Habit – by Craig Sale

CRAIG SALE has served as Director of the Preparatory and Community Piano Program at Concordia University/Chicago in River Forest, IL since its inception in 1986. He also teaches courses in piano pedagogy at Concordia where he helped establish a Certificate in Piano Pedagogy curriculum. He was a member of the preparatory faculty at North Central College in Naperville, IL for five years.


 Sale is the co-author of The Music Tree 3: Activities and The Music Tree 4: Activities (Summy-Brichard/Warner Bros.) and is an  Educational Consultant for the Frances Clark Library for Piano Students. He has presented workshops for piano teachers  throughout the upper midwest and served as panelist for MTNA’s “Pedagogy Saturday”. He has written a course of theory study for  intermediate students called Projects in Music Theory (Books 1-3) and has contributed articles for Keyboard Companion and  Lutheran Education. He appears regularly as soloist and collaborative performer and frequently serves as adjudicator for various  music teacher organizations.  Sale is on the Board of Directors of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.


“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,— practical, emotional, and intellectual,— systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.” – William James


Studying piano pedagogy with Frances Clark was a one-of-a-kind experience. Unique to her teaching was the incorporation of discussions of the educational philosophies and techniques of great teachers throughout history – Socrates, Jesus, Comenius, Dewey, etc. Included in this sequence of classes was a discussion of William James and the laws of habit.


As we sat around a student’s table in the classroom, Frances shared this quote with us and then dramatically demonstrated how habit is formed from the very first action. She asked us to fold a piece of paper and then try to smooth it out in order to make it lie flat. We saw that although the paper could lie flat again it would always have a crease. Such is the way we learn, she explained. Once an action is taken an imprint is made in the brain; the habit has begun. Even with the strongest attempts to undo that first learning, the seed of the original, unwanted action remains.


There is an up- and a downside to this theory. The downside is that all habits are easily begun – including bad habits. If we allow a student to have inaccurate or faulty first experiences with a concept, they will then have something to fix – they will have a bad habit to break. An elementary and basic example is the manner in which the student places their hands on the keys. If we do not, from the beginning, guide them to think first, knowing the name/location of the keys and fingers to use, the poor habit of searching with gliding hands, as if operating an Ouija board, hoping for mystical guidance, is begun. The result is a lack of confidence in approach and the use of lots of lesson time to now break the habit. On another level, if we allow students to simply stumble through new pieces without a clear process for successful practice, we are creating in them one of the worst habits of all – bad practice habits! If our presentation of a new dynamic or articulation is flawed, we help the student create a bad habit which will keep them from musically conveying these expressive concepts. The list of negative possibilities goes on and on.


The law of habit can best be seen in some of our transfer students. We can work and work to improve something like a poor technique. Then, after a vacation or when under pressure in a performance situation, the faulty technique comes back as if it had never left. That crease is still in the paper!


However, the great upside to be found in James’ law of habit is that we have the opportunity to create GOOD habits from the very beginning. Then, with consistent follow-through, these habits can become reinforced so that the habit is more deeply ingrained. Imagine the possibilities! We have the ability to establish in our students (and ourselves!) good habits in practice, reading, technique, musical expression, etc. that will never leave them – even after a vacation or when under pressure.


I will never forget the powerful image of that paper with the remaining crease. It conveyed the overwhelming responsibilities that fall on all teachers. No one was better than Frances Clark at communicating the power and responsibilities that teachers hold. I have no doubt that her presentation of James’ writings on habit was her way of ensuring that her pedagogy students would establish good teaching habits from the very beginning.

7 thoughts on “Habit – by Craig Sale

  1. I totally agree with your article but the problem I have encountered many times is trying to convince students/parents to establish good habits right from the start. I can make my lessons fun, but students always resent me trying to correct their technique or bad habits. Then the parents complain me “dwelling” on those bad habits only makes learning piano not fun. I was wondering if you have any suggestion for solving this. Thanks.

  2. This illustration sheds new light for me on the importance of preparation and presentation (and follow-through!) Thank you for sharing.

  3. I heard some where that it takes 50 times to create a habit so that means it takes 50 times to erase the habit and 50 times to create a new one. It truly is a long route with transfer students. I love the image of a creased paper. There are such things as irons that can almost eliminate a crease and I guess that is what we, the teachers can be for our students and their habits. Great post!

  4. Wow! Thanks Craig. It really makes our job incredibly important as pre-college teachers. I have always maintained that beginning piano instruction is the hardest teaching because we set the habits for a lifetime of music making. This brings it home as to how important the introduction of musical concepts is to those young musicians.

  5. @ Bernadette – I completely understand your problem. As with all teaching issues there are no easy answers. I think we need to establish priorities in our lesson plans – those things that we want to be sure are prepared and presented in the most accurate way possible (so the first impressions for habits are good!). If we work this into our plans in a creative, experiential way such good habit forming can be fun. We also need to realize that many things – especially technical issues – take time and nurturing. In other words, the technique may not be perfect now, but we can make small consistent steps in its development.

    Another thought comes to mind…..one which shows how pedagogy study with Frances Clark was never easy. She once asked us why we thought our students came for piano lessons. We were so focused on the best teaching processes and on student growth that our answers tended toward things like – “to learn”. Frances’ response was “They come to play the piano!” So while we must take our responsibilities seriously, we have to balance that noble obsession with the reality that the real motivator for students is when they make music. The challenge for us is to know our priorities, address them in limited but successful amounts, and to be sure that the overall impression of the lesson is one of fun with music.

  6. Oh! I love that analogy so much! It’s a beautiful thought, not only in our teaching but in our interactions with our loved ones and our community. Thanks, Craig!

    1. I agree, Lauren, about the applications to all of our interactions. In our faculty meeting discussion about the quote, we talked about parenting applications. Rebecca Pennington recited another quote: “Start as you mean to go,” which really applies to parenting! If you want those pants not to go into the hamper inside out, start now! 🙂

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