As most of you know, I’m the “happy conductor” of the piano practice train. I spend a good deal of my life (okay… way too much) composing music that makes students want to practice, creating games that make it easier for them to practice, and finding materials that teach them how to practice… phew!
So when one of my sweet, young piano students didn’t touch her piano for two whole weeks, my ego was a bit bruised. This never happens… what have I done!?
The piano teacher in me took over first. I did an overhaul of her repertoire, I re-organized her binder to remove any distractions, I set up a practice plan, I sent her home with some fun practice activities, and I boosted her confidence as high as I could. She bounced out the door with promises to practice.
But it didn’t happen. For a third week in a row she looked at me sheepishly and made an excuse about how busy she had been. Clearly something was up.
If you’re nodding and thinking “That sounds just like <insert student name>” then today’s post could be your solution.
The Piano Practice Reminder That I Needed
At this point, my “mom’s intuition” that is almost never wrong, finally stepped in. After her lesson I texted her mom; not with the typical “I’ve asked Anna to practice more this week… can you help her to make sure this happens?”, but with a simple “I’ve noticed Anna is not quite herself – how are things going at home and school?”
A text popped back immediately with an outpouring of how Anna was being bullied at school and of her resulting anxiety, of missed days of school and a reluctance to do anything but curl up in her mom’s arms and cry.
This was a different kind of piano practice reminder. Not a reminder that I send to my parents and their students, but a piano practice reminder that I myself needed.
Teaching Piano Lessons… When Piano Practice Can’t Happen
This was the nudge I needed to remind me that no matter how exciting my lessons are, how motivating my materials may be, how enthusiastically I send my students out the studio door… sometimes, life just gets in the way.
We will all have piano students who go through difficulties times in their lives. Students will experience loss, fight with their best friends, change schools, and have parents who divorce. The list is (unfortunately) long and comes with disruptions to their ability and desire to practice the piano at home.
However, as a “constant” in their lives; and as a caring adult who spends one-on-one time with them every week, you can have a positive impact at a time when piano lessons are not about practicing the piano, but rather finding solace in music.
The next time you have a piano student who needs a break from practice due to difficult life circumstances, follow this 5-point plan to get them back on track:
- Remove practice expectations both visually and mentally: Allow your students to breathe a sigh of relief as you verbally acknowledge that you understand home practice is difficult at the moment. Then, physically remove any sort of practice chart or log that you may use. The stress of disappointing a favorite adult in their lives is one more layer of emotion that your piano students don’t need. I like to simply say, “If you want to play at home, that’s wonderful, and I’ll leave it up to you to tell me if you were able to.”
- Set your student up for immediate success: If home practice can’t happen, then your students need to be playing music that is immediately accessible. Stressed brains don’t process information as easily as “happy brains”, so it’s important to set your students up for success with carefully-chosen repertoire that is fun, enjoyable, and reasonably easy. Incorporate rote teaching into your lessons, seek-out music that is “one level down” from your students’ current levels and provide plenty of guidance as they learn to play new pieces. If pieces become “stalled”, move on and find something new.
- Re-structure your lessons to focus on happy music-making: Now more than ever your piano students need to discover that music can be a happy escape. Instead of focusing on progress, spend enjoyable time on the bench playing duets, and exploring improv together. Listen to beautiful recordings and discuss the composers. Re-visit previously-completed, favorite pieces. Play piano games and have a good laugh. Slow down and simply enjoy making and learning about music.
- Provide opportunity for creativity: Young children won’t immediately turn to writing music to soothe their souls in a stereotypical fashion, but composing can be a welcome outlet and a chance to create music that is both accessible and enjoyable. Teach your students to create simple “ABA” format pieces with a repeating motive or theme, a simple left hand accompaniment and a catchy title that makes them proud.
- Gradually return to normalcy: You’ll be able to tell when your piano students have “turned a corner”; when home life has settled, when routines are back in place and when they are once again ready for a challenge. Make the return to normalcy gradual. Take your time reintroducing practice expectations and adding more difficult repertoire. It may take a week or it may take a month… but the time you spend gently guiding them over difficult hurdles is important, valuable and meaningful.
What’s Your Advice?
If you add all of our readers’ years of teaching together… you get thousands of years of piano teaching experience! So, do you have advice for teachers who have piano students who are experiencing exceptional challenges? Share your advice and experience below. As a community of knowledgeable, caring and creative teachers your words will make a difference!