If there’s one thing you need to teach your students, it’s how to practice.
They could make music without reading. They could get by without ever writing anything down. They could even (probably) figure out how to not injure themselves with poor technique. But if they don’t know how to practice, they’re definitely not going to realise their potential as a pianist.
I have written a lot about teaching piano practice and have had many discussions with many teachers about it. Over time, I’ve come to believe that it’s best thought of in 2 distinct stages. Not because it divides so neatly in reality, but because it will help you to teach it more effectively if you think about practice in this layered fashion.
The first thing you need to help your students with is cultivating a practice routine. If your student is young (let’s say 10 and under), 90% of this is about parent education.
I know how difficult and confrontational this can feel as a young or inexperienced teacher. But the first thing you need to do with all new piano parents is to teach them these 4 things:
I recommend you have a meeting with all new piano parents before their child begins lessons so that you can (among other things) explain how practice works and their role in it. Alongside this, you will need to have a discussion with them about the home practice environment and make sure they have a suitable instrument, bench and footstool for their child.
After this first meeting, your job teaching the parents is not over. You should consider the parent to be your student too for the first 6 months (at least.) Regularly check with them to see how practice is going and how you can support them in establishing the routine.
The parents should see you as a helper and guide, not as a practice warden. The more regularly you check in with them about practice, the less it will feel like a reprimand or guilt-trip when you do – so don’t be shy!
The second layer of the practice equation is the how. What are your students actually doing during that carefully established practice time? Is it getting them results?
Once your student is beyond the beginning stages, you need to provide them with specific guidance and strategies for their practice time. You should be explicit about the exact steps they should take when they’re working on a piece to avoid them simply filling the time with mindless run-throughs.
A great teacher will go even further. They won’t just give their students directions for practising. They will actually walk their student through the exact steps they need to do during the week. This leaves no room for doubt or error when your student goes home to work on a piece or exercise.
The basic structure echoes that old advice many of us were given in English class: “Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said.” In a piano lesson, here’s how that looks:
Don’t expect instant results when you work on practice strategies with your students. Some students will immediately follow your advice but others will take a bit of time. Just keep practising practice and, I promise you, it will sink in.
When it comes to preparing students to perform at a specific event – be that a recital, exam or party – teachers should take steps to ensure they are mentally ready.
Performing is about more than just knowing your pieces well. To give a great performance and receive the rush of pride that goes along with that, your students need strategies to deal with their nerves. The most empowering solution is two-pronged:
Even young students can benefit from a brief discussion about how they might feel when they go to perform. Talk to your students about how their heart will beat faster and they may have butterflies in their tummy. (I wouldn’t recommend bringing up shaky hands or thought-distortions unless you notice your student has a specific problem with these things. We don’t want to send the message that they should feel under pressure when they are not!)
One of the most important things you can do to help your students with these symptoms of performance anxiety is to provide practice opportunities. Do trial runs within your studio which simulate the performance environment. If they’re going in for an exam, do mock exams with you as the examiner. If they’ll be playing in a concert, have them sit on the other side of the room and walk to and from the piano to practise announcing the piece, playing, bowing, etc.
It’s not about not feeling nervous. Your goal should be to help your students understand their nerves and use the adrenaline to their advantage.
Try one of these Practice Plays in your own practice session with any piece. Make some notes in your Music Journey Journal about how it went, and then ask a question about this lesson in the community.