Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Practical Solutions for Effective Home Music Making

One of my greatest joys and biggest challenges during lessons (aside from squeezing 3-5 pieces of music, music theory, duet playing, and personal connection into 30 or 45 minutes), is teaching my students effective ways to learn their music when I'm not there.

This task changes over time, since the brains of my students are constantly learning and evolving. Maturity levels change, thus the ability to self assess changes. Effective practice at home is essential and elusive, particularly for parents who haven't taken music lessons themselves. What is a child supposed to do when they sit at the piano anyway?

When I talk about practice in lessons, I always talk about specific goals and rarely about repetition. Rote repetition (playing each piece x number of times) is only minimally effective. What I'm really trying to teach students to do when I ask them to achieve specific goals is accurate looking and listening. I want them to hear their playing the way I hear it. I want them to see their technique the way I see it. I want them to compare the way they perform a section of music to my playing and to other musical exposure. This is a process which takes time, mental focus, and emerging maturity.

Elementary Students

Effective home practice is a tough but achievable task for this age group and for their parents for several reasons. Elementary children have the lowest ability to self assess (ie. hear what their teacher is hearing), the least ability to multi-task (ie. play steady quarter notes while playing loud while playing with tall knuckles), and the lowest level of inhibition. For this reason, supervision is essential to optimal progress, and FUN is equally essential!

The Challenge: Students in this age group tend to learn the notes and call it good enough, not because they aren't hard working, but because they sometimes lack self assessment skills and multi-tasking skills. More than once, a student has told me how "easy" a piece is, only to play it with incorrect rhythm, no variation in volume, and poor technique.


1) Practice step by step. For short method book pieces use day one to learn the notes, day two to work on rhythm, day three to work on technique and details, day four to work on expressiveness, and day five to put all the steps together. Longer pieces may require as much as a week for each step. This will reduce the amount of multi-tasking by allowing them to build skills on top of one another.

2) Use games to get through tough passages. Try using a Mr. Potato Head doll and adding a piece every time a student plays a passage correctly. Try moving a quarter from one side of the piano to the other each time a passage is played perfectly. If a student does the passage perfectly three times in a row, they get to keep the quarters!

Let them practice their rhythm on pots and pans. Download a metronome app that uses duck quacks instead of ticks to keep time. Ask them to count out loud in their best pirate voice or granny voice. Then try not to die laughing.

3) Let them record themselves often. They will notice wrong notes right away, but encourage them to listen for their other goals as well.

4) Help them remember to work on the goals I've set for the week. If it's written in their notebook or on their practice sheet, it's important!

Advancing Students

Finding time for music is a huge factor in the lives of most middle and high school students. There are so many enriching activities to take part in that many students arrive at lessons looking a little "deer in the headlights." While the level of time each student can commit to lessons is changed by a number of factors (and not every student has the time or desire to play at an advanced level), parents must realize that the amount of skill and level of enjoyment a student will achieve at any task is directly affected by the amount of time they have to dedicate to it. The less time a student can dedicate to a task, the less proficient they feel, and the less proficient they feel the more discouraged they become and the more likely they are to give up.

The Challenge: Students in this age group have advancing abilities to self-assess and can often make stunningly beautiful music. More than once, I've had tears in my eyes listening to pieces played by these students! As emotional maturity grows and exposure to the world increases, students have emerging resources for expression. As a result, they are often in a big hurry to hear that end result and may rush technical detail work to get to the fun stuff ... ie. playing the piece up to tempo!


1) Help students prioritize and discuss their goals. If their goal is to be a proficient hobbyist, what kind of work is needed? If they want to study music in college, how does the picture change? Can they play volleyball, soccer, and basketball, take dance classes, study the violin, and study the piano and be really effective at all of these things? Becoming proficient hobby pianists is well within the ability of most students with a reasonable amount of effort while leaving time for other activities. Help them carve out scheduled time to work toward these goals on practical levels.

2) Remind them take their time. If you hear them playing a piece up to tempo in the first two weeks, they are generally missing the details. Slow practice is a mantra they will hear over and over, and you can help me drive them crazy at home too.

3) Offer frustration busters! Remind them to "practice around the problem." (They hear it all the time from me!) Break a piece into sections and have them name each one (football teams are a popular choice) and remind them to practice just the "Sea Hawks" or the "sock drawer" for maximum effectiveness. Slowing down always helps. I've often given specific strategies in my notes they may need to be reminded to try.

4) Technique to the forefront. Most students with a few years of experience will read music well, intuitively understand rhythm, and move into a new era of practice where body technique is essential to progress and to prevent later injury. Many of my practice goals will include technical components, including scales, arpeggios, hand and arm position, etc. While your student may not welcome daily reminders, the occasional check-in in the form of expressing interest in what my notes mean may be called for.

4) Encourage them to record their playing.  Recording and assessing continues to be a great tool for this age group. It eases self-consciousness and aids in self assessment. Some find posting videos of their playing very exciting and rewarding.

I hope these few tips help you have a better idea what your student is called on to do at the piano on a daily basis. I'm always happy to discuss ways to help!

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