As a piano teacher, a big part of my job is to coach my students and their parents on how to make the most of their practice time at home.
I think most people understand that it’s their job to go home and play their music in between lessons.
This is a really good start, but it turns out that practicing music is a multi-faceted activity. Yes, playing music is the goal. But, there’s a bigger picture.
When we are learning to play music, there is a lot more happening than just learning the music. It helps to zoom out and see that all of the different things students are encountering at the piano:
- practicing discipline
- creating a routine
- working through lack of motivation
- creating habits
- learning how to practice effectively
- working through mental blocks
- practicing what feels “too hard”
Students and their parents will find the most success at the piano if they mindfully nurture all of these aspects of learning the piano.
Many parents notice that students start out really enthusiastic about playing the piano. The first several songs are easy. Students come home and enjoy playing them a bunch of times and celebrate that practicing is easy and fun.
Then, a number of things happen. The music starts getting harder. Maybe a family has a busy week and the forget about piano for the week. Maybe someone gets sick and the normal routine is lost. The student might feel distracted by video games, other activities, or a busy schedule.
Suddenly, playing the piano has lost it’s appeal, the student is no longer motivated and practicing becomes a huge struggle.
I see scenarios like this play out over and over. In order to solve this problem, we need to get to the root of why we practice piano.
On the surface, it seems like we just need to learn some songs, check things off a list or complete assignments.
But in reality, there is a lot more going on than just playing the piano. There is a longer-term goal and a bigger picture to see.
We want our students to become musicians; we want them to enjoy music, be involved in a complex learning process, become proficient at reading and speaking about music, work hard and so much more.
In the first stages of learning music, it’s important to nurture all of the other facets of practicing, besides just learning the notes. These are long-term skills that students will carry with them through their whole lives. They will be able to apply these skills to many other areas of their lives. These skills are what make students hard workers, good problem solvers and creative thinkers.
I wanted to highlight a few skills that students learn through piano.
Simply getting to the piano everyday is a huge milestone. In those beginning stages of learning when the music feels easy, it’s vital that students are practicing the discipline of practicing the piano. This means that we shouldn’t only measure success by the student playing correct notes, doing what the teacher asked and enjoying the music. This is also the time to instill in the student that going to the piano every single day is part of the equation. You can read here about how my family had a shift in our perspective on how to practice everyday.
Creating A Routine
Early on in piano lessons is also the time to make a conscious effort to form a routine and to set an expectation about the routine. Many beginning students like playing their newly learned songs, so they may stop by the piano several times a day to give them a spin. This is a good thing, and I can see why parents like it. But, in a couple of months when the music gets a little bit harder, students won’t naturally gravitate towards the piano any more. Parents might have to start reminding or nagging their student to practice more often.
When you create a routine in the early stages, while things are still easy, you have something to fall back on when things become more challenging.
I always like to use the analogy of brushing teeth. Helping kids remember to brush their teeth isn’t really an option. It’s something they need to do everyday. And, there’s a good chance that they rely on their parents for many years to remember to do it.
Piano is the same way. Students need to learn that in order to succeed at the piano. It has to become integrated into everyday. Whether or not you will do it is not really up for discussion.
Working Through Lack Of Motivation
Everyone deals with times when they lack motivation. It’s just a part of life. A student lacking motivation to practice piano isn’t necessarily a sign that the student should quit piano, or that the student isn’t interested in piano any more.
Just like many other things in life, it’s likely a phase. When we zoom out and look at our bigger picture again, we can see that sticking with something, even when you didn’t want to do it can be highly rewarding. And, this is when we start to see satisfying results and success.
These times when motivation is lacking are good times to fall back on to your already established discipline and routine. It’s also a good lesson in learning that doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing.
Learning How To Practice Effectively
There’s usually no question of what to practice. Most students leave their piano lessons with a list of things to work on and assignments to complete. How to practice is something completely different.
Many people know to fall back on the use of repetition, or filling a certain length of time with practice. These can be good approaches in some cases, but they’re not the only ways to practice music.
For example, playing all of your songs 3 times in each practice session might work well sometimes, but what if the student is playing the music wrong? Practicing something wrong 3 times isn’t very productive. And, how will the student learn to fix the problem if the only tool in their tool box is repetition.
Or, for a student who’s first few songs lasts approximately 10 seconds each, it doesn’t make sense to require a certain length of time practicing. It would just be impossible to fill the time with playing that tiny song.
Instead, students can be trained to recognize problems, break their music down into small pieces, work through problems by playing hands separately, repeating only the problematic section (hopefully more than 3 times!) and putting the music back together.
This is a long term process, and one that definitely requires parent and teacher involvement. But, you can see how it prepares the student to become a problem solver, rather than a piano practicing machine.
Working Through Mental Blocks
Every week I help students work through things the seem “too hard”. It’s pretty common for a student to gloss over something that seems impossible. They declare that they can’t do it, they might shut down and not even want to try.
Since this is a weekly occurrence in my world, I know that it’s something that nearly every student can work through.
A lot of times we need to coach our students to change their vocabulary. When they say “I can’t do this.” Have them say “I will try again.” Or, if they say “This is too hard.” Coach them to say “I’m smart enough to figure this out.”
This seems simple, but a lot of times students just need to redirect their thoughts and learn more positive ways to approach challenges.
What This Means For At-Home Practice:
You can see that there truly is a lot happening at the piano. The skills we just discussed are just a handful of the many facets of playing the piano.
Here are some practical ways to work with these ideas:
- Don’t adopt an either/or mindset. “Either I’ll practice everything my teacher assigned, or I just won’t practice at all.” This is a really unhealthy approach to practicing (and most other things in life!). Instead, strive to work on a little bit everyday, and give yourself grace if you don’t make it through the whole assignment. At least you did something!
- With beginning students, understand that there may be times when the music is secondary to practicing one of these other skills. For example, if your student is having trouble forming a routine, you may have to focus on easy, already-learned music in order to help form the routine of getting to the piano on a regular basis.
- Stay close by. It’s nice when students don’t have to depend on an adult to do things, but learning the piano can be complicated and beginners especially need help reading instructions and getting set up at the piano. Even if you don’t know much about piano, be available to help your student. A few affirming comments can go a long way. Help them troubleshoot problems if something doesn’t look or sound right. (And, it’s never to late for an adult to learn piano – find out more about that here.)
- Help your student find creative ways to make practicing fun and enticing. Tap into what really motivates your student to make practicing feel interesting. Do they need rewards? Does it need to feel like a game? A lot of students thrive from positive attention and perhaps they just need an adult nearby to pay attention to them while they practice. Making a video of your student playing to share with friends and family can be really motivating.
There are so many ways to go about learning and practicing the piano. Don’t give up too quickly if you think your student has lost interest or if it has become too much of a chore. Learning the music is just one piece of the puzzle. Remember why you started piano lessons in the first place and why it is important to you.
For more ideas on how to make the most of your piano practice time, check out these resources:
(This section may include affiliate links, which means that if you make a purchase from the link, you will pay the same price but I may earn a small commission.)
Piano Parent Podcast – This is a great resource created specifically for parents.
101 Practice Tips by Tracy Selle – This book will ensure that your student is never in a practice rut again!
Practice vs. Play – This post will help you recognize the difference between practicing and playing the piano.
Cultivating Culture of Practice – This post might change your perspective on how much to practice.
Learn Piano Online – Parents often worry that they can’t keep up with child if they don’t know how to play the piano themselves. This 8-week course will get you off to a strong start so that you can understand what your student is learning.