Practice Notes…Dispensable? Rethinking Practice Notes
When students finish a lesson, there's no guarantee what kind of practice will happen at home. Although we'd love to be in control of every practice minute, that's not reality. Instead of focusing on what's impossible, it's important that we teachers focus on what we CAN do to encourage the right kind of practice at home that will ignite progress between lessons. When students see themselves make progress, they want to come back for more. Read more about the impact of progress on motivation in this past post. Below is a guest post by Roberta Wolff that offers spot-on tips and practical maxims for teacher practice notes and student practice. Roberta includes detailed information on her excellent resources that reinforce successful practice habits and is offering a special coupon for all 88PianoKeys.me readers.
Ms. Wolff has brilliant advice and I'm so thankful that she took the time to share it with us!
To me, practice, or assignment, sheets are a vital tool in helping students sustain effort between lessons. Not because we expect a student’s work to be under par but rather in acknowledgement of the fact that practice can be a challenge, and one that requires a healthy dose of zeal and determination.
I am a UK-based piano teacher and for the last four years I have been researching how students learn and practice with particular emphasis on developing resources and ideas to support students and teachers.
My priorities have been:
- Teaching students how to be more efficient during their practice, including motivating students to practice regularly, musically and creatively with a healthy dose of fun.
- Creating resources which streamline the teachers work, including making notes clearer and easier to write, reducing planning time between lessons and educating parents and students on the art of practice.
This article will be useful to you if you are looking for:
- Tips to help your students practice.
- Ideas which you can incorporate in your own assignment sheets.
- New downloadable resources, be sure to use the coupon code below.
- Free downloads.
This article is written in two halves:
- A summary of my research
- A summary of the resources I have developed as a result.
Part 1: Practice Maxims for our Students
Do something piano related every day. Quality is more important than quantity. Expect challenges, it is how you deal with then that counts - embrace them!
Maxim 1: Do something piano related every day.
To help students practice daily we need to address three areas.
By spending time talking with our students we can slowly begin to influence their mindset.
For example: teach your student to be wary of asking
“Will I have time to practice today?”
This invites a response that could be “yes, I do” or “no, I don’t” and we don’t want to make that last one an option. Rather, they should ask
“When will I practice today?”
This encourages the student, or in the case of a young student, their parent, to immediately begin finding ways to incorporate piano into their day.
However, no matter how good the mindset of a student if they have a busy day and just don’t know where to start, then the chances of practice are not great.
This is where preparation comes in.
To help my students I developed Music Me Piano Practice Pages – recommended for grades 1-4. (To read more about this resource please scroll down to Part 2.)
I don’t just rely on my practice notes though. I also arm students with alternative ways of practicing if they are likely to be on the move or hanging around whilst a sibling does a club.
Some of my favourites are:
- theory sheets
- keyboards on which to write out scales
- listening tasks
- rhythm work
- analysing chords.
By giving students a clear starting point for their daily practice we are removing one of the possible blocks, that is:
"I don’t know where to begin?"
Students can be disarmingly observant so it is important to make sure we are not unconsciously sending opposing messages. We all hope students will practice every day but do we really expect it. Do we hold ourselves to the same standards? Do we practice every day? Talking about our own practice experiences can be a wonderful way to connect with a student. We can also gently lay healthy expectations on our students,
“If you want to get good at this you need to play in some way every day, I expect it and so should you. I am here to help you find productive ways to achieve daily practice. Some days you won’t want to stop playing, other days it may be hard to get going, but nothing worth having comes without effort and the joy of piano is worth the effort.”
Even the shortest practice session is better than nothing.
It is a huge advantage to our students if the habit of going to the piano every day is formed early on. Teaching my students to manage their practice organisation has been a valuable time saver in my studio. So much so that we now have more time each term to fulfil a greater variety of musical projects.
Maxim 2: Quality is more important than quantity
Students are busier these days and piano is often just one of the many clubs that fill their days. For this reason, it is to our advantage to teach students how to use their time efficiently. This includes:
- Linking and integrating their learning.
- Learning how to break down their work, in a musical way, into manageable chunks.
- Learning how to pick the practice techniques which give the best results.
In teaching quality above quantity, it is very useful to use each lesson in a way which diminishes the difference between lesson time and practice time.
Investing in guided practice during lesson time is a great way of putting your student in the right mindset to continue the work at home. It can take a little practice because teachers need to model patience and calm whilst gently nudging students towards picking great practice techniques. Building some leeway into lesson plans allows teachers to make the most of guided practice in lesson time.
Another useful tip is to ask the student to practice shorter sections of a piece but to provide them with a greater variety of practice techniques to use. So instead of working on 1 page of music in their own way, rather just work on half a page and…
- Work out (analyse) and then play the left-hand chords.
- Improvise your own piece using the left-hand chord progression.
- Play the scale of the piece.
- Accompany the scale with the left-hand chords.
- Clap the rhythm of the melody with dynamics.
- Write a rhythm of your own in the same time signature as your piece.
- Clap the rhythm whilst playing the left-hand chords.
- Sing the melody, take breaths according to phrasing.
- Listen to a YouTube recording and follow the score, how consistent was the phrasing and dynamics carried out by that pianist?
…the possibilities are endless and can be tailored to an individual students weak or strong area.
I have developed a variety of fun resources to help students improve the quality of their practice.
- Music.Alley the Game - recommended for grades 1-3
- My Practice Palette – recommended for grades 4-8
- Practice Time – recommended for grades 3-6
- Beginner Practice Sheets
Maxim 3: Expect challenges, it is how you deal with them that counts - embrace them!
Finally, let’s be honest, piano practice will rarely be the easy option, students will find many distractions that are far easier to spend/waste their time on. Choosing to practice every day and making the choices required for quality requires considerable resilience. As we all know it is often easier to play the part you know, stumble a bit and then be called for dinner.
Teachers can pre-empt practice frustrations and build in resilience, by opening the topic up to discussion. For example:
What practice technique will you use to help you with the co-ordination between right and left hands here?
How long do you expect before you hear results? What if the results don’t come, what will you do then?
Do you have another practice technique up your sleeve?
What will you do if you just don’t feel like practicing one day? What can you do to get yourself to the piano?
How will you react when practice gets tough? (because it gets tough for everyone at some point)
What can you do to keep persevering and to keep up your stamina?
Additionally, small regular comments from a teacher or parent can go a long way to helping students feel good about choosing the slightly more challenging task of practice over other distractions. For example,
“Wow, you must feel so proud of yourself you made time for piano today by…coming home early from your friend’s house; switching off the X-box 10 minutes early…(etc)”
“I really respect the dedication you are showing to piano practice.”
“Tell me about one occasion when you struggled in piano practice this week and how you overcame it”. “What did you learn from this?”
"What was your star practice technique of the week, maybe I can suggest it to some other students?"
In this way, we empower students to embrace the challenge of piano and they develop a unique and worthwhile skill.
The resource My Practice Palette teaches students all about practice techniques, practice strategies, metacognition and mindset.
Get Some Sleep
Did you know that the benefits of piano practice continue to accumulate after you have stopped practicing? The brain chugs away in the background consolidating the experiences it has just had. By taking a short period of wakeful rest after practice sessions students maximise their retention. This seems to me like achievement for nothing, 10-15 minutes of downtime is enough.
So, a practice session before bed time can be extra beneficial. Get your students to give it a go, there is nothing to lose. There is a catch though, no devices during wakeful rest. Whilst you don’t have to consciously go through the practice session you should not be distracted by screens. The brain needs to be free to ‘wander’.
Ask the Student
The other practice hack: consult the student when deciding on what is achievable in one week. As well as being very insightful, you get to hear exactly where they feel they stand, this ensures practice notes are not simply a list of overwhelming demands.
Practice notes should not be daunting to the student, or the student won't read them, they should not be dictatorial, this does not encourage the student to think for themselves. To make practice notes truly useful to the student aim to make them a reminder of what was mutually agreed upon in the lesson and a continuation of the lesson.
I loved practising when I was a child, I still do. Over the years, my students have taught me that they don't all feel the same! For me it has been important to take time to get to know how each of my students feels about practice. In doing so I am able to help them face their individual challenges and put in place strategies to keep them at the piano when frustration is pushing them away.
The real learning begins when practice becomes challenging and my notes are a small way in which I can help students stick with it at this point.
“TALENT x EFFORT = SKILL and then… SKILL x EFFORT = ACHIEVEMENT. Effort counts twice” -Angela Duckworth (learn more about Duckworth's findings on grit and practice here.)
You will find a host of free resources and articles at my site, including a Performance Success Criteria Worksheet, Practice Tracker, Initiating Practice Project, Sight-reading cards, Broken chord sheets, Keyboards, Manuscript and Cycle of 5ths at my site.
The resources work with any style of teaching. I use the British 8-grade system. Grades 1-3 are foundation, Grades 4-5 are intermediate and Grades 6-7 are advanced. Keep reading to learn more about them.
To access any of the resources mentioned please visit www.musicmepiano.co.uk
Use the coupon 88Keys20 to receive a 20% discount in the store.
Part 2: Summary of Resources
Music Me Piano Practice Pages – recommended for grades 1-4
This resource helps to organise practice and integrate and link learning. It was designed with clarity in mind. There is one structured practice page per week and extra sheets of manuscript, keyboards, repertoire logs, rhythms and cycle of 5ths.
Parents love this resource because for each area of practice there is a grid, M, T, W, Th, F, S, S. The teacher simply draws a triangle on the days she wants each written out practice task to be done. At a glance students and parents can see what needs to be done each day. Once the work is complete the student can countersign by drawing an upside-down triangle above the teacher’s triangle, this makes a 6-point star, by the end of the week the practice sheet is littered with stars.
Concerned this sounds too prescriptive? Consider this, by spending a few moments at the end of each practice session marking out daily practice, teachers can show students how to link their learning. Thus, teaching efficient use of time.
For example, a scale could be practiced on Monday (shown by a triangle above M in the scale box), written out as part of theory on Tuesday (shown as a triangle above T in the theory box) and used in an improvisation on Wednesday (shown as a triangle above W in the musicianship box). Instead of simply playing the scale for three days in a row, and possibly switching off, the student can understand and use a single scale in 3 different ways. The learning is deeper and longer lasting, and students build long-term practice skills.
There is another huge benefit which I have found as a teacher. This resource encourages the teacher to look over their practice notes. This promotes further thought. Sometimes, because I am human, I forget to create links in my students practice or I notice that I can enrich practice by broadening my requirements. I involve the student in this process by asking them to suggest a link. This really sparks the practice imagination and teaches students how to make the most of their time at the piano.
You can also include a 'next week' box (where follow-up reminders can be written) in your practice sheets. I use it in this resource and it really helps student and teacher.
Music Alley the Game - recommended for grades 1-3
This was such fun to create. The aim was to produce a resource which teaches children how to undertake varied practice, where equal emphasis is given to: pitch; rhythm; expression; technique; understanding structure, keys and chords; the story behind the music and performance. Great quality, musical work is inspired at every stage.
With this game, as well as learning to practice efficiently and musically, practice is no longer a solo mission thanks to the 6 music friends who are the characters of the game. The aim is to carry out certain practice tasks to free each of the music friends. The friends long to soar free, making lovely music and they need a dedicated musical detective to help them. This game sparks the student’s imagination and makes practice into a game. One game sheet per piece, each sheet can last for several weeks depending on the student.
My Practice Palette – recommended for grades 4-8
The aim was to produce a totally unique resource directed at educating intermediate and advanced students in practice techniques, (the booklet can be shared electronically with parents and students) This resource also provides assignment sheets which support students as they put these enhanced techniques into practice. For the benefit of teachers, this resource makes it easy to track the work of each student over the course of a piece. Ensuring that for each piece the student has considered the composer, undertaken background research and analysis, considered playing techniques, communication, pitch, rhythm and eventual performance and memorisation.
These assignment sheets are designed to contain core practice steps. The teacher is released from writing the majority of the practice notes and the student can choose what and how they practice, from one session to the next, depending on their mood or interest. Every step will eventually be covered. Colour is used to log the work the student does. The practice steps are carefully crafted to include work on everything I mentioned above as well as integrating improvisation. One piece is used per practice palette and teachers can expect a single palette to last up to 4 weeks
Teachers can work through the practice palette with their student during lesson time, thus devoting some lesson time to guided practice. This is the most efficient way of influencing the practice your student does between lessons because at every stage you can model and teach a great quality approach.
Teachers can also ask the student to work through their palette at home. My Practice Palette also works well if you wish to set a project over the holidays.
My Practice Palette Lite offers a mini version if you prefer to try out some sample sheets before investing in the full version.
Practice Time – recommended for grades 3-6 This resource was created to support students as they develop their practice skills moving into the intermediate grades. There is one structured practice page per week and it includes manuscript, cycle of 5ths, keyboards, space for the teacher to make notes, space for students’ questions, check boxes and a few creative, progressive practice tips down the right side of the page to help the student get on a path to quality practice and to prevent a cycle where each practice session starts in the same way.
Beginner Practice Sheets – recommended during the tutor book stage to the Prep Test (pre-grade 1) The aim here was to set young children on the path to good practice from the very beginning. The sheets are large and colourful and help children to separate the practice of pitch and rhythm while always considering a musical approach. The sheets require interaction from the student. There is space to draw emojis to describe how they felt about each area of practice. There is also a checklist of all things musical with dots by each point. As each point is completed the student links up the dots, they now look like two quavers = musical work.
Use the coupon 88Keys20 to receive a 20% discount in the store.
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