The Power of Practice: 5 effective strategies for teachers

You see your piano pupils on average for 30 minutes each week leaving them 10,050 minutes between lessons to practise. And yet, as I showed in last week’s post, many of them don’t!

You pour your heart and soul into their lessons, you’ve tried every tactic and yet most weeks they return with the same excuses, the same problems they were having the week before and the week before that etc. It’s so frustrating and sometimes you wonder whether you are cut out to be a piano teacher.

Maybe though we should look at this from a different perspective. This week we are going to explore the hypothesis that the less we teach the more our students will learn. Increased learning coupled with more pupil engagement leads to greater motivation to practise.

5 EFFECTIVE STRATEGIES FOR TEACHERS

Professor Susan Hallam, one of the leading authorities on instrumental practice, says that:

‘It seems that in the early stages of playing the learner has insufficient knowledge of music to be able to make use of advanced practising strategies’. [1]

I’m sure that most of you would automatically agree with this – but I wonder how often we forget and set practice tasks that are actually too complex for the stage of the learner?¬†Certainly the available research evidence seems to point that a lot of teachers do just that!

If you want to make a change you need to have a clear plan so here are five tested strategies that you will be able to use in your piano lessons immediately. They all focus on the learner for, as Jenny Macmillan points out:

‘unless pupils know how and why to practise, rather than what and for how long, practice is going to be far from ideal and effective’. [2]

THE PLAN

#1 – MODEL WHAT YOU WANT YOUR PUPILS TO DO

In order to be able to practise a piece meaningfully pupils must have a clear aural model of what they are aiming for. Imagine going to a French lesson and being given the words by the teacher but no guidance on to pronounce them! Yet, research shows that teachers talk, and talk and talk and talk in lessons instead of play and play and play and play.

Aural experience leads to the development of aural images, which lead to the development of physical skills and cognitive understanding. Why try to explain something when modelling works so much faster?

According to Professor Hallam:

‘There is considerable evidence that when teachers demonstrate skills, pupils tend to learn more effectively. Unfortunately, teachers spend most time in lessons talking to their pupils rather than demonstrating’. [3]

ACTION: choose one lesson next week and model to the pupil as much as you can. Tell the pupil what you are doing and ask him/her to tell you when you start talking too much!

#2 – BE SPECIFIC IN YOUR INSTRUCTIONS

Once pupils know how something should sound they need to be given specific practice strategies to use. Scribbled instructions in pupil’s notebooks, for example, ‘practice b.1-5‘, give pupils very little reason for why practising is necessary or how to structure it. The more specific we are, in what is expected to be achieved, the easier it will be for the pupil to achieve it. Framing instructions as questions always makes a good starting point :

  • What should they practice? B.1-5 with RH. B. 1-5 with LH.
  • How should they practice it? Clapping and counting the rhythm first, if that is OK then counting and playing on one note, then counting and playing snail speed.
  • Why should they practise it? To be able to play with a secure rhythm and an even sound (as demonstrated by the teacher in the lesson).

This does take time to develop fully but can be helped by the use of practice strategy cards.

ACTION: At the end of the lesson leave enough time to get the pupil to explain what they are going to practise and how they are aiming to achieve it.

#3 USE PRACTICE STRATEGY CARDS

Practice Strategy Cards are all based on strategies known to be highly effective and used by more advanced pianists. Turning them into accessible and enjoyable games means that young pupils can start to develop healthy and engaging practice routines very early on.

I find they are highly effective and my pupils really love using them. I introduce the cards one at a time, making sure each one is fully understood and being used appropriately.

Here are three of my favourites:

  • COUNT & TAP: rhythmical playing should be one of our primary teaching goals. This card helps to establish independence in rhythmic awareness and can be used to aid the practice just detailed above.
  • SNAIL SPEED: children ‘get’ snail speed as it gives them a real sense of what we mean when we say ‘practice that bit slowly’!
  • MAGIC NUMBER 3: this encourages pupils to play a bar, phrase or section of a piece three times accurately. It is important that the pupil knows what the target is. For example to play with a secure rhythm which means no pauses or hesitations. Pupils are very honest and seem to self-assess quite easily.

Click HERE to download a set of these Practice Strategy Cards.

ACTION: Introduce one of the practice strategy cards in a lesson, modelling how it should be used and getting pupil to ‘practise’ with it.

#4 – LETTING THE PUPIL HAVE A VOICE

Our pupils should be given the space during a piano lesson to voice their preferences or concerns. ‘Uh-uh’ or nodding their head in agreement is not what I mean!

Pupil voice is a really important factor when it comes to motivation because pupils need to have some sense of being in charge of their learning. For example, the research study mentioned in the blog post The Power of Practice: The Pupil’s Perspective last week [4] found that learners who had teachers who stuck rigidly to a method book were more likely to give up than those who:

‘drew on a range of examples from various publications to meet each students learning needs’. [4]

Giving the student a choice of pieces to learn should be just the start of the process though. The choice has to be an informed one: do they know what will they learn from the piece and why is it important in their pianistic development? In order to make the commitment to invest time in learning a new piece pupils should be given valid, strong reasons.

ACTION: Ask the pupil if there is anything that you need to explain to them again about why something needs to be learnt.

#5 – MAKE SURE THE PUPIL DOES THE WORK!

Do you ever get the sense that you are working harder in lessons than your pupils? Here’s just one simple example, if you are clapping a new rhythm pattern together who does all the counting – you or the pupil?

On the whole, teachers work far too hard in lessons and, anxious that the pupil learns, tries to fill in all the gaps often preventing any pupil learning from actually taking place. If the pupil doesn’t get the chance to count and clap the rhythm in the lesson without any assistance from you how likely are they to practise it correctly at home? If they are uncertain and uncomfortable about what they should be doing, practice is more likely to be avoided!

ACTION: Initially, scaffold any new learning for the pupil but gradually withdraw (and stop talking!) until the pupil is able to demonstrate an independent and self-directed approach

IMPLEMENTING THE PLAN

Through the use of these five teaching strategies pupils are able to develop greater knowledge and practice power. The strategies are easy to start to implement in lessons and you can download this Practice Worksheet to help you begin making changes.

That’s not to say it is always going to be easy. For things to really change you will need to take a long, hard look at your teaching and take more responsibility for why pupils don’t always practice.

Of course, the responsibility isn’t all down to the teachers so next week I will be looking at the last part of the practice triangle; the parents.

HAVE YOU DOWNLOADED YOUR FREE RESOURCES?

Click HERE to down a set of Practice Strategy Cards

Click HERE to download the Worksheet for Piano Teachers

 

[1] p.145. Instrumental Teaching. Susan Hallam. 1998, Heinemann.

[2] p. 37. Successful Practising. Jenny Macmillan. 2010, Jenny Macmillan.

[3] p.145 Instrumental Teaching. Susan Hallam. 1998, Heinemann.

[4] p. 39 Music in our Lives, rethinking Musical Ability, Development and Identity. Gary McPherson, Jane W. Davidson, Robert Faulkner. 2012, OUP.

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Director & Co-Founder of The Curious Piano Teachers

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