Teaching children how to practise: how and why!

  • Why don’t students like to practise?
  • How can we help them to enjoy practice?

Alas, lots of students don’t like to practise. We all know it. But are we too accepting of this attitude?

Why don’t they like to practise? Why does no amount of pleading, persuading or guilt-tripping seem to do the trick? And, more importantly, why do we rarely take time to wonder why?

I recently found one main reason I had personally overlooked for quite some time. Happily, it was then easy to address: students are rarely taught how to practise. And guess what children do when they don’t know how to do something? They avoid it like the plague.

I started to think about the whole situation from their point of view – learning music can be a pretty confusing process, especially for young beginners. They turn up and play to you for a while, they get some comments and advice, then they’re basically told to go away and ‘make things better’. Here’s the crucial bit: how do they ‘make it better’? Are they taught how to do so?

Imagine a comparable situation, such as learning to read:

  1. Adult and child sit down with a book
  2. Adult reads through said book
  3. Child is sent away and expected to read better by this time next week

Something is not quite right.

There are crucial steps missing. How on earth could I expect them to improve miraculously by next week? This system basically involves hoping for the best and trusting that through long exposure to other people reading, the child will ‘pick it up eventually’.

And you know, it could work – over a very long amount of time and with considerable confusion on the way. There are far better ways to learn. We learn through being taught and shown strategies of learning.

In the case of reading, children might be taught to sound out letters one by one to spell a word (‘c –a – t, cat!). More than this, they’re not just told to ‘sound the letters and make a word’, they have to be shown how to do it. The adult points and spells it out, ‘c-a-t’, and then the child replicates, ‘c-a-t’. Eventually, they learn to use that strategy until they sound things out without being prompted! They have been taught how to solve a problem on their own. ‘E-u-r-e-k-a’!*

*To be fair, that’s a complicated one. They might need some more specific advice to pronounce exceptions. 🙂

A child who has been taught steps to read independently is more likely to want to read than one who has no idea what to do with the book they’ve been given.

A child who knows how to make their pieces sound better is more likely to practise than one who has no idea what to do between lessons.

As soon as I realised this, I started teaching my youngest students how to practise. And something amazing happened. I’m sure you can guess what that was! Here are the two recurring themes I come across when discussing practise with small ones.

1. They hate repetition (it’s boring)
Good practice is not just repeating stuff over and over again. Or at least, effective practice isn’t that. So where does this idea come from? It boils down to just not knowing what to do when they practise, which is really quite a happy state of affairs seeing as we can just tell them what to do, instead. Teach students to have an enquiring mind, to seek out problem areas and rise to the challenge of improving that little note, bar or line. A detective approach is more fun, and definitely more productive, than just playing things through again and again. Teach them powerful practice tips by modelling how you’d work on a part of the music. You might also make a point of asking them to show you a phrase they’ve worked on at the beginning of the next lesson.

Print out a free purposeful practice poster for them – children love sticking posters up, and if they have this one at home they will enjoy picking a strategy to try!

2. It takes ages (they would rather be doing other things)
This ties in nicely with the first point, above. Time passes slowly if you’re repeating something aimlessly, whether that’s reading over a page without taking in what’s going on or whether you’re playing ‘Study in C’ on loop for the tenth time. They need to make targeted, specific goals as they go along: ‘How quickly can I play this scale?’ ‘Can I play this bit in rhythms?’ ‘Can I play that phrase in one breath?’ How do they learn to think in this detective-like way? They see their teacher modelling the process aloud. Work systematically through a tricky passage with them, showing them what you’d do and asking them what else they could try to make the music easier. Teach them (and their parents!) that quality is better than quantity, and that a daily dose is better than a last-minute rush to improve the day before a lesson.

Take a look at the Music Method Practice Journal as a fun way to improve the quality of your students’ practise. It gives them ownership of their progress and keeps them focused!

So I think it boils down to this: teach students how to practise and there’s more chance they’ll do it.

Thanks for reading and supporting Music Method!


3 responses... add one

We finally worked out how to turn the comments on! Woohoo!! The practice poster has been downloaded so it’s good to see people are enjoying this post. Feel free to share your own comments or suggestions on this topic so that we can get a conversation going.

Really interesting article – I agree, teaching students how to practice (and also how they can learn independently away from lessons) is a fantastic idea and often overlooked.

I completely agree that students need “practice ” modeling, because “practice makes perfect” does not actually teach them effective practice. I used to have a booklet with really cool practice stickers that the teacher puts right in the music that give helpful tips for what to do to make the music better. Can’t remember the name of the booklet right now!

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