Practicing Outside of Lesson Time

Practicing between lessons is key to seeing progress in your musicianship. But how much is the appropriate amount? There isn't one right answer to that question. Music teachers aren't one-size-fits-all and neither are practicing routines. 

I'm a pretty laid back teacher in personality but I take my job very seriously. I'm not the teacher who's going to use negative reinforcement or pressure a student to play every note perfectly. (I experienced a little of that in my own music education and it only affected me negatively and caused unnecessary anxiety.) But I come into each lesson ready to give my students the tools they need to be successful as well as a positive attitude about what they plan to accomplish. I like to work with my students to choose their music. It's important for them to be learning new repertoire but I like to balance it out with polishing up pieces they're already familiar with. I've found that I can keep a students attention and encourage them to practice if they're engaged and genuinely enjoying the music they're working on.  

What I have seen work very well with my students is to talk to the student and parent together and come up with an individualized plan that works well for their specific family. I always throw out the "gold standard" approach of practicing for the length of the lesson, six days per week. Most of my lessons are 25 minutes long, which for elementary and middle school students seems to be an appropriate amount of time to fit in. When students set aside this much time on a daily basis they almost always come back the next week having improved. The only time this doesn't work is if the dedicated practice time is only used to play or sing the parts of the song they already know and not learning the new parts. But again, I feel that as the teacher it's my job to give my students very specific instructions on how to practice. If they know measures 1 through 8 like the back of their hand but struggle with measures 9 through 16, I have to specifically tell them to start at measure 9 and only play measures 1 through 8 after you've practiced 9 through 16. Parents who are musicians know this and can help their child structure practice time this way but parents who aren't musicians need this information to help their child succeed.  

When fitting in the regular "length of your lesson" practice time is a struggle, we have to get creative. I don't believe that practice needs to be an "all or nothing" approach. I'm not in the business of creating mini professional musicians or music majors if that's not what the student wants. I strive to give my students the gift of a lifelong hobby and a way to express themselves. I can't feel creative in a stressful or pressured environment so I create the best environment possible with the individual families needs in mind. In this case, I most often start with encouraging the student to sit down with their music consistently for five minutes every day. Five minutes is easy! The only challenge is actually sitting down on the first day after the lesson and opening the book. We're working on creating a habit, just like we do with picking up toys or brushing our teeth before bed. If the student can consistently practice for five minutes a day for a week, we'll add more time to the daily practice routine until we can build up to the length of the lesson.

We can talk about specifics all day long, but what I've really seen work the best in my nineteen years of private teaching is building a relationship with a foundation of mutual respect with each of my students. If my student looks forward to our lessons, connects with and respects me as a musician, and enjoys the material they're working on, they will practice because they want to. I can tell them to practice and print off all the practice charts in the world but it's a lot easier if I instill a love of music in each of them instead. Practicing isn't something they have to do, it's something they love to do and want to do every day. Spending time with their instrument being creative. The students who love to practice are always the students who seek out more material, create performance opportunities for themselves, and develop a love of making music. And isn't that the whole point of being a music teacher?   

Anna Castro