Misconceptions about piano lessons - Understanding what they are about

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Aug 02, 2005 10:00 am

Over the years, I've heard many piano teachers talk about the sometimes unrealistic expectations of many of their students. These include the amount of time required to practice, the rate of progress, the type of repertoire learned, and many others. Since so many teachers, students and parents read this forum, I thought it might be valuable for teachers to comment on what they think the major "misconceptions" about lessons are for students and parents. Of course, students of the piano can tell us about what they found to be different than their expectations. I hope this discussion will provide useful information for those contemplating lessons and some ideas for teachers for removing such misconceptions. :)
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. - Albert Einstein
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Fri Aug 05, 2005 9:03 am

It is my hope that I have clarified most issues at the 'interview' lesson. I want music to be enjoyed by the student as this way the child will want to continue. That is all I "promise". I offer a wide variety of music and part of it is decided by the student's interests. I encourage practice and remind the student, when necessary, that is how one learns. I suggest to try every day and for some, several short times a day. I like to feel that if I am exciting the child about the music, and challenging him/her, and asking for a 'problem' (small or large) to be 'solved' by the next lesson, practice will follow. However, times have changed.
I was five years old when I began lessons and I practiced every day. When in school, I played when I got home from school before I went out to play. This was just expected. Mom was home every day!
I have taught over 40 yrs and there has been a big change. Children are more and more involved in other activities or after school programs, and
many parents are at work. I hear from the children that they come home and do homework and eat dinner and go to bed, leaving little time for practice. (I suggest in the morning before school...but for my granddaughter, this would not work!) Some complain they do not have time to see their friends. (One must arrange a "play date" now, where as I just went out the door and rode bikes and played in my yard, swinging, jumping rope...etc with my friends.)
Sometime during the year, there is likely to be a 'slump'. Sometimes it is due to illness or trouble in school or family. We get through it. Relax - offer new ideas - compose, sing, 'sight' read, play duets, and so on. A grandparents visit can be an encentive, especially if they play the piano. In one case a grandmother had just seen the opera so I found some music from the opera for her grandchild to play For another, we picked out some duets to play when grandmother visited.
Be creative!
The parents may be more of a problem. I send out some thoughts, I put together, about January. or as needed. If parents would just look at the child's lesson book (I write information about each piece and star a new one) they could just say,"Oh, you have a new Minuet by Bach. will you play some of it for me?" Even a person who does not know music and do this. For parents who can help.. help may be offered when a child has
trouble, and maybe the day of or after the lesson, with a new piece. I do note that the best time to practice is as soon after the lesson as possbile, so the student remembers!
Sorry so long a reply.
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Postby Stretto » Tue Aug 09, 2005 7:47 am

Yes, students having almost literally no time to practice seems like a modern day issue. When I have asked students exactly what days and times they have available for practice, they literally have no extra time. Families of school-aged children seem spread way too thin based on what I have observed in teaching. One of the biggest conflicts my students have with practice and lessons is when they sign up for a sport. It seems basketball is really popular for elementary age girls here. Fortunately, the season is short-term. I had one student who signed up for softball in high school and had 2 - 3 games each week plus practices. If you didn't come to every practice, you couldn't be on the team. I am all for sports but the amount of practices and games seem a little excessive in my opinion. Sports, etc. always seems to take priority over piano. I do feel that if a sport conflicts with the scheduled lesson that the lesson fee should still be paid. I have a statement that covers this in my policy. The only reason in 8 years that I've ever had for students dropping out of lessons was from being involved in too many activites at once.

When it comes to getting students to practice, I tell them "the more you put into it, the more you get out of it." and "it's practice that will make or break how well you can play." I point out how much time olympic athlete's have to train to become "excellent" - basically that they just don't become "good" without practice and training. If a student really wants to excel in music and possibly perform, then, yes, I would agree they are going to have to practice "a lot". However, if a student is learning just for fun or for their own enjoyment and doesn't mind how fast they progress, then I feel there's still a lot of benefits and a lot they can learn by taking lessons, even if say, they could only practice 10 min. a day.

I have thought a lot about ways to get students to practice more and actually came up with some good ideas reading through old threads in the forums from other teachers. I took bits and pieces of ideas and combined them together into what I was trying to come up with - thank you teachers and PEP for the ideas! I think, as teachers, we do need to come up with some creative, non-traditional approaches to get kids to practice other than just saying go home and practice 30 min. and day and leaving it at that. I think coming at it from several angles is the best way to get kids to practice more.
One thing that really helps motivate my students to practice is recitals and "master" classes. I haven't had master classes before because of time constraints but plan on having them quarterly starting this fall. This spring hardly any of my students were practicing and so I announced a recital for 2 months away - that really got them motivated! The master classes I think will also motivate them as they will have to play for "peers" and it is a little less pressure than a recital. I also think a lot of beginners don't know how to practice so I typed up a some very basic simple, steps to hand out on how to practice. I also decided recently that if a student went more than a month or so without practice I might nicely ask the parents if there is anything from their perspective that is preventing their child from practicing like not interested in the music, being busy, etc. I get a lot of insight on how a student learns best by asking the parents. I also think it is a lot to ask an elementary-age student to sit down for 30 min. at a time to practice. I advise students to practice 5-10 min. before school, 5-10 min. after school, and 5-10 min. at bedtime (at least 2 out of 3 of these even would be good). I tell them when they are waiting around to go somewhere or just walking past the piano to stop and play through a piece or part of a piece. I haven't tried this yet but I think it would help for parents or students to schedule daily practice time. Even if the student didn't utilize the time, at least there would be a designated time available for practice. Just asking a young child to practice 10 min. I think is better than trying to drag 30 min. or more out of them. 10 min. doesn't sound so long and they are more likely to stay and play longer once they get started. How many of us adults want to exercise 30 min. but we would be more willing to exercise 10 min. at a time. I wrote on my practice handout that everyone should have at least 10 min. to practice even on very busy days. I also ask that they practice a min. of 4 days out of the week. (I'm sure some teachers may think this is not enough practice but it's better than none, and sometimes by asking for less, they practice more.) I had a student who came for a long time not practicing at all and I convinced her to try for one week just playing her piece one time a day. I even timed her piece at the lesson and was a whopping 90 seconds! I asked her if she had 90 seconds a day to practice. She came back the next week very excited having her piece memorized and had practiced way more the the "minimum". Outside of requiring students to practice at least 4 days a week, I have totally quit requiring a certain amount of time per day for practice. Instead I hold them accountable for what they practice not how much time it takes. I send home a weekly practice chart. I give a few specific practice directions for each piece and write the number of times they should practice each direction. They give themselves a "tally" (smiley face, or other design) under the corresponding day for each time they practice that specific direction. They have to make sure that at least 4 boxes are "completed" for each song which means 4 days of practice for that song. They get little prize incentives along the way and at the end of the summer, a "good practicer" certificate for turning in a certain number of "completed" sheets. We'll start over in the fall. They get a sticker just for turning in a blank sheet. One of my students helped inspire the idea as the student was already using her own chart at home for piano practice and for daily reading. I also started a friendly competition where the "best" practicer for the summer gets a "best practicer" certificate and a classical music CD or music book. This is based on the number of completed sheets they turn in. The key is consistency on my part. They have gotten used to it and make up their own practice directions now. It holds them accountable for what they practice. I don't even ask how long they practiced. This by itself I don't think is a big enough motivation however, but combined with master classes, etc. there is more than one angle motivating them to practice.

The main thing I would advise parents and students is that if the student really "loves" playing the piano even if they go a lot of times without much practice to stay in it for the long haul as long as the student enjoys it and has a "passion" for music and playing the piano. I went through times when I was first learning to play without practicing much and usually waited until the day or two before my lesson and really crammed in the practice. I did this for a recital once. I waited until a few days before the recital and really crammed in the practice. I did horribly at the recital. I learned my lesson though and practiced more regularly after that and prepared farther ahead for recitals. I tell my students that recital story. But I loved music and playing the piano and although I went a lot without practicing much or practicing at the last minute I stayed with it, eventually got a degree and here I am teaching and still have a "passion" for music 25 years later. (although I would be a lot better of a piano player had I practiced more all along so students be sure and practice as much as you can!) :)

P. S. - I think more should be done to have pianos available at after school programs for private music lessons and for students to practice on. Parents wouldn't have to get kids to lessons after work and students could practice right at the after school program where they would more likely have time.

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Postby 65-1074818729 » Tue Aug 09, 2005 7:45 pm

Speaking from a student’s perspective, I can say I haven’t experienced any major surprises or disappointments during my seven years of piano study.

I knew when I started that there would be endless hours of Hanon, scale practice and so on. This did not bother me, and I was quite prepared to spend whatever time was required to learn the instrument. I had no illusions of being able to play piano like a pro without putting in years of training.

In all fairness, I should point out that I started piano lessons at the age of 53. One advantage of starting at that age, is you already know there are no free rides in life and a student must be prepared to put in the practice time in order to progress.

I am happy with my progress and thoroughly enjoy the time I spend at the keys.

This is an interesting topic and I hope other students will give their views and experiences.


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Postby Lyndall » Fri Aug 26, 2005 12:58 pm

Greatest misconception? A parent's role is simply to drop off & pick up their children from lessons.

Unless practice is routine i.e. built into the day's schedule, it probably won't get done - parents need to enforce this early on so it becomes a habit. Don't just 'encourage' or 'suggest' your child practices, you need to be in control & make it happen.

Also, without a parent as an active listener on a weekly basis, students may not be practising adequately. Parents even without musical backgrounds can check items off on student's assignments at least once a week.
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Postby Maureen Bourgeois » Sat Sep 03, 2005 10:25 pm

I'm very aware of my students' other obligations. But I too consider myself a coach and I don't tolerate excuses for not practicing. If someone decides to take lessons this must be stated beforehand. There are so many people out there waiting and willing to devote the time to learning piano. Sports are so temporary. Playing piano can be life-long.
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Postby Sarah Sanders » Mon Sep 19, 2005 4:43 pm

I am a parent. Both my children take lessons. My children are 9 and 11 and have taken lessons for 2 years We have scheduled a time before school for them to practice 30 minutes monday to friday, on the weekends the start time is flexible but still must be done. We have a standing rule that, if practice is missed, the time MUST be made up by either one extra practice session in a day, or a spread over several practice sessions.

I know what work is set, and as i LOVE hearing live music, I will often sit near by and just listen and encourage. Occasionally I will offer suggestions if they are struggling with a piece but by far in the main I am the chief cheer leader.

In short parents should take an active interest in all of their childrens activities, that is all part of good parenting. I hold my children accountable for their actions. Lack of effort is reflected in their playing. They both understand this and notice when they have been less motivated to practice, the corresponding slowing of progress through their songs.

My aim is for them to enjoy and love making music. To get a buzz from filling the room with their own playing and to feel a sense of accomplishment from that.

My children see me fumble at the piano, they see me practice. I am awful at playing, but I enjoy and eventually I get there if not faithfully but with gusto!! I hope my joy in playing is an encouragement for my children even if they say mmn, I think it ought to be played this way and then show me!
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Postby Fran » Tue Sep 20, 2005 2:49 am

I am an adult student. I took piano as a child and started taking lessons, again, when I retired. I am fairly advanced, so I always think I should be able to learn a piece rather quickly and then spend a month or two perfecting it. It doesn’t work that way. While I was a quick learner as a child, I find that it now takes me longer to get my fingers (and arms and hands and body and mind) to cooperate. Also, the pieces I choose are more difficult, now. I am prone to wrist injuries, so I have to be particularly careful to play “correctly”. All this takes time and extra effort, so I do get frustrated. I tend to get so involved with piano practice that I don’t go anywhere or do anything because it will interfere. I find it’s harder, as an older adult, to put things into perspective. I need to get away from the “all or nothing” mentality.

Fran :O
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Sep 20, 2005 7:26 am

I just wanted to say thanks to all the unregistered folks who have added their observations to this thread. This Board exists to give everybody with an interest in piano the opportunity to share their experiences and thoughts.

I hope those who have posted who are unregistered will continue to post and will consider registration. It's completely free, takes only a couple minutes and will give you full access to all the many forums on the Board. :cool:
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. - Albert Einstein
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Postby 65-1074818729 » Tue Sep 20, 2005 2:38 pm


I am an adult student who also started late in life and I am also retired.

I tend to get so involved with piano practice that I don’t go anywhere or do anything because it will interfere. I find it’s harder, as an older adult, to put things into perspective. I need to get away from the “all or nothing” mentality.

I went through something similar a couple of years ago, and had to remind myself that there is another life out there. Now I practice approximately two hours per day broken into two sessions, and if I miss a day once in a while, the world just seems to keep on turning.

I was wondering if your teacher has given you any special assignments or exercises to address your problems. Also how long has it been since you returned to the piano?


AFlat :D
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Postby RAC » Thu Sep 29, 2005 5:28 pm

As a parent, I think there are two issues here--activities and the K-12 public school system. I'll touch on the activities issue here in this first post.

Imho, many parents involve their children in activities for the wrong reasons. I know parents who feel that schlepping their kids to $60-an-hour pitching lessons, practices and games is going to magically guarantee a college scholarship. These people need to do the math--calculate the costs of running around, not to mention the costs of the activity itself--if you put that amount of money in the bank every month, you'd have plenty of money for college, not to mention you'd also avoid the opportunity to be on a first-name basis with every sports doctor in three counties (since you are putting HIS children through college, lol) ....

Sometimes parents just won't accept that Johnny or Jane doesn't want to continue with this or that activity any longer (assuming that they enjoyed it in the beginning), and keep them in long after they should have stopped it. Interests change over time, and it is wrong to lay a guilt trip on a child or teenager after they've given an activity a good try. Parents should give an option to participate in an activity at an alternative level, instead of making continuation an all-or -nothing proposition. In the case of piano, if being a classical concert pianist isn't of interest, let Johnny have jazz piano lessons (maybe he wants to play in the jazz band in school) for example, rather than drop lessons altogether and sell the piano.

I'm sure that there are children who are enrolled in activities that they were never interested in from the get-go as well, and that is sad. Just because Dad or Grandmother always wanted to be involved in an activity (and it doesn't matter what activity we're talking about here) doesn't mean that it's a good choice for Johnny or Jane.

As far as having to be at practice for team sports in order to play the games, well, when I was in school that was the norm--the only way you got out of practice or an event (e.g. band concert) was because you were in another sport/activity that ran the same time AND you cleared it with both teachers up front. Usually the teachers were understanding--it's unreasonable to require that a quarterback be playing trumpet for the halftime show too....

I don't agree that "sports are so temporary", unless one is talking about playing at a highly competitive level (i.e. college or pro) and even then maybe only football as to the sport (so far at least the only sport that rates its very own medical insurance policy through the schools in our area). Most sports you can play at some level throughout life--our park and rec catalogues always feature pick-up games for basketball and volleyball, and lots of people play in "over-the-hill" softball leagues, or go bowling.

I think that if you are really interested in something, you find a way to make time for it, somehow, so I don't necessarily think there should be an arbitrary limit on how many activities someone is involved in.

However, I also think ALL teachers/coaches need to know, up front, what Jane expects to be involved in during the year, and be adults about it, not whining that this activity is more important than that one (this seems to be more of a problem with some sports coaches, to where they don't even want players going to religious activities if they interfere with practice--I remember seeing a letter to Ann Landers about it some time ago).

Whatever happened to children being exposed to different activities just for sheer fun and enjoyment? Does everything have to have a competitive aspect? I don't think that any time spent on an activity is wasted, even if you decide to pursue other interests down the road.

Sorry for the long post. :)
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Postby RAC » Thu Sep 29, 2005 11:21 pm

As to school itself interfering with piano and other activities--schools are not what they were. Most of them don't teach phonics in the early grades, and then there is the "fuzzy math" being taught these days, so many parents who care wind up spending time at home teaching basic reading and basic math, which cuts into practice time.

Half the time homework is sent home with the expectation on the teacher's part (and sometimes even printed on the curriculum worksheets!) that a parent is going to actively do the homework with the child, often without having the underlying concepts taught in class first, so the parent is actually doing the "teaching". This too takes time away from piano practice.

There is a lot of group work ("cooperative learning") done in classes now, even in the early grades, which usually means one child doing the work and all the others are slacking--hardly a situation conducive to children learning to be responsible for their own success in school--or their own piano practice. Instead of music and art, there are fundraising assemblies, "values" classes, and other nonsense. And if the parent has to then spend time "un-teaching" some things at home, again, more time is wasted.

Therefore, it is not surprising that one hears of many successful athletes (in sports other than traditional high school sports, which schools bend over backwards to support) or musicians hoping to get college scholarships being homeschooled or having private tutors. It is virtually the only way to ensure that there is enough time during the day to devote to practice, if a child is really interested in practicing/competing at a high level.

I honestly think parents should look first into homeschooling rather than cutting out other activities, all things considered.
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Postby Stretto » Mon Oct 03, 2005 6:51 am


I appreciate the time you took to add your imput here. I really covet hearing things from a parents side as far as activities and trying to juggle everything a child is involved in.
You raise a lot of excellent points.
I really need to rebuttle implying that I was knocking down sports. I learned recently, since my last post, that activities for kids that involve large motor skills (like sports), help develop the brain and actually enable kids to "think smarter" in their school work like math, etc. There has been a lot of talk about how music helps "widen" a person's brain capacity to "think smarter" in school, but I hadn't heard this same point ever made before about sports. I also heard about a local school that teaches autistic kids and they have been doing a lot on developing large motor skills and found that the kids do much better in their "thinking" work as a result. After learning this, it made me realize that sports are just as important as music, and I need to quit knocking sports. It's sooooo amazing how everything relates to everything else! It's all equally important.
The only problem I have is "overcommitment" in too many activities at once which I kind of view as the parents who feel their child needs to be involved in every opportunity (so as not to miss an opportunity). The child and family become so overextended on activities after school, it seems like they have no "down" time just to enjoy goofing around and being a kid and having family time due to excessive scheduled activities. There are so many opportunities for this activity and that activity, the choices are endless, it does get mind boggling trying to pick and choose what to put your child in, and the overabundance of choices leads some to put their kids in too many things at once. What happened to the days of limiting extra activities to one or two at a time?
I don't mind my students being involved in sports, and can even work around the fact that they may be practicing a little less during "basketball" or "softball" or whatever season. The part that frustrates me and I'm sure other teachers is when a student and parent commit to taking lessons and then sign up for a sport and suddenly want to rearrange piano lesson times around all the practices and games or cancel on weeks with a lot of games and practices. Pretty soon a piano teacher has 5 or 6 parents wanting to re-schedule their lessons around sports and then all the sudden no one is coming at their regular lesson time but at times that are much more inconvenient for the music teacher. I don't mind the re-scheduling or canceling either during sport's seasons but I do feel that parents need to pay for lessons due to sports conflicts and I have had to change my policy to state the days and times that I am available to do make-up lessons so that I am not doing make-ups at times that are bad for me. Bottom-line, I am trying to say, is that parents/students that sign up for activities that conflict with music lessons need to work around the teachers policy and schedule for make-ups and pay for missed lessons that cannot be re-scheduled.
The only other thing personally I have against sports activities is that there are quite a few games that go until 9:00 pm on school nights for elementary age kids (under 12) and some sports (softball for a sophmore in hs) have 2-3 games per week, on top of several practices in the week. However, as long as parents are willing to work around my schedule and pay for missed lessons due to conflicting activities as well as understand the student is going to advance more slowly in their musical study during that time, then if a student really wants to study music, they should stay in it, do their best with the time they have (even if it means a slower pace) and down the road, there will be time to work on the music side of things more. The last thing I would want to see happen is for a student to drop lessons and then never pick back up on any musical endeavors the rest of one's life. A person could take a break from lessons if there are other things tying up their time and pick back up on it at a later time even if that later time was as an adult. Music can and should be a lifelong pursuit that one can work on here and there over time, just the same as sports. The only exception would be for someone wanting to make a career in music, then just as someone wanting to make a profession out of sports, a lot of other things have to be cut to focus on the one.
Also, I agree with you, RAC, that school in a way does "tie" up a person's time from pursuing some interests like music or other activities. I've often wondered why we don't have the musical geniuses like Beethoven and Mozart, or why we don't see "great master composers" like we used to. I wonder if it isn't because those people started training on their "profession" from the time they were small. Perhaps they had more of the whole day to work on a "profession" since their time wasn't taken up with school and homework. With everyone in school all day, there is no time to work on music or other interests the entire day. So you make a good point on that. I guess school is a necessity in society, however, as people needed to get an education to improve their livelihood in comparison to the generations that went before them and as a result improve and advance society as more people have the opportunity for an education. I would venture to say it is only the last 2 generations in general (I'm sure with some exceptions), that had enough education themselves to be able to teach their kids at home. (For example, my grandpa only went to school to the 8th grade and that was probably considered doing pretty good according to the standards of the day.) It will be interesting if we see a growing trend in homeschooling. I do think homeschooling would give a child more time to pursue some concentrated areas of interest as opposed to traditional school that takes up most of the day. An interesting thought.
Again I appreciate being able to read your imput.
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Postby Lyndall » Tue Oct 04, 2005 10:46 am

In reply to Sarah Sanders, you are the ideal parent! I wish I had one of you for each of my students. Fortunately I do have a few parents who sit down & listen throughout the week, and even better, a few who have set & enforce the daily practice time like you.

And it's the kids who benefit, as yours have done. In fact everyone wins in the end (student, parent, teacher).

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Postby RAC » Tue Oct 04, 2005 3:48 pm

Stretto, I absolutely agree with you about paying for missed lessons without whining about it, and if you want to reschedule, expect to pay doubletime for it! I think it is disgusting that the same people who often accept (not graciously, mind you) paying $10 for 10 minutes when picking up children from daycare late must think piano teachers have no other life and are desperate.

I guess the problem with enforcing such a policy would be that every music teacher in say, a county-wide area who provides private lessons has to have such a policy. I don't support "price-fixing" of lessons, necessarily, but such "professional standards of conduct" would be a good thing. I just don't know how the market for piano teachers is, and how many students you'd lose that way. But, on the other hand, if these are "difficult" customers to begin with, are you really losing anything (except unneeded stress) by dropping them? You're certainly not making money with them....

And speaking of daycare and what you said about children having no time to be children, it starts early. It is really sad when you overhear someone telling a stay-at-home-Mother (SAHM), that her 3-year-old *needs* to be in daycare in order to have something to do! As a SAHM, it makes me angry, too, that people have children, but want others to bring them up.

Oh, I didn't think anyone here was putting down sports per se. What I do see is that unless it is a school sport, piano and other outside teachers have very little influence on school policy. At least the band or choir teacher can go to the principal and try to argue the point. It may work, it may not, but they can also go to the superintendent and the school board if they don't get satisfaction. In fact, maybe piano teachers should meet with music teachers in the school district to see if they can get some kind of district policy adopted for giving equal footing to piano and other private lessons (somehow I don't picture the band teacher giving a student a hassle over piano lessons....) in the interest of developing well-rounded students.

Personally, I feel that the only justification for *practice* over a *lesson* is when practice is occurring during regular school hours--when I was in school, if you were in a sport (including marching band during parade season), you did NOT take a regular PE class, you went to your sport. Since it was always scheduled as the last school period, it allowed for fewer real classes missed due to travel, and it gave you a longer total practice time when you practiced after school. To me, if the lesson is scheduled *after* your regular school day, it should always come before a regular sport or other activity practice (in other words, the student leaves school at the regular time and doesn't stay after--they just have a short practice day).

I guess how late games run in an area depend on the sport, the scheduling and distance traveled. Swim meets and tennis usually were right after school. Football I think is scheduled later because they can charge money to see the games. If you live in a populous state, trips are much shorter than in most rural states.

But, until parents stop being sheep and start standing up to these coaches (again, I think this behavior is probably confined to primarily high school football/basketball/baseball coaches--you know, where the money is), this type of behavior will continue.

I think education is a necessity, but I don't think *schools* are necessarily the answer anymore. I mean, we have had correspondence schools for a long time (and many still use snail mail), and now we have the internet. Unless you're in band, or drama, or some other program requiring large groups of people, or you require equipment that is not available except at considerable expense (science equipment, for example), you can learn almost anything you need or want to outside of the typical K-12 environment.

Just my $.02
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