Encouraging practice - How do you do it?

Need help with your young piano student or maybe just like to share the joy?

Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Oct 19, 2005 7:22 am

Unquestionably, the most difficult part of piano lessons for parents is getting kids to practice. Yet, practice is essential if the child is to really learn piano, rather than adding piano to his list of half-learned skills. Over the years, we have heard many creative approaches to encouraging practice from visitors to The Piano Education Page and have offered some of our own thoughts on the matter on our Learning to Play and Tips for Parents and Students pages.

If you have some ideas for encouraging practice that have worked with your children or students, let us all know about them. If they worked for you, chances are good they will work for others. You can help others by sharing and others may be able to help you with their thoughts. :)
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 Stretto » Fri Oct 28, 2005 11:55 pm

Seems like an age old question and an age old problem. I'm a piano teacher now but can't always blame students for not practicing (I don't tell them that though) because I was one of those who didn't practice like I should a lot when I started out taking lessons. I would procrastinate by not practicing all week and then cram the practice in the day or two before my lesson. (I also filled out theory worksheets in the car on the way to the lesson). The key I guess for parents maybe is that although, yes, it would be great to get your kids to practice more, if they are enjoying playing the piano I would use that as more of a determining factor for continuing than lack of practice. I eventually started practicing more consistently as a teen.

I would be interested to hear from some parents what their opinion is on teachers giving incentives to students like rewards or prizes for practicing. As parents do you think it would be helpful to your child or would you prefer that a teacher not use prize incentives? Does anyone else have an opinion on whether giving out little prizes for practice is effective for their students? As a teacher, I have tried several prize-type incentives over the years for practice and they seem to help boost practice for the short-term but then the students lapse back into less practice when the excitement of a new incentive wears off. I think that probably holds true for kids in other areas besides piano practice as well.

I would also be curious to know what the opinion is on parents "reminding" their kids to practice vs. leaving it up to the child to get it done. My best practicers for students are a couple who's parent perhaps borderline "hound" them to get their practice done. But at the lesson when I praised those students for being such faithful practicers and asked them about how they get there practice in, they said if we don't our mom will yell at us. How involved do you think parents should be in getting their children to practice at home?

Another teacher told me once that one of her younger students loves computer and electronic games and the parent has a policy with the child that they can have so many minutes of game time for every minute of piano practice. That sounded like a good idea.

As a teacher, the best incentive I've found to work is scheduling recitals, or group get-togethers for the students. There's nothing like knowing one is going to have to play for others especially peers to boost practice.
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Postby Lyndall » Sat Oct 29, 2005 10:03 am

Stretto, in my experience, the kids who learn piano the most throroughly & the fastest are the ones whose parents have set strict daily practice guidelines. (I have some exceptions who get regular input & help from parents but still are slow learners).

In the case where parents 'gently guide' the student to practice - i.e. not wanting to 'push' them so they dislike piano, or, wanting their child to develop their own sense of responsibility towards practice - THE STUDENT ALWAYS FAILS.

I agree that practice incentives can work short-term, but they only work on certain students. Typically these are the students who also have regular guidance from parents, so they're further ahead anyway.

Incidentally, it's funny how the students who don't practice frequently also tend to forget to come to events, are frequently sick, seem willing to perform even when they're clearly not ready, or think their performances are great even when they're poor, etc etc. We certainly are all different & we all have different standards for ourselves, even at a young age. Just a side note.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Wed Nov 23, 2005 12:33 pm

Ah, preactice!
How does one learn anything without practice?
In the old days, when I was young, I got home from school and practiced a half hour BEFORE going out to play. It was routine - not up for discussion.
Over the years I have noticed that less and less time seems to be spent or expcted on piano practicing.
There are many reasons - differing some in families. Is music valued or is it seen as "just a fun sideline" and one should be working on sports or math or other to get into college and secure a job? Are children too busy trying to get everything in - dance, gymnastics, art, horse back riding, skiing, and so on?
As I teacher, I like to think that I can "inspire" my students to practice. Sometimes I can, by hitting on the right piece or talking it and the compoer up, or having them listen to a recording, but not always.
I do feel it is the parents' responsibility as they are paying for the lessons. If they really care about music in their childrens' lives, they need to expect and help with a practice reoutine. I am always alert to musical events in the area, but only a few take advantage.
I printed out my thoughts on the importance of music in life, this year, and gave it out to parents. I have not had a lot of feedback. I wonder how many read it?
So, pick a reason or two.
As a teacher, I try to give out practice schedules as needed or have a check off spot in the lesson book (extra papers can get easily lost.) This is helpful to me as well. If they checked off practiced 6 times and the piece is rough, maybe I expected too much, or maybe they need help in how to practice. I do take responsibility to give the student the best musical experience I can. A little help from parents, would be welcome.
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Postby 109-1130508758 » Mon Nov 28, 2005 9:17 am

I have three children 5,7, an 9. I require my children to practice daily. I follow a formula that leaves everyone feeling great: 1 minute x age in years x number of years that the child has been playing. So my 7 year old will practice a minimum of 1x7x1 minutes or 7 minutes, every day. No skipping days!

I don't feel overbearing, and the children do not feel put upon.

The kicker is that they usually practice longer than their minimum time.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Mon Nov 28, 2005 11:38 am

Dear Missbee:

Welcome to our board--please keep giving us your ideas.

Just before I got to your last line I was thinking "I'll bet her kids go overtime anyway!"

I think kids are more willing to work if they have some rules that have been mutually agreed on in advance, no matter what they happen to be.

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Postby 109-1130508758 » Mon Nov 28, 2005 6:11 pm

It was a pleasant surprise for me. It also helps if their practice is focused and high quality.

If there is more than a 10 second pause, then there is a time penalty. The penalties get more strictly enforced and severe, the older the child gets, however, the penalties are almost never neccesary. Usually, long pauses mean that my child needs a pep talk or an audience. :;):
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Postby Stretto » Mon Nov 28, 2005 11:01 pm


Your idea is excellent!!!!!!!!!!

When I started taking lessons, it seemed to be that the standard amount of practice teachers expected was 30 min. I'm wondering if this has always been the expected traditional standard "across the board" at least for beginner to intermediate levels. In other teacher's experience, what have been your expectations for student's daily practice time? Is your expectation different from the amount of time you were expected to practice when you first took lessons?

When I first started teaching, it didn't take long to learn how busy families with young children are today. I was dumbfounded how little students practiced and even more amazed how parents never expressed much concern. I decided I would help those students figure out what times each day they had available for practice. After going through each day of the week, it became clear that students literally had no time most days to practice partly because they were hardly home. I realized kids simply often don't have a 30 min. block of time for practice. I started trying to come up with some "non-conventional" ways to jump-start practice. I decided no matter how busy a person was, anyone should be able to find 10 min. somewhere in a day to practice. So although I suggested longer practice and pointed out the advantage and importance, I started making a minimum requirement of 10 min. per day, 4 days a week. I'd rather see students have a consistent disciplined daily practice routine rather than a few 30 min. sessions thrown in the last 2 days before lessons. I realize that students will not progress as quickly this way, but coming to lesson with one or two pieces that have been practiced the minimum time is better than none obviously. Also children under about age 7, I've found, typically don't keep a focused attention span at the piano during lessons for more than 10 or 15 min. so I don't see how they could sit at a piano for 30 min. straight to practice. I've suggested to students and parent to break practice time up into two or three 10 min. sessions daily as well. I equate it to excercise. If somone told you that you needed to excercise 30 min. per day, it may seem hard to get motivated to start with let alone make it through the whole 30 min.'s without wondering, "how many more min.'s?". But if someone told you to excercise 10 min. between one to three times per day, that wouldn't sound so bad and you'd be more likely to accomplish it. I've mainly had the "minimum 10 minute" rule just to get students started with consistent practice but either the student or I end up bumping the amount a little as they progress. As it was said, once they start practicing, they usually stay at the piano and play longer. The shorter time requirement motivates them to start.

Missbee, I appreciate your suggestion so much. I've often questioned if I wasn't lowering my expectation too much by only requiring a minimum of 10 minutes practice per day and have not heard of any other teachers doing it. Your post is the first I've ever heard anyone do something similar. I like your idea better then mine because it would get the students to increase the amount of practice time little by little instead of leading them to think 10 min. per day for the long-term is acceptable. It makes so much sense that age and number of years playing determine practice time. I also like your "penalty" idea. I'm going to suggest your idea on amount of practice time for kids to parents who express concern about practice as well as any parents of new young students. Thanks for taking the time to post.
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Postby 109-1130508758 » Tue Nov 29, 2005 2:35 pm

Thanks so much for the replies. I really love this board.

I am a parent that is taking the liberty to introduce piano to my children.

I am not sure where I got the formula from (Maybe from the time out punishment method -1 minute on the chair for every year of age). As a mother, I know that 30 minutes is a lot to ask of a child who is not able to play an entertaining tune on the piano. Also, one of the old method books ( John Schuam) suggested taking a year to finish each method book.

Super short practice session will allow a child to finish a book within a year. It took my 7 year old 6 months to finish her first book (Bastien primer a). My 9 year old has taken 7 months so far (Bastien primer). My 5 year old has just started his first book (Bastien primer a). They also pick out melodies from the radio. They go to recitals, and they listen to me play.

It took about two weeks with an egg timer for the children to realize that I was not asking too much of them. After those two weeks, practice time is usually smooth sailing.

Sometimes the children need a pep talk or an audience, but for the most part, they practice wonderfully, all by themselves.

I had to realize that I want my children to know how to play the piano, by the time they are adults. If they want to be super-accomplished then I will support them, but my goal is to get them to learn to play. So I try to keep things in perspective.

Last night, I had to drag my 9 year old away from the piano so that he could go to bed on time! He had been practicing for 30 minutes! He wanted to get his sticker before he went to bed. I had to explain to him that he had practiced enough for the day and that he could try for the sticker later.

Can you believe that?
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Postby 109-1130508758 » Wed Nov 30, 2005 9:02 am


I like your comparison of music to exercise. I have learned from my husband who is a distance runner, that you have to start somewhere, and as you progress, your body will beg for more.

My poor husband had succumbed to my wonderful cooking and gain hoardes of weight. When he resumed his running, he was only able to run for 5 minutes at a time. In 9 short months of steady progress he was back up to 4 miles per day! And now he can run 8 miles with no problem.

Piano is the same way. When I resumed playing I could not play anything at first. I started playing for 30 minutes a day. It quickly progressed to 2 hours as I began to enjoy hearing myself play again.

I figured that starting small would also work for my children, and it did.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Wed Nov 30, 2005 11:07 am

Hey, Miss, my wife is a great cook too but she's learned to do it with low fat, low salt, high fiber, non-junk food. Try it! It CAN be done, and your husband will love you for it. The same thing happens with healthy food that you mentioned with running: the body learns to accept and like it, and eventually shies away from the junk because it just doesn't make one feel as good.

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Postby 108-1121887355 » Wed Nov 30, 2005 1:13 pm

How did we get from practicing to health food? Okay, everything takes practice - exercise and eating healthy!
But to get back to practicing the piano, I agree with Stretto that when I sit down with my students and their schedules AND their parents' schedules, I realize that the "old" 30 minutes a day is not going to work.
Some arise early and have time in the morning. Playing more than once a day has advantages, too, especially for trouble spots and memorizing.
It is good to think that the teacher can inspire every child to practice every week,,,but we all know that is a nice dream. Life is more complicated these days - really. I have families where the father travels a lot, where one works late and is almost never home in the evening, and one who is an ER doctor...so... Mothers may be stressed - some working outside the home and some not - but handling a lot alone much of the time.
I suggest a schedule and often print one out for them to follow. Does this mean that is gets checked off? No! (not even with my grandchildren!)
As a parent, we had practice schedules posted on the regrigerator. Each child chose a time they preferred. If they missed it, they could not take the sibling's time. If they missed too many, they had to work that out with their teacher. When I was teaching them, it was not really a problem, as I was there to help them, encourage, and listen to them all the time.
I like your thought about 'needing an audience'. How many parents listen to their children play?!
One last thought. I do not agree with "punishment" for not practicing or for a time delay. I want music to be fun - learning should be fun.
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Postby 109-1130508758 » Wed Nov 30, 2005 3:04 pm

When I say punishment I really mean penalty, like they have in basketball or football. "Delay of game" can be applied in the form of "delay of practice" the delay of practice penalty" may be 10 seconds added to the clock.

Practice should be fun, but playing the piano will be more fun, if the children actually learn to play, and that will happen faster if they learn to focus for a short span of time, and then slowly increase that span of time.

I try to leave a lot of things up to the my children, but there are some things that have to be encouraged until it becomes natural.
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Postby 109-1130508758 » Wed Nov 30, 2005 3:11 pm

Health food also can be compared to practice. A child may think that vitamins are gross at first, but after a few doses they will remind you when it is time to take them.

A family may think that you have lost it when you give them baked fish instead of fried for the first time, but after a while fried fish will become an abomination and only baked will do.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Wed Nov 30, 2005 7:46 pm

Sorry if my last reply was harsh. You did use the word penalty - I just did not re read the message. And you are right that learning to play the piano correctly is the goal. Learning is not all fun but the end result is worth it.
I am sure your children are learning and enjoying as noted by their playing together at the piano. Allowing time to experiment is so good.
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