Whether you are a seasoned teacher or just starting to draw in your first students, getting students to practice can be a frustrating conundrum, after all, we all know as players that one hour a week of playing will rarely get us to where we dream to be, but we can barely control the time our students spend playing. And truly, we should not be trying to.

That being said, a lesson where both student and teacher have become well acquainted with the material and hurdles at hand is the most productive, so encouraging your students to practice, is still important so that they can get the best out of you, and you can get the best out of them.

1. Encourage them to take charge

Nothing is more delightful to a teacher than a student who enters the classroom brimming with questions. It is one of the age old paradoxes of the student-teacher relationship, simultaneously both and neither have total control over the structure and goals of a lesson, it is in the student’s willingness and curiosity to learn, and the teacher’s confidence and openness to exploration that real leaps and bounds will be made.

So how can you achieve that balance as a teacher? How can you get your students to ask questions without incessantly asking them if they ‘have any questions’.

First it is important to remember that as a student yourself, you probably felt a certain amount of embarrassment in front of your teacher, simply because you wanted to please them, you wanted them to like you and perhaps also because the habit of going to school and getting graded trained in you the need for outside validation in your progress. This is all normal, and is a reasonable reaction to the pressure of performing, on whatever scale that might have been.

However, it is part of your job as a teacher to create a space in which your students can learn and one in which they feel free to explore and have the confidence to ask questions without feeling that they will make a fool of themselves. It is not an easy task, but it starts with small body language cues. For instance, really listening and showing that you are engaged with the things they talk about is a way of validating a student’s self confidence without influencing their opinions on the work they are doing.

When your student talks about a piece of music, or a technique they are interested in, let them speak and truly listen to what they are saying. This helps the student to feel that they are also a stakeholder in the outcome of the lesson and that they therefore have more control over their personal progress. The upside of this is that, when students feel comfortable sharing their opinions with you as a teacher, it is also much easier to personalise your feedback and get them the results they are hoping for, which also means less work at the teacher end of the scale.

2. Involve them in the piece selecting process

Taking charge of personal progress has many facets, but aside from the peripheral messaging of your body language and the way you interact with a student, simulating the real life exchange of searching for a piece of music that you enjoy and then choosing to play it is an important part of the learning process.

After all, the aim of a teacher is to get students to the point where they can have complete autonomy, not simply to get them playing pieces well.

Showing your students ways of finding new music; through listening to CDs, watching YouTube videos, or spending an afternoon sight-reading through imslp documents, will help them in their progress as a musician and it will show them an insight into what awaits them once they have left your classroom.

The byproduct of this is that it also makes your life as a teacher much easier, choosing pieces for yourself is hard enough, let alone choosing pieces for somebody else and having the pressure of their progress on your shoulders. Give your students more free rein, and simply help them through the early stages of a piece and the selection process.

3. Involve Them in Conversations About Practice

How often did you, as a student, feel that your teacher had not only singled out parts of a piece you were playing to work on, but also explain to you how to practice those passages with more than just a fly away ‘practice this with metronome’ or ‘practice this in dotted rhythm’?

It’s rare, but it is so important. Learning how to practice is something that should not be just the job of the student themselves. No wonder so many students do not practice, when they do not know what the word even means in this context. Should they simply play through this passage as many times as possible? It’s no wonder so many students get so frustrated and become practice averse at such a young age. At school we are used to the trade off of work fostering results, so as a music teacher, your job is to give ways in which your student can reap the results of hard work, instead of feeling that they are just repeatedly hitting their head against a brick wall.

Instead of signalling mistakes without offering any tips on how that work will look in their personal practice time, offer strategies for working, and take them through it, e.g ‘let’s have a look at how to iron out that squeak’.

Not every mistake needs this level of attention, but it is important that you leave your students with a plan of action, not just a criticism. This process is also a good opportunity to engage them in offering their own opinions ‘How are you going to practice this?’, this is something that can even be done away from the instrument.

Take a piece of music and look through it with your student, get them to highlight passages that could present a problem and explore together why that might be. Once those passages have been highlighted, help them to explore ways that those problem areas could be avoided, or ways that those mistakes might be sorted out at the instrument. The theory of practice is something that is majorly overlooked in most mainstream music education programmes.

4. Help them to become Observant

Observation is the key to the progress of any musician, but how often do we see students who are unable to make the distinction between good execution and mediocre execution of passages? At some point, almost always! It is an image that we see the world over, across almost every musical discipline in existence, a student walking off the stage and immediately turning to their teacher to see in the teacher’s face whether the performance was a good one.

Teach your students to develop not only their own taste, but also their own radar for playing success, involve them in differentiated and complex conversation about their playing, this will help them to make huge progress in the practice room. After all nobody can be expected to fix a problem that they cannot detect.

This can manifest itself in something as simple as just one question ‘what did you think?’ and one they have offered their opinion, do not immediately shoot it down - it is completely fine to disagree with a student, but it is so important to do it in a way that shows them that you share this opinion with them because you want to help them, not because you want to punish them.

5. Experiment with Different Teaching Styles

Most teachers have a set way of working, perhaps they sit at the far end of the classroom and wait for a student to play through a piece before giving feedback, or perhaps they are up close and personal, interrupting the student at the first mistake. There are a million ways to teach, but it is important that as a teacher you harness and make use of more than one of them. Students need to understand that there is more than one way of working and that different styles suit different desired outcomes.Try experimenting with four different styles of teaching, suited to what the student wishes to get out of the lesson.

  1. Exploration - this can be done together, at the music stand or with the computer, listening and reading music. This style of lesson is perfect for offering your opinions and advice and the knowledge you have collected over the years as a teacher, and is therefore perfect for when a student is first reading through and becoming acquainted with a new piece of music.
  2. Assisted practice - this style of lesson is more common than you might anticipate, but is perfect for young students and those just beginning who have not yet had the chance or the occasion to develop their own practice strategies. In this style of lesson student and teacher go through a piece and build a quality practice session together, stopping at each mistake and working through strategies to improve the quality of execution.
  3. Masterclass - this lesson follows the classical masterclass formula, and is perfect for when students are at the level where they are playing pieces from beginning to end. In this type of lesson you as the teacher can offer your overall feedback of a piece, whilst also giving the student the chance to revisit some of the ideas that they might have had in the beginning of their exploration of this piece of music, in a safe exploratory session. In this type of lesson you might offer new unseen ideas, that the student can take home to think about. The freedom of this lesson offers a creative space for idea consolidation or changing, and for considering different approaches that have otherwise at this stage of learning been dismissed.
  4. Concert Simulation - If your students are now at the stage where they are playing pieces through in any kind of high stake situation - be it a concert, a competition, an audition or maybe even a family get together play through for their grandparents. This is the perfect opportunity to have your student get into the mindset of performance, helping them to develop pre performance rituals, and aiding them in dealing with the special problems that only arise under immense pressure.

Perhaps it feels unusual to suggest calculating the style of your lessons, but it can be incredibly helpful to students as it gives them a sense of structure through the clear definition of the goal of the lesson, and at the same time it expands your role as teacher to not just forcing rules, but to teaching them and guiding them through the complete process, from very first experience of a piece, to it’s performance and all of the hurdles that are encountered within those different moments.

The bottom line is that practice should not be viewed as something exterior to the learning process, the self exploration and development of curiosity and self knowledge is arguably the most important part of creation and especially in a field that requires precision in its execution and performance.

If your students are not practicing it is most likely because they do not feel that their musical journey is something that they are in control of, but a journey in which they are a passenger just going along for the ride. Helping your students to realise that the person in the driving seat is in fact them, and always will be them is the most important step to building not only a good teacher-student relationship, but helping create students who are happy, healthy and enthusiastic. And the best part about it is, it will make your life as a teacher so much more fruitful and exciting.

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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