When a Student Doesn’t Practice…

Anyone who has ever taught private music lessons knows all too well the struggle of having that one student who does not practice.

Frustration on all parts is the ugly result. The teacher and the student both become frustrated because they cannot move on to new repertoire, and the parent(s) also become(s) frustrated because they have invested in music lessons for their child and never see results.

For several years, I had a piano student just under the age of ten who refused to practice. This student had a ton of natural talent and ability, and showed so much potential to be a great pianist. The student loved to play, and learned quickly, but never practiced; which meant that the student was able to get by just fine for the first few months with the easy concepts, but as soon as it started to get challenging, it became painfully clear to me that the student was not practicing.

I spoke to the parents week after week, month after month, pleading with them to make their child practice. I spoke to the student every lesson and tried to  encourage practicing without sounding mean, demanding, or disappointed. It did not matter; regardless of how I presented the problem, what I said, what I did, what I showed them, the result was the same — no practicing on the part of the student.

However, one week, I had just had enough; I was tired of having my time wasted.

After two months of pounding my head against a wall and working on the same two pages of the lesson book, I decided it was time to get real with the student. I said “[Student], you really need to practice…you need to actually practice. You are smart, [Student], you are incredibly smart, and so talented. You have so much potential. You could be a great pianist, but you’re not. You’re only an O.K. pianist, because you do not practice. If you practiced, you would be phenomenal. We should be done with level 1a by now; we’ve been working on it for two years. We should be half-way through level 1b, or even in the beginning of level 2, but we are not, because you do not practice. I know you want to play more difficult pieces, but you can’t play more difficult pieces yet because you cannot play the easy pieces, because you do not practice. I am not trying to scare you, or make you discouraged, but enough is enough. You know that you are supposed to practice.”

“Do you know what the definition of insanity is, [Student]?” I asked.

“Not really.” the student answered.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. According to that definition, we are both insane, [Student].” I said.

I explained that I came to every lesson hoping that the student had practiced so that we could finally move on, and the student came to every lesson hoping that the student would just magically know how to play the pieces without having practiced. Week after week, we both kept doing (or not doing) the same actions and hoping for different results.

“I am not asking for five hours a day; I am asking for ten minutes a day. That’s it. Do you think you could practice for just ten minutes a day, every day?” I inquired.

The student responded, “Yes. I can practice every day for ten minutes.”

The next week, the student had practiced every day, knew the music, and we finally moved on. I was thrilled, and praised the student over and over.

It lasted for about a month. We made great progress and the student played incredibly well.

However, after four or five great lessons, the student stopped being consistent and went right back to not practicing, and our progress came to a screeching halt. I tried changing the method, adding easy pieces that sounded really cool, incorporating the iPad, playing other games, etc., but nothing worked.

The necessary discipline was missing, so consistency was missing right along with it.

Every private teacher gets a student like this, and I think it helps us become better teachers. We just have to remember to keep trying to inspire those students for as long as possible without becoming discouraged.


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