Unstructured Practice: Giving Students Time to Doodle

Unstructured Practice: Giving Students Time to Doodle

kids need to be bored

Welcome back to the first post of 2017! I hope you had a great break and are looking forward to the teaching year ahead.

There have been lots of reports recently about a sudden awareness that our children have lost the opportunity to experience boredom.

While most adults will fondly remember their childhoods spent roaming the streets on their bikes, playing cops and robbers, getting dirty, breaking arms and inventing games, times have changed.

Kids no longer have the time to be bored.

When kids may once have spent an afternoon drawing pictures or creating stories, they are now plugged-in to their devices or off at swimming squad.

When they once may have roamed the streets with waterguns, they are now in extra language classes or karate.

kids need to be bored

When they once may have built a fort or a billy cart and crashed it down the street, they are now getting extra tutoring between school and tennis lessons.

Even on holidays, kids are finding themselves scheduled.

“Don’t give in to the fear of being bored. This is the greatest modern holiday terror: that children – or, scariest of all, teens – will be bored.” The Sunday Age, 18/12/16

So why is that a problem?

Because it’s when we’re bored and have uninterrupted and unplanned free time that we get to be creative, especially when we’re children.

Or, as the above article goes on to say:

“…boredom hothouses creativity.” The Sunday Age, 18/12/16

How do we hothouse creativity in our piano students and give them time to be bored?

The Importance of Boredom for Creativity

“I’m too busy to practice”.

We’ve all heard it a million times.

But have you heard it from a 5 or 6 year old recently?

I have, and my readers have told me they have. It’s pretty terrifying to be honest.

I think one of the greatest errors we make in the rearing of children these days is to feel like we’re bad parents if we don’t give our children every single opportunity to “be what they want to be”, even to the detriment of their recreation time.

Back in the 70s, 80s, kids used to roam the streets. Parents would say goodbye after breakfast and let their kids roam around on their bikes, build things, act out stories, explore, play.

As long as they were home in time for dinner, that was fine.

Today, even 5 year olds have every single minute of their day scheduled and any unplanned time tends to end up in front of a screen.

“Most parents would agree that they want to raise self-reliant individuals who can take initiatives and think for themselves. But filling a child’s time for them teaches nothing but dependence on external stimulus, whether material possessions or entertainment. Providing nurturing conditions and trusting children’s natural inclination to engage their minds is far more likely to produce independent, competent children, full of ideas.” from Being Bored is Good for Children and Adults – and this is why.

Now of course I understand the world has changed and, unfortunately, parents who let their children enjoy unscheduled and unsupervised playtime are likely to be found neglectful.

But surely there’s a happy medium that we’ve missed?

Gen Z: Naturally Innovative and Creative

When I was preparing my keynote speech for the DayTime: Technology in Music Education Conferences entitled: The Entrepreneurial Musician this year (Inner Circle members can watch this keynote and learn about my prior life as a music producer here), I spent a lot of time researching creativity and innovation in young people.

Given that my talk was focussing on the importance of teachers giving students the skills they need to sustain entrepreneurial careers in music, I wanted to find research about the creative, innovative and entrepreneurial attitudes of today’s school-age children (Gen Z).

Here’s what some of the research says:

innovation and generation z

From: The Rise of Gen Z: New Challenge for Retailers (click image to read)

Basically, Gen Z (that’s the kids you’re teaching) are naturally innovative and creative.

They just don’t get the time.

The problem is that when kids have no downtime, they have no incentive to be creative.

Think back to when you were that kid in the 80s (or earlier) and you were let off the leash to explore and hang out with your friends all summer long. What did you do?

Did you explore? Did you make up games? Did you draw, paint, play, act?

“…children need time to themselves – to switch off from the bombardment of the outside world, to daydream, pursue their own thoughts and occupations, and discover personal interests and gifts. We don’t have to have a particular creative talent or intellectual bent to benefit from boredom. Just letting the mind wander from time to time is important, it seems, for everybody’s mental wellbeing and functioning…it’s good for children to be helped to learn to enjoy just pottering – and not to grow up with the expectation that they should be constantly on the go or entertained.” from Being Bored is Good for Children and Adults – and this is why.

If you were like me, you would have done this and more. We went exploring, we played hide and seek, we rode our bikes, we were outdoors.

And we had to be creative.

The Unstructured Practice Session

Most of us want to encourage creativity in our students.

However, this becomes increasingly difficult when students don’t have any time available for this pursuit.

It doesn’t matter how much you teach them about improvising, composing, making up chord progressions and song writing, if they only just have enough time in their day to practice the basics of their craft, how will they ever really get creative?

And would they ever get the time to just sit at the piano and doodle?

As a way of combatting this changing nature of society and child-rearing, I’ve started asking all my students to devote one practice a week to…nothing.

They are to sit at the piano and make stuff up for one practice session, with my full permission.

No books, no reading, no scales. No predetermined outcome.

Just mucking around on the keys.

5 minutes or 5 hours – whatever happens.

Why? Because this is the only time they’re likely to get to implement some of the ideas I teach them about creativity.

Are you in the same boat?

kids need to be bored


How to introduce this in your studio

I realise this is a pretty wild concept in a world that never has enough time for anything and practice time is already short, but do you think it has merit?

Want to give this opportunity to a student and see what happens?

Here are a few considerations before you jump in:

  1. Students need to have some ideas about what to do when they doodle at the piano. Just as doodling on paper requires paper, pencils, textas, etc., so piano students need frameworks to scaffold their doodling. If you need some ideas, just search this blog for “improvising” or “chords” or “creativity”. Inner Circle members get to be a ‘fly on the wall’ of my own studio and watch exactly what I do with my students in creative lessons. Interested in membership?
  2. Before introducing a completely unstructured practice, start regularly setting creative tasks for homework based on work done during the lesson. For example, if you’ve been exploring the 12 bar blues, part of the student’s homework is to continue exploring jazz improvisation. Or perhaps you’ve started working on some rhythm exercises – get them to create something musical from the rhythmic patterns you’ve been exploring.
  3. Make sure they students know that this isn’t a chance to not practice. They can’t miss this session because it’s unplanned.
  4. Parents need to be 100% on-side with this idea. If they know that you already encourage creativity, improvising and composing in your lessons and have been helping students explore this, they shouldn’t have an issue as they can see it’s relevant to their lessons. If they’re still unsure about the merits of this idea, ask them: “Would you like your child to be able to sit down at the piano as an adult and just play stuff?” or, even more pointed: “Would you like your child to still be playing piano when they’re your age?”. Of course the answer is yes.

“Giving students the skills to be creative at the keyboard is one of the best ways of ensuring they’ll be musicians for life.” Tim Topham.

Would you try this in your studio?

Am I totally crazy?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea and whether you will try it with one of your own students.

 * While “doodle” and “doodling” is generally used to refer to unplanned drawing and scribbling on paper, I use it in this context to refer to unplanned music-making at an instrument.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at staging.topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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kids need to be bored
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  1. Agree!
    Loved your comparison of doodling!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with these thoughts and ideas!

  3. That’s a great idea. I’m going to implement it TODAY with my first student. We may take the whole lesson to “doodle” and then I’ll assign at least one “doodle-day” this week! Thanks for the inspiration!

    • YAY! Let us know how it goes next week 🙂

  4. I love your idea and agree that it’s vitally important to allow our students time to just play on their instrument. We don’t say “I’m going to work the piano” – we say “I’m going to play the piano.” I love opening up my music classroom before school or at lunchtime so the kids can come in and just play on the instruments – amazing things can, and do, happen.

    • Hi Anne. Yes! It’s so important we remember that we “play” musical instruments – great point!

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