Practice: Dealing with Students Who Don’t

[This is part 3 in a series of conversations about issues related to practice. Previous posts are here and here.]

We’ve all seen students walk into music class or private lessons with that sheepish look. They signal to us that they’re unprepared because they haven’t practiced. Then we as teachers are faced with the question of what to do about it. Do we reprimand the student? Do we pretend like they did practice?

Getting more assertive with students who don’t practice is effective with some students, but might backfire with others. I have had good music students quit because they didn’t feel like they were meeting my expectations. This is where the whole art of motivation comes into play; being encouraging without exacerbating.

Here are a few thoughts about what to do with chronic non-practicers:

1. Prioritize teaching about practicing. Make the word “practice” part of the vocabulary of music lessons. Teach students how to practice and what to practice. (More about this in a future post!)

2. Talk about what you’ve assigned for next week’s lesson. I don’t just mean tell them to practice the next page in the book; talk with them about specific measures to focus on. “In your next piece, there are some tricky leaps here, and a lot of accidentals there. Let’s see how you’ll do!”

3. Talk to parents about the lack of practice. I think there’s a way to do this without sounding like you’re tattling on the student. “Michael has so much natural talent. I get the feeling, though, that he has been coming to lessons unprepared. He could really be an amazing musician if he spent a little more time on our lesson material at home.”

4. In some cases, I’ve found that some students just won’t practice, but they’re sincere about their desire to keep music in their lives. With these students, I’ve usually found it best to just make the lessons enjoyable and not sweat it. When there has been an understanding among me, the student, and the parent that the student is not destined for a career in music, then I’ve taken a more relaxed approach. To get more assertive would just burn everyone out, including me.

What do you think? Have any suggestions to share?

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3 thoughts on “Practice: Dealing with Students Who Don’t

  1. I’ve created friendly competitions within sections. I will tell the band that these particular measures need to be ready by next rehearsal and the section with the highest percentage of members that play it correct get a prize or the distinction of “section of the week”. Also, those inexpensive medals you can get anywhere on-line are a tremendous motivator for elementary students. If they know they are going to get a medal at a school sanctioned medal ceremony at the end of the year, they will get in gear. And finally, for scale proficiency: at the start of each rehearsal, I set a metronome and we try set a new “school record” and try to increase our BPM each week with a particular goal in mind. I make a huge deal about everyone contributing to the “record breaking”- sometimes by section or ensemble. But the goal is on the board each week as a tangible thing to achieve.

  2. Good ideas, Ken. Along those lines, this year I’ve started a “Chromatic Climbers” plaque where students earn their name on the plaque by playing an ascending and descending chromatic scale. (This is another one of those great ideas I stole from someone else.) It has REALLY been a great motivator. I an positive that several of the students would not have learned the scale otherwise, but they don’t want to be among those who don’t get their name on the plaque.

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