Creating Positive Musical Experiences Through Practice Routines

Several students have recently come out of musical ruts because we were able to get organized with their practice and they were willing to embrace a simple practice routine.  It is always frustrating when we as students or teachers think that something sounds better the previous lesson than it does at the beginning of the current lesson.  In group lessons, students get frustrated when they start to lag behind the others even when they are more than capable of keeping up.

When we go through these down phases it is often due to falling out of a practice routine.  It seems easy enough to just get back on the horse.  But it really isn’t.  We start to feel all the times we didn’t get our work done stacking up and creating an insurmountable “to do” list.  We make it bigger than it may be and therefore we put it off longer.

This is when you may hear your child or yourself say that it’s time to quit and move on from this whole music thing.  This age-old statement starts to pop up, “I just don’t like piano any more.”  In group lessons students going through these dips in practice can act out in classes with behavior issues because they feel they are slowing their peers down.

Lately I have found a simple and practical way to gently pull students out of these times and make them less traumatic.  I think there will still be these times but often practice routines are the root of the dissatisfaction in learning music.

Putting emphasis on one day of practice is most beneficial in regaining momentum for playing music.  A weighted practice chart of the days in the week is really helpful to students.  For example; if their lesson is on a Monday, Tuesday is the most important day of the practice week.  Then after Tuesday, Wednesday is the most important day of the practice week.  Then Thursday is the most important day of the week.  By emphasizing the days right after the lesson the students will retain the information and build momentum.

Most of us get caught in a our ruts innocently enough when we decide we just had our lesson and can take a couple of days off before ramping things back up.  The problem with this is that the day you planned to practice coincides with soccer practice, birthday parties, weekend trips, etc.  Before you know it, it’s the day before the lesson and it’s panic time. We don’t remember all the nuances of what was covered in the lesson, we cram our practice(s) in, show up to the lesson stressed and then the process repeats itself because the mountain seems more insurmountable the next time around.

This is an ideal practice routine for someone struggling to get in the groove (or any of us for that matter):

Tuesday – Lesson
Tuesday post lesson – very short review practice
Wednesday – Master one new concept on each assigned piece
Thursday – Master another new concept on each assigned piece and review Wednesday’s work
Friday – Master another new concept on each assigned piece – review Wednesday’s and Thursday’s concepts.
Saturday – Repeat the same thing.  Review previous concepts.
Sunday – Ideally repeat the same thing – but if you’re going to take a day off this may be the one.
Monday – Review everything so you feel good about Tuesday’s lesson.

I have found as a teacher, if I list out the days and have the students circle each day they follow the script then lessons go really well.  The students can see the cause and effect of doing the routine, having a great lesson and feeling really good about playing music.

High school and college students can make spreadsheets and email it to the teacher the night before.  This helps give them something very concrete to attach to their feelings about playing and practicing music.

It doesn’t take long for the youngest to the oldest students to see the correlation between spending productive time and enjoying the activity.

I’ll write a follow-up to this, but one essential component to this is that we work on new material when we practice.  Many of our ruts our self-induced because we stick with what we’re able to do.  No matter how great something is when we first learn it, it will get stale. The energy of always working on something new will snowball into a sustained positive experience.  Constantly playing something we mastered a month, week or day before leads to a dip in the enjoyment and productivity of the creative/practice process.

Let me know how this helps and if you have other practice schedules that help.