If my students take away only one thing from lessons I'd want it to be this:
There's only one way to master a skill and that's PRACTICE not talent. There is no such thing as talent in my mind - there is only the ability to work hard, find the joy in the process and develop a lifelong love for learning. That is the path to excellence.
So how do we as teachers make that somewhat dreaded word "practice" feel more like play? How can we inspire them to become enthused about their playing? This is truly is the million dollar question for all music teachers.
Here are 10 ways that I've found help inspire students.
1. Pick Music Wisely
If I’ve learned anything in these past ten plus years of teaching it is this: the BEST and easiest way to motivate practice is choosing the right piece for a student.
I typically like to find a book that features a compilation of fun pieces to choose from. You can find some of my personal favorites here at my blog post Music Teacher Gold.
Books like this are fantastic because you can play through several options for students and then let them pick which one they’d like to study first. This gives the student more ownership over their piece of choice AND gives them options! It also gets them motivated about all the pieces they get to learn in the future!
Allowing students to pick their own pieces has worked wonders for me as a teacher.
It's propelled beginners to early-intermediate repertoire in a matter of months. It's helped students who were about to throw in the towel rekindle their love for music. And, maybe most importantly, it's kept alive the joy of teaching music for me.
Have students be involved in that process as much as possible. You can play them ideas or even text YouTube recordings of options. It’s a great way to inspire and motivate students as to the possibilities of piano - which as we all know, are endless!
2. Make Student Recordings Often
Several years ago I started making the goal of filming my students playing at lessons a weekly ritual. Not only was this a great opportunity to track their progress but I began to notice students mastering their pieces faster. There was a direct correlation between the knowledge they'd be filmed soon and their willingness to practice. Students even began proudly informing me they had their pieces memorized without me suggesting it!
I began to see firsthand how motivating it can be to actually SEE yourself playing music AND sharing it with family and friends.
The added boost of confidence and ownership over their performances was clear. PLUS, there's the added benefit that the students' family, friends and community can see their progress.
After recording a student performing I text it off to the Parent/Guardian and that in of itself makes recording time worth it. Sometimes seeing those recordings are just what the parent needs to be motivated themselves to encourage their child to practice.
3. Performance Opportunities
There’s nothing quite as motivating than an upcoming performance deadline! Having regular performances throughout the year is so key to keeping students motivated and practicing. Not only does this get students to practice but they will be more serious and focused about those pieces. It’s a great way to push students to refine works.
In my studio we always do at least do a spring and winter recital. In addition to that I've recently added a spring festival (where the students perform pieces for a judge and receive constructive feedback), master classes where students can perform for one another and a fun themed summer outdoor concert.
That means almost every couple of months the students are preparing for some kind of performance. This REALLY helps my students keep on the ball of practice and me too! Performances create a healthy pressure that pushes the student - and teacher - forward to accomplish great things.
NOTE: During the pandemic we had to get creative with our recitals and shifted to doing VIRTUAL ones instead (you can see an example of one of our recitals here). Although COVID restrictions are finally being lifted this is a fantastic tool which I will be continuing to use in the future. Doing a YouTube premier recital is a great way to feature your students who might be taking lessons remotely or who can't participate in the live recital.
Also, can we just rejoice that COVID restrictions are being lifted?? And if you have yet to see this piece of music have a good laugh ;)
4. Practice Schedule & Tools
The key to consistent practice is making practice the same time everyday. Practicing needs to be planned not just an afterthought. I highly encourage my students to practice first thing in the morning as it's much more likely to be accomplished that way. However, if mornings aren't possible you as a teacher need to sit down with the parent and student and make an action plan on practicing.
Kids are capable of hard work and diligent practice but expecting them to learn those skills on their own is unrealistic. They need parental support at home BIG TIME. That's where having helpful practice tools is a life saver for parents. Have a read about these practice tools I suggest to parents on my blog When Kids Want to QUIT: A Parent Survival Kit.
Every child is different so their practice schedule may shift from day to day, but ideally it will be the same time everyday. As far as tools to use at home this can look different for every child, and can shift depending on the season and age of the student. I love this idea of using a pill box as a daily reward system for students. You leave a small treat and each day they practice they get an immediate reward!
I've had parents have great success with practice timers, daily scheduled time, incentives, game-ifying practice session and sitting in on practice sessions to help guide the student. Remember that first and foremost, you're teaching the student how to learn and study.
This means parents at home need to help guide children too - productive practice isn't something you're naturally born with, it's learned with time and, well, practice!
I highly suggest having your parent read “Kids Aren’t Lazy” which goes over this concept so well! To make practice successful it MUST be consistent. Lauren Haley writes:
"...parents must demonstrate successful routines and only then should a child be given the option of deciding when to practice each day. This strategy has the further benefit of endowing young learners with time management skills as their academic careers become more demanding"
5. Challenge your students!!
Often the one holding back the student is us as a teacher and not the student. I have been amazed at how quickly children can learn when they are truly motivated. Children, as mentioned already, are NOT lazy and are capable of SO much if we only give them the opportunity.
So don't hold back - try your best to leave opportunity in your lessons for really pushing your students to achieve something that stretches them in a good way.
Often the one holding back the student is us as a teacher and not the student.
In addition to their method book work we work on supplemental pieces that are at least two or sometimes three levels higher than their current playing. These pieces are exciting, engaging, fun and just the right amount of challenging. I teach these often by rote (playing the piece and teaching by example) and we learn A LOT of new concepts and principles musically by taking on the piece.
These pieces fast track learning and shape students into successful musicians. Music becomes alive for them and intensely motivating.
Obviously, you don't want to pick something that is going to discourage them away from piano. Sometimes finding the right piece takes time - and sometimes that means pivoting away from a piece you picked that proved too challenging. I would far rather pivot and find something new than never try to push my student.
6. Teach them HOW to practice
There are many ways for a student to get discouraged from practicing but one of the main pitfalls is them not knowing what practice looks or feels like in the first place. That's our responsibility as teachers. We must help model to our students correct practice principles.
Having a way to write down step-by-step what you want their practice to look like at home is crucial, especially for those first few years. I've made up this practice log where I write down what their "Practice Plan" is once they're home. For my younger musicians I specifically tell them how many times they should play the piece every day. I feel like this specified goal works especially well with young ones and is much better than the generic timed goal.
Here's an example of one of those practice logs - don't judge me on my sloppy hand writing! I'll write down each piece and how many times I expect the student to play said piece. For their challenge pieces I often make more specific notes and assign timed practice rather than repetition (detailed notes on drill sections or methods of practice are in their scores).
On top of that we discuss LOADS of way to practice their material and I'm always trying to mix up how we approach a piece so they can learn a multitude of ways to learn music. Teaching them practice technique especially becomes crucial as you shift to harder repertoire. This is where teaching them learning pieces in stages, how to drill productively, analyzing music structure and theory, looking for repetitions/patterns/sequences and in general how to simplify the piece and make sense of it all physically and mentally.
7. Practice Goals vs. Long Term Goals
I always have a bigger picture goal in mind for my students that we accomplish through achieving each piece we play. Each bigger picture goal is unique to that individual and sometimes changes throughout the passing days, weeks and seasons.
Here are some of the BIG picture goals I often work on with my students. It's best to try and key in on one per lesson:
I can perform for others and actually enjoy it!
I can memorize a piece of music.
I can play relaxed and the more relaxed I play the easier it becomes.
I am capable and know how to problem solve in my practice.
I can do hard things. Just because a piece looks intimidating doesn't mean I can't play it.
Music is a unique way I express myself.
I am smart and capable enough to not only learn music but excel at it.
Music is a key and integral part of who I am.
Daily practice goals of course are essential to achieving any progress but these long term goals are arguably even more important and feel immensely satisfying when achieved. This helps remind the student and parent that music is going to strengthen their character and work ethic.
8. Aim for progress NOT perfection
Trial and error is an essential part of music! We as teachers need to be less focused on having perfect students and embrace errors and growth. In this way, we can foster a healthier view on music making for the creative process it truly is. Learning should never be fear based and if students walk into lessons riddled with fear over making errors something isn't right.
"Wrong notes are a crucial part of the creative process, no matter how hard one strives to avoid mistakes and cut them out of performances" -- Lauren Haley
Wrong notes are crucial to the process. So, please, please do not keep your student playing Hot Cross Buns for weeks on end just because they don't quite have it "perfected" yet. Method book pieces are a bore. They are there to teach principles NOT musicality. Don't stick to the same pieces for weeks on end - keep lessons refreshingly new, fun and progressing (even if those pieces aren't "perfect").
Embrace the mistakes, learn from them and grow. Help guide your students to have this kind of relationship with themselves as well. We should always strive for growth, but the best way to growth is also an acceptance of where we are at currently and loving ourselves for it. Creating this kind of learning atmosphere really helps inspire students!
9. Be positive!
Always stay encouraging and positive in lessons- even if it means you’re offering critique keep things positive and up beat. I believe we can still expect hard work and progress from our students while still staying positive!
When a student comes to lessons I always try to lead with a positive remark about their playing before moving onto the critique - sometimes it's helpful to ask them "what do you like about this piece?" or "what do you feel like you do well in this piece?", and see what positive remarks they have. This can be very revealing as to what strengths or weaknesses they believe about themselves.
When a student becomes especially discouraged - or maybe on the verge of quitting - it's important to remind them that everyone hits a brick wall sometimes and that's actually a GOOD thing.
It means they are being pressured to grow and being challenged. Music is HARD but that's what makes it all the more satisfying.
"Practice is work. Work is required no matter what subject or career one pursues. The expectation that children should always love (music) and always want to play is damaging. This declaration -- "Mom, I hate practicing" -- leads parents to believe they should let their children quit music. Not to worry: Everyone - everyone! - who performs professionally wanted to quit one time or another growing up. Your reaction to this phase will shape the way your child deals with future obstacles. Simply remind your child that sometimes work is fun and sometimes work is work. and the pursuit of music is a great example of this" - Lauren Haley
10. Inspire them!
Lastly, be sure to play at every recital and let your students see that YOU still love playing and practice. I often try and fit in a duet with one of my teaching partners or playing a solo in each recital. Sometimes I'll even play one of my own compositions which is a treat to share and help show the students the possibilities of composition at the piano.
This is where you can exemplify your own unique voice at the piano and inspire your students to discover the same for themselves.