Why kids don't practice and what to do about it


This article is inspired by two things:

1. A captivating TED talk that addresses the “checklisted child” and the TWO things they need most from their parents.

2. Numerous comments of friends and colleagues about their students’ lack of practice and feeling lost about what to do about it.

Although the TED talk doesn’t speak directly to teachers and what to do about students who don’t practice, I highly recommend you listen to it. Lythcott-Hayms, former dean of freshman at Stanford University, gives a dynamic and enlightening speech that caused me to cheer out loud! I wish I would have heard this as a parent and teacher long ago.

And, the two things she recommends to parents (I won’t spoil it for you—go watch it now!) are two things we can take to heart as teachers.

I encourage you to share the TED talk with your student families! 


Now...on to my point...

In the ideal world, you would like students to:

  • Adore lessons

  • Attend lessons every week

  • Arrive prepared

  • Enjoy adequate parental support between lessons.

In the real world, it’s important to fill in your teaching schedule to make ends meet. This means that some lesson slots or group lessons may be filled with “placeholder students” who “fill in the gaps.” 

Their reasons for enrolling in your studio may not align with your expectations. But, their schedule allows them to slide into an available time slot and you need their tuition payment to keep the lights on and the bills payed.

It’s not ideal but, it’s reality.

You know that what happens between lessons is essential to progress and yet, unfortunately, you have little control over of that time. Especially for those placeholder students--practice may not be a priority.

No wonder why you (all of us teachers) get frustrated!

How can you do your job when students and their families don’t—maybe even can’t—commit to their end of the bargain?

Even though you may try your best to train parents and students in the way they should go, actions like…

  • Attend lessons every week

  • Arrive prepared

  • Receive adequate parental support

…may not be a reality for some students.

Face it, life gets in the way of practice and your best efforts will be thwarted by other things like soccer practice, chess club or even a student’s sibling’s activity!

It’s easy to jump in on the “poor me” band wagon—one of the hottest topics in our social media groups.

Nope, I’m not going there. I won’t be griping about today's kids and their parents. 

Instead, I aim to

  • Identify and describe some profiles of students who don’t practice.

  • Acknowledge the existence of these student families in most studios.

  • Equip you with a mindset and strategies so that you can survive, tolerate and yes, enjoy (!) lessons when teaching students who don’t practice as you’d like.


Profiles of students who don't practice

After-school-activity child

Parents sign their child up for piano as a weekly activity to keep the child busy and “edutained” with little or no regard to commitment of what happens between lessons.

Checklisted child

Music lessons are just one more item to be checked off the list each week as parents believe multiple experiences of exploration will develop a well-rounded child. There is simply no time for the child to practice because every hour is jam-packed or the child is simply too tired to make practice a habit.

Living-the-dream child

Parents see music lessons for their child as a dream come true—an opportunity that they never got themselves. They live through the life of their child and assume he will enjoy lessons as much as they would.

Untapped-potential child

Starting from scratch—where all good piano teachers usually begin—does not always appeal to every student. Some don’t want to be coddled every step of the way. Some want to dig in beyond their ability and thrive by a challenge and won’t practice if assignments seem too easy or aren't related to their interests.

Meh-about-music child

Quite often, early level, beginner music doesn’t hold that much appeal to kids. If there’s no interest in the repertoire they are assigned, practice will be low on the list of priorities.

So what are teachers to do about these students?

Option #1 Enroll only students who meet your practice requirements and fire anyone who doesn’t commit to them. This may be easier to do with a lengthy wait list but, for teachers just starting out or who live in smaller communities, this may mean low enrollment and result in less income.

Option #2 Take note of how placeholder students effect your energy level. Do they energize you or drain you? If you've done your best and given 110% and yet still dread their lesson, it may be time to say good-bye.

Option #3 Come to grips with what reality has dealt you and make lemonade out of lemons. Enjoy the light in students eyes as they walk in the door eager to be with you. See the bigger picture and make an impact on a child’s life despite their commitment issues.

Follow the path of the most productive and happy people you know. By redefining the work you’ve chosen to do as something you get to do. 

-Seth Godin

What can Option #3 look like in your studio?

First things first:

It’s important that you avoid associating your worth or mood as a teacher to your students’ practice and progress.

Regardless of who walks in the door, you are in control of how you react to what students bring to each lesson.

Your happiness cannot be based on what your students do or not do. Happiness is a decision and a skill. Develop it to help you see beyond the wrong notes or the lack of practice. See the bigger picture and at the same time, live in the moment and enjoy the privilege of shaping the young minds sitting on your bench.

Your identity as a teacher is not defined by what your students accomplish between lessons.

Instead…identify yourself as a teacher who

  • Believes there is music in every child

  • Regularly seeks the best for students

  • Subscribes to professional development

  • Develops sound curriculum plans

  • Seeks joy in making music over always mastering it

  • Finds enticing repertoire

  • Generates an environment of exploration

  • Boosts musical imaginations

  • Follows sound business policies

  • Continues to take risks 

  • Takes the unbeaten path

  • Promotes strong practice strategies.

You are one who does your best and provides students a nurturing environment to explore and expand their musicality.

Once you feel secure about your identity, you can prepare for any student who warms your bench.

After-school-activity child

Face it, two working parents or a single parent may be looking to book their kids with activities after school so they can run their errands after work.

Consider these ideas:

1. Challenge yourself to build lesson plans based on what happened at the last lesson and move forward—even in incremental steps! With your engaging teaching style, the child will want to return because they’ll be eager to see what you’ve come up with next.

2. Use lesson time to your advantage:

  • Focus on whole-body activities that involve movement off the bench.

  • Play games to reinforce a concept. When you gamify, you solidify!

  • Followup the off-bench learning with repertoire that includes the same concepts.

  • Make how to practice an essential part of your lesson plans and let them experience first hand how practice (hard work) makes a difference.

Learn about three principles for practice here.

Encourage students to pack a practice pouch as described here.

Demonstrate what science says about practice in lessons by learning more here.

3. Offer two tracks in your studio and encourage a student with minimal home practice to enroll in group lessons. Call it a “recreational track” where students have fun and learn and where practice is preferred but not required. Students who practice more, could be part of the “challenge track” or any name you prefer, that requires a certain amount of practice.

Your “after school care piano lesson program” could rock and generate substantial income as well as serve as a feeder to your “more serious” studio.

If you need the income and can’t afford to be choosy about your students, be open to more fun, less progress and an "edutainment" frame of mind. The impact you have on a child in this setting may reach far beyond anything you could imagine!

4. Revisit what a studio recital looks like. Perhaps a recital would look more like a jam session or a casual gathering around the piano at a student home or a coffee shop rather than a staged and formal event.

Checklisted child

These children may be a perfect fit for the informal group situation described above. However, some may be wanting to move forward more quickly because they like piano but are feeling stuck and frustrated because their schedules won’t allow more home practice.

Consider an on/off bench format where the child comes for 30 minutes on the bench with you and another 30 min off the bench with a keyboard and headphones where the time is spent mostly on practicing assignments with effective strategies.

In addition, provide atomic-sized assignments and them keep them to a minimum. Design "sliced-apple" assignments that are achievable by the next lesson.

Learn more about how important achievable assignments are here.

Develop lesson plans using the Piano Teacher Planning Kit.

Read more about developing Off Bench time here.

Regardless of the amount of practice, review what was covered the week before AND add something new beyond the last week’s assignment. Letting an assignment stagnate until it is practiced only serves as punishment. You can bet that it won’t be practiced!

Start from scratch—every day.

- Robert Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching

Once students see that they can find time to succeed at bite-sized assignments, they may take the initiative to carve out more time because they’ll like the results. 

Once the practice kicks in, they make progress and progress prompts motivation. Once students fall into this loop, they can get hooked for good!


Living-the-dream child

Build a relationship with the child and talk about his interests. Dedicate time finding the music he likes. Also, be an advocate for the child. If he’s too busy and seems stressed and unhappy, approach the parent. It’s better to check in with the child’s well-being and stop lessons than "use" the student to pacify a parent’s dream or to fill a vacant lesson slot.

Untapped-potential child and meh-about-music child

It’s easy to assume that if a student appears bored, it’s time to pull out some fun. Dig a little deeper and talk honestly with her. It may be that she wants a challenge. Ask her to create a wish list of pieces, find one that is above her present level and break it up into small parts so that she can succeed.

[One of my students discovered Japanese anime music, downloaded free, difficult and crazy looking arrangements. Despite the poor notation, her sight reading skills sky-rocketed and her zest for piano was reborn.]

Or, maybe she wants to be a song writer, an accompanist, a composer or play in a band. If so, it's important that you have options to develop these important skills. Here are some resources to consider.

50 Ways to Make a Melody

Put a Twist on Twinkle

Be Cool and Play the Blues

Rote Repertoire by Samantha Coates

How to Prep the Worship Team Pianist

Improvisation resources by Forrest Kinney

Improvisation resources by Bradley Sowash

Even in small increments, sometimes it’s necessary to place her ambitions over your comfort zone or even your best pedagogy. In the end, things will begin to balance out and she’ll see the need for remedial work on the basics and she'll be proud of her progress.

What will motivate?

A few more things to consider when teaching students who don't practice much: Studies show (read more here) that there are 5 things that teachers can do to trigger motivation:

  • Build relationships— you have a huge impact on your students’ lives, consider every time they arrive for lessons a privilege. 

  • Provide choices—let them drive the direction of repertoire and style within your carefully crafted parameters. And, be open to a wide variety of repertoire and creative options.

  • Rethink incentives—reward progress over practice time.

  • Shape a growth mindset—avoid the word "talent" and celebrate dedicated, hard work, instead.

  • Relate content—guide students to see that the stuff they learn in lessons is connected to their world outside of lessons and will last a lifetime.

There’s a difference between getting kids to do what you want and truly, deeply motivating them.

-Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy

Final thoughts

Years ago, I read the book Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. I thought it would revolutionize the way I parent but I believe it made a bigger impact on the way I teach.

The book helped me realize that I can equip students to do their best but, I don’t own their progress. It’s not mine, it’s theirs. It’s my job to give them the practice tools, the repertoire, the best guidance I can possibly offer and they are in control of how they will receive what I give.

So much is out of your hands. The actions of your students or parents (or lack of actions) do NOT define who YOU are.

You are a passionate professional that takes pride in a rock-solid studio built on your passion for teaching and making music. 

Know that you are making a difference if a student practices, or not. Who else sees a child one-on-one or in a small group more than YOU? Who else is exploring the world of music with a child more than you?

Think of all the lives you are touching with the wonderful gift of music. Think of the work ethic you are ingraining in students as they see the discipline it takes to make progress as a musician. Consider this quote from a post by James Clear, author of one of my favorite books: Atomic Habits.

Goals [like having only students who practice regularly] create an “either-or” conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment. You mentally box yourself into a narrow version of happiness. This is misguided. It is unlikely that your actual path through life will match the exact journey you had in mind when you set out. It makes no sense to restrict your satisfaction to one scenario when there are many paths to success.

-James Clear, Atomic Habits

The big take aways….

  • You DON’T OWN your students’ practice OR their progress.

  • You DO OWN your actions in guiding your students on their musical journey.

And, according to Julie Lythcott-Haims, remember the two most important things you can give your students:


  • Unconditional love--even if they don’t practice.

  • Chores--even if those chores—like practice—are only accomplished at the lesson, you are instilling discipline and skills they'll use for a lifetime.

All the best to you and your students,