliberate practice. The sooner this is done the more productive a session will be. Any practice request requiring the student to look at/play their music in a different way with fresh eyes will lead them into this zone. What is that chord sequence? Play the long bass note semibreves as crotchets, do you hear the harmonic outline, how would you shape it? Play this run in clusters as per hand position.
- Work two ways: students should be encouraged to feed back to you, this includes questioning and venting!
- Create links, so students begin to connect every aspect of their musical development, sight-reading to theory to musicianship. For example: That run is part of the (G major) scale, can you write two octaves of G major scale for me this week on your manuscript? We will also pick a piece in G major for you to sight-read and how about we set a short G major melody to the rhythm you wrote me last week, you could sing or play it? To provide this rich variety of connected musical experiences you need the structure of good, clear practice notes.
- Help students keep track of what practice has taken place when. This helps with time management.
- Offer Visual Countdowns, a month to a child seems far longer than it does to us.
- Teach students how to practise, take small steps and find fun ways for students to engage with their music.
- Use some of the students’ own practice suggestions.
- Acknowledge that when inspiration strikes, (you know the feeling when you can’t wait to get back to the piano and a specific piece), it is ok to leave the notes aside.
A reliable practice process can only develop when the student is engaging in regular practice. We know that! Many parents and students don’t. Insist on regular practice and don’t consider the length of the session until the regularity is well established.
Here are the resources I use to teach effective practice
Below are some resources that I’ve developed to guide my students’ practice. I was inspired to do this after taking part in a two week practice-a-thon during which, as an experiment, I painstakingly wrote step-by-step, day-by-day practice notes.
It was exhausting, I was looking forward to it being over, however the results were so impressive there was no going back!
Despite what I already knew and taught regarding practice skills, it was not enough. These resources send the message home with students, and do so in a way which avoids the spoon-feeding of my practice-a-thon notes.
This extra practice support has been welcomed by students, parents and teachers who, like me, have found that the organisation of time and improved quality of practice also means more time to take on extra projects. For example, my students have created and performed improvisations based on their names, written compositions and put on a fundraising concert where they all accompanied violin students, all without forgetting their scales, theory and solo pieces.
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Let’s look at an example
‘Jo’ is working on Minuet in G, Anna Magdalena Notebook. We want him to get inside the music, I call it 3D learning. This means experiencing each element through seeing, hearing, moving, writing and thinking/researching. This way, if one aspect does not click there are other learning opportunities available; he can move on rather than move away, which is likely to happen when frustration sets in as a result of simply repeating the notes as written.
3D Learning can be encouraged during practice by setting tasks which engage different senses. Play with eyes closed. Sing a scale checking your pitch on the way. Sing or clap (surprisingly tricky) a line of music while playing the other. Conduct the piece. Romanticise or Jazz up this piece of Bach (this always gets a smile when asked of older students) they are still learning just in a more playful, creative way.
3D Knowledge of a piece is developed through practising each part in many differnt ways. Practising backwards (start at the end and add in one beat at a time). Practising in order of dynamics, softest to loudest. Playing even quavers unevenly, chords as single voices, outside lines only, legato passages staccato, quiet passages loudly, etc.
Take a look at the sample sheet below for more.
Include some practice which does not require a piano, for busy days. For example, writing a rhythm or scale, playing a note reading app, colouring the score. A recent, and apparently delightful, activity for a young person learning his first 6/8 piece was to colour a copy of the music. He picked his two favourtite colours and coloured the whole piece beat 1 yellow, beat 2 green. He will never forget that there are two beats per bar and the time it took kept him engaging with the score far more deeply than were he just reading it.
Weekly practice sheet
This is how I use it:
Blue triangles = practice this area on this day.
Plan varied daily practice with your student during lesson time, let them mark the day boxes accordingly. The result…when the student rushes in from school to do 10 minutes of piano practice before gym, they have an immediate goal.
For younger children parents can help by preparing the books needed for each day. Red triangles = student recording practice as they do it.
The All-in-One Sheet
This comes from my newest book and contains ready printed practice suggestions.
Students can highlight each practice suggestion as they use them, and cross out/tick off practice notes when they are done.
Students are left to decide what they do each day, and can track this by marking the circles in each section; this gives you both insight, forming a basis for further suggestions and support.
Colour code scale and arpeggio practice. Green = finger fitness, orange = newish scale, blue = arpeggios.
Beginner Practice Sheet
This was designed to help beginners break down the elements of their music and work on them individually – a vital part of effective practice.
Using post-it notes in the ‘spotlight on’ area makes this into an activity sheet which lasts for a few weeks.
Use stickers the other way around…ask young students to paste/draw emoticons onto their sheet letting you know how their practice went as this encourages self-evaluation.
More Practice Teaching Tips
- Make a copy of the music, cut it into bars and rebuild it, colour it, basically…play with it, be imaginative, and have fun dreaming up activities.
- Set some work each week which separates the reading process from the playing process, for example: make a chord tally chart/colour code different chords, mark certain motifs/patterns.
- Highlight each beat of the bar a different colour to help with pulse awareness.
- Separate work on rhythm and pitch – improvise your own melody to the rhythm of line 1.
- Mark in fingering at the start of each bar and then cut up a copy of the music to assist with practising in sections, starting from different places, and reinforcing reading skills.
- For aural training suggest picking a bar at random, sing it, check by playing, did they sing the right tune?
- Transpose bars with simple notes.
- Share your lesson plans so students see the work they are doing has a logical progression.
- Work within the growth mind set.
- Don’t judge…open doors.
- Always have a laugh!
How does this help motivation?
Motivation is strongly linked to the perceived likelihood of success.
The student who believes they are in a good position to succeed will be motivated to work.
Practice notes and individual targets offer the student a tangible road to success, especially when weekly work is paced to be manageable and provide frequent opportunities for success.
Disclaimer – for this to work you need to have taken time to establish why each student is learning and what fires them up. It is through experience and communication that we learn to align a student’s desires with what we know they need to know. It is crucial that you and the student evaluate each new piece together, always let the student speak first, you need to know their views on aspects of notation, how long they think it will take to learn etc.
Resources & Links
These resources are designed to work with any teaching method, providing a template for planning integrated practice without being prescriptive.
Feel free to use the Beginner Practice Page and Target Page above.
Here are links to my other resources:
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Teaching the art of practice and nurturing motivation is one of the most important aspects of our job as it transfers directly to every other activity our student engages in.
Strong learning skills lead to success, increasing self-belief and perseverance. What a privilege to be in a position to teach this whilst at the keyboard!
Often it is those who are not predisposed to a musical training who stand to benefit from one the most.
I would love to hear how you get on and feel free to share any other great ideas or resources you use.