Private Music Students: I Don’t Care How Much You Practice

“I Didn’t Get to Practice Much”

I hear this phrase before a lesson at least a couple of times a week. What does it tell me? When you say “I didn’t get a chance to practice,” here are the two messages you send:

“I didn’t find time to practice.”

There are six days in between lessons. Surely you could have managed to squeeze in a few minutes on at least, say, three of those days. On the day you have a lesson, you get a day off from regular practice (if you like); but on that day, take a look at the week ahead and plan, at least mentally if not in a calendar, on when you might get some time to play your instrument.

Any of us working adults with families find it difficult to believe young students who claim to be so constantly busy with daily responsibilities that even a few minutes of daily practice are impossible. It’s better to practice, say, fifteen minutes every two days than a few minutes in a panic just before leaving for their weekly lessons. At the beginner level, even that little amount of practice might be enough time to make progress.

On the other hand, we forget how quickly a student’s day can fill up with school, extracurricular activities, homework, chores, and other tasks that are not schedule at their discretion. I advise students to regard me as an ally in making time for practice, just not an authority to whom they report their results. I ask that my students tell me all about their weekly routines, and any special projects, appointments, or trips that will interfere with regular practice. With more knowledge about a student’s life away from the studio, I can help him find the time he needs.

I don’t believe most students don’t want to practice; they just may be in need of assistance with time management. It’s a skill that we aren’t taught in school, yet it’s one of the most important life skills to learn.

“I expect to play poorly.”

When a student warns me that she hasn’t practiced, I often suspect that it’s because she isn’t confident in her ability to perform that week’s material. It’s a sort of excuse for not sounding good.

This is a red flag for me, because it signals that a student equates time spent practicing with results. However, you can practice for hours and not see any improvement if you don’t practice effectively. Imagine getting as much accomplished in five minutes of practice time as you have previously in an hour or more. A good instructor will show you how.

Specifically, the key to effective practice is twofold: You need a clearly defined objective, and a means for reaching that objective. Practice isn’t always a matter of sheer repetition. With the right techniques, you can reduce your practice time while getting more done.


How Much You Practice is Not as Important as You Might Think

I cringe a little when I ask students about their practice routine and they describe it in terms of time: “My mom sets a timer for 45 minutes,” for example. If you simply attempt to play your assigned material over and over for a specific period of time, never doing anything to improve it during that time, what difference does it make whether you do it for fifteen minutes or eight hours?

What matters most is how you practice. A good instructor will teach you strategies for maximizing your practice time, so that you can improve faster and in less time. If you’re looking for an instructor, ask candidates for specific examples of what strategies they use. If they don’t have an answer at the ready, keep looking.

My goal for each lesson is to end the session with one or more clearly defined objectives. “Work on this section” is not clearly defined. Nor is it an objective in the sense of being measurable. Examples include “Be able to play through the section once without getting any notes wrong, regardless of tempo,” or “Memorize the section,” or “Play this exercise at 110 beats per minute.” If you are a student of mine and you accomplish your objectives within one day of practice, as far as I’m concerned you’re done for the week. Tell me how easy it was, and I’ll try to challenge you more next time around.

This seems to confuse some parents, who judge the quality of my lessons by how much time their sons or daughters are “working” on my assignments. If you want to measure the quality of my lessons, take note of the difference in a student’s skill level between now and four months ago. They are progressing not by spending a certain amount of time practicing on any given day, but steadily accomplishing small tasks that build mastery over a long term.

Documenting Progress

I sometimes encounter YouTube videos in which someone who has recently begun to learn an instrument edits together recordings of their performances over a period of months. This is a great motivator, for two reasons: First, if you know you are going to document your progress, you have added an incentive to practicing. You don’t want your videos to show that you haven’t gotten any better. Also, at the end of a few months, when you review the earlier footage, you will witness improvement. This can provide much-need long-term perspective, since it can be difficult to assess your progress without direct evidence. When you see how far you’ve come, you’ll be inspired to keep practicing.

For my guitar students, I have created a list of “Milestones” — a checklist of essential skills that all guitarists should possess (e.g. open chords, palm muting, improvisation with the minor pentatonic scale, the ability to play certain classic songs). I print and maintain a copy of this checklist for every student, and keep it handy during lessons. It helps me plan for the near future, but it also allows us to review the previous few months and take note of what we have accomplished.

Documenting a student’s progress with milestones is the final stage of an objective-based teaching method. Start from the beginning with objectives in mind, each split into mini-objectives that can be mastered from week to week, and the best way to practice will make itself apparent. And it’s almost never going to be simply, “Practice 30 minutes per day.”

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