Music teachers frequently tell me about their biggest frustration. For many, it’s students who don’t practice. I can sympathize. In my early years as a teacher, I asked my guitar professor how to get students to practice. “Pay them,” he answered.
I laughed but he was only partly joking. In a few contexts, a student could be compensated monetarily; for example, through a music scholarship in a conservatory or university music school. Freelance music teachers could consider giving diligent students a lesson discount.
In most cases, however, you’re not going to literally pay your students to make music. So how do you get them to practice?
1. Provide Performance Opportunities – One of the chief joys of making music is sharing it with others. If you provide your student with frequent opportunities to make music in front of an audience, it is likely to spark their motivation to practice. You will need to help them overcome performance anxiety and see each performance as a safe and joyful time.
2. Lead by Example – A mother reportedly asked Ghandi to tell her son not to eat meat. “Come back in two weeks,” replied Ghandi. When the mother brought her son back in two weeks, Ghandi looked at the young man and said, “Don’t eat meat!” The mother asked, “Why couldn’t you say that two weeks ago?” Ghandi answered, “Because that week I had eaten meat.” I don’t know whether that story is true, but it illustrates an important point: You will be more effective in getting your students to practice consistently if you are practicing consistently yourself.
3. Get to Know Each Student’s Motivations – Individual students differ in what motivates them. What inspires one student may bore another. Experiment with various approaches to find what works for each person.
4. Encouraging Ensemble Playing – If you are teaching private lessons, your students may feel isolated and demotivated if they don’t play in ensembles. There are both musical and social benefits of playing alongside others. Large ensemble experiences and small chamber music groups each have their own advantages.
5. Inspire Them with Great Music. – Point to musicians who are models of excellence. While it’s important for you to be an example for your students, you should also encourage students to listen to the greatest musicians in the world. Highlight musicians who inspire you, and encourage your students to emulate them. Students may not appreciate everyone you mention, but over time they will develop a large number of role models from which to choose.
6. Catch Students Doing Things Right – It is easy to get frustrated with students for not practicing. But it’s usually better to praise them when they do practice than to constantly criticize them when they don’t. Any negative comment about their lack of practice should be balanced with several encouraging comments about things they are doing well.
7. Involve Parents – This is very important for young students. But parents don’t always know how to help their children practice. As the teacher, you need to educate parents on how to encourage their children. When I was a child, the best practice motivation was my mom saying: “I want to hear you play.” She said that to me almost every day. At first, my playing did not sound great, but she still communicated that she enjoyed having me make music in the room with her. This was a huge reason I stayed in music lessons. If parents say “You must practice or else!” or “Go up to your room and practice where you don’t annoy the rest of the family!” or “You can’t practice until you finish all your homework and chores!”, they may shut down the child’s motivation. After that, it may be hard to reignite the child’s interest in music.
Some parents tell the teacher that the most important thing is for their child to have a good experience in lessons. And this is important. But if a child is having fun in lessons without learning anything, I think both parents and teachers should expect more. Students who practice, play better. As they play better, they enjoy making music more. As a result, they want to practice more. This becomes a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement that may result in a lifelong love of music. And that is a good experience.
8. Create a Practice Schedule – Some students benefit from planning exact times to practice each day. If practicing becomes a habit, the student will do it automatically without having to exert willpower. Working out a schedule with parents of younger students can be especially helpful.
9. Request a Practice Report – Asking students to give a practice report to the teacher each week may provide motivation. You can set a goal for practice time and possibly define a reward for students who meet the goal.
10. Define Outcomes – Just logging time spent with the instrument is not enough. We want our students to get results. If you clearly define measureable results you want to see in the next lesson, the student is more likely to achieve them.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for getting students to practice, experimenting with the above approaches will help you find a motivation that works well for each student. You will be happier, and so will your students.
Question: How do you motivate your students to practice? You can leave a comment by clicking here.