Encouraging Music Students to Practice
Common Excuses and Complaints from Students and How to Address Them
By NAfME Member Nancy Vanderslice
Summer’s over, and the students are coming back to the classroom and the private studio for lessons and, in many cases, to remember how to play.
As a private oboe teacher for nearly 40 years, I think I have heard every excuse and complaint in the book, and I wanted to share the excuses I hear most often—and how I work with the students in order never to hear them again.
1. I don’t know how to play it.
Often a student will come to their lesson with band music or a solo they have to know by a certain date. The deer-in-headlights look I get with some pieces is so common. So the first thing I do is look it over and see if I can recognize the spots that are stumping them. It is almost always a rhythmic pattern. What I have learned in all of those years is that students need to spend more time on rhythm on their own to learn how to break down the patterns. I remember practicing jazz band music without even playing, and often that’s what we do in lessons. Adding the notes is relatively easy once they gain some confidence with the rhythm.
Less often it is notes. When it is notes, they may believe they have to practice it at the speed that they played it in band or heard on a recording. I have Rule #1 in my studio: No wrong notes. This isn’t to give them anxiety attacks, but instead to remind them that careful practice begins with working at a speed with which they are confident. I understand many educators don’t focus on note perfection, but I believe students gain a certain amount of confidence with being able to play something consistently well, even at a slow speed.
2. I don’t have time to practice.
I hear this one more than I would like to, and, I’ll be honest, I don’t always think it’s the student’s fault. They have so much going on with school activities, homework, and anything extracurricular. It can be frustrating for me to work on the same etude or solo for weeks on end with no progress. So, for very selfish reasons, I talk to the parents and ask them to help me set a schedule. Honestly, 30 minutes a day would be enough for many students, but it just isn’t realistic. So between parents and student, we devise a plan that is manageable, like 30 minutes / 3 days a week and one extra day for as long as they can. Students who work the practice into their life with support are likely to do it without being asked. I’m certainly not saying this works with everyone but it is well worth a try. I have seen students who I didn’t believe would improve start making great strides when they began to hear and see improvement for themselves, not to mention getting encouragement from their parents.
The other things that are worth trying, especially when talking to parents, are setting a regular time to practice and setting a timer. Students who don’t want to practice won’t, but students who need help managing time may begin to take the initiative after a few months.
3. I don’t like to practice.
Honesty is refreshing . . . sometimes.
Most students won’t share this information, but for the ones who do I always attempt to get more details. I have found that most students don’t like to practice because they don’t know how to practice. So we start with the basics like setting a time of day and an amount of time to practice. Then we do some basic detective work to find out what is most frustrating and also what the student is good at.
Making a game out of practice is a great place to start for just about any age student. I use the penny game: five pennies and a coaster. Pick a small short section of music (a measure or two is a good size) that is causing problems. Each time they play it correctly, put a penny in, and each time it’s wrong, take the penny out. All five pennies in the coaster wins the game. It is rare that I have a student not win this game when we play it in a lesson. Sometimes you can even get them interested in improving their metronome use with this one!
The basic skill of troubleshooting will help a student become efficient at practicing. And when they learn better practice habits, they are more likely to improve and understand the value of that practice time.
4. Words that fail.
When I became a life coach several years ago, the study of how to help people change their lives started with the words that they used. These are a few words and similar phrases that come up in both areas for me.
- I always play that wrong. I bet all of you have heard this one! In my experience, a student who says “always” when it is used in a negative way has given themselves permission to fail. This one is a matter of awareness. They have to know they are doing it, and then they can begin to eliminate the word from the negative comment.
- I’m trying but I can’t do it. This isn’t “always” a statement that holds a student back, but it tends to not move them forward if it is a constant. I will ask the student questions about the particular passage, even sharing a story about something that I didn’t think I could ever do and now I can. Some students pay more attention to others’ abilities than they do to their own progress, which of course makes them feel like they will never get there. Sometimes I will go back to a piece I know they had struggled with and now can play to remind them that being challenged isn’t to show what they can’t do but to show them that they are ready to grow and level up their own set point. This pep talk doesn’t work with every student, but it won’t stop me from “trying”!
- I can’t play it that fast. A student walked into my studio recently with a piece he had to know for the last concert of the year. He was in a panic because he couldn’t get the tempo up to speed. The first thing we did was slow it way down and check everything. Then with several practice techniques, like grouping notes and changing rhythms, the student improved his own confidence right alongside working up the tempo. Most of the time, students know these techniques because we have done them many times. However, panic has a tendency to make the mind go blank.
- The word “can’t”. I do encourage students to let go of this word. It isn’t useful at any age in any field of study. My grandmother used to say, “Can’t means won’t.”
- What if I mess up? We all are familiar with students who are so afraid to play because they might play a wrong note, come in wrong or worse, and the consequences. I think one of the hardest things to help students with is overcoming peer pressure. Not being a band director, I can’t help them with what will happen at school, but I can help them gain some confidence in their abilities in my studio. Playing duets and participating in recitals with other students who are supportive is a huge help. I am very lucky to have a wonderful group of students in that way.
These are just a few of my personal experiences, and I would love to hear from you on your experiences and advice on helping students grow in ability, but especially in confidence. The need for things to be perfect is starting to take away the experience of enjoying music and playing in ensembles. The magic that can be created by a band, choir, or orchestra is priceless and can last a lifetime.
Please share with me and others common things you hear from your students and ways that you address them. You can email me your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org, and it may appear in an upcoming book!
About the author:
NAfME Associate Member Nancy Vanderslice has been a professional oboist and private instructor in northern New Jersey for the last 25 years. Along with a steady freelancing schedule, she is principle oboe with Plainfield Symphony Orchestra, is a sub for Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and an adjunct Gen Ed music professor at Montclair State University.
She is also a Transitions Life Coach and is in the process of writing a book addressing the importance of music, confidence, and decision-making in choosing the right path in life at any age.