The beleaguered assignment sheet

Many piano teachers spend time, effort, and creative energy with the goal of creating clever, attractive, and helpful assignment sheets. These sheets are then brought into the lesson and important notes are made about exactly how the student is to practice at home. What a valuable resource for our students!


This effort and enthusiasm makes a certain reality even more depressing: the life of the assignment sheet is often a sad one. If it could speak it might say, “Why must you ignore me? Why am I neglected so? Why did I stay in your parents’ car all week?” Yes, it’s true. This wonderful, spectacular resource is ignored more than we probably know.


Why DO students ignore the assignment sheet? It’s still a bit of a mystery to me, but I do think students overestimate their ability to remember what has happened in the lesson. What can we do to ensure that practice is productive? Some ideas:

  • Be a “fly on the wall.” Have the student “practice….” practicing! Start by putting the bench at a crazy angle, have the student arrange the bench at correct distance. See if the student remembers how to do this. “You’re at home practicing. What do you do?” I did this exercise last night with a student. She didn’t take out her notebook, or any of her books from her book bag. She began by playing a review piece by memory, skipping over the warm-ups and new repertoire. Sometimes it can be fun to start practicing this way, but this particular student was in need of some real structure. Even after we repeated this exercise with her placing her binder on the music rack and studying the assignment sheet, she didn’t see the warm-ups listed at the top. I hadn’t done a very good job, obviously, on examining how you use the assignment sheet (going from the top to the bottom, etc.). I then made sure her practice step sheet was easily visible. We worked out a new piece and she read from the practice step sheet. I am going to need to do this with the student every week for several months.


  • Invite a parent to sit in on the lesson, and let this parent know that even if he or she does not play the piano, much help is given just by going through the assignment sheet with the student the day after the lesson to make sure everything is seen and covered.


  • We want our students to be independent ultimately, but it can be helpful for the parents to set up the practice area. Physically open the binder on the music rack, turn the books to the appropriate pages, place the books in order, as shown on the assignment.


  • Establish a routine: Whenever the student comes in for the lesson, the notebook or binder is always open and mentioned throughout the lesson.


  • Give students ownership by encouraging students to write notes on the assignment sheet and also in the music. This isn’t as fast as teachers writing the notes, but is a much more memorable alternative for the students.


Some of these ideas emerged from a discussion in yesterday’s New School for Music Study faculty meeting. Thank you Denitsa Van Pelt and Marvin Blickenstaff! Do you have any additional ideas to share? Be sure to contribute these in the “comments” section.

6 thoughts on “The beleaguered assignment sheet

  1. The statement “practice practicing” is very helpful. Also, we need to emphasize with our students the difference between “performance” and “practice.” (Each of us teachers has our personal definition of that difference, but students often do not or cannot make the differentiation.)
    We set up our practice assignments in the order in which we wish the student to practice. That order needs to be modeled in the lesson. (Teacher to student): “This is last week’s assignment which you practiced each day. Please use the early part of this lesson for one last practice on this assignment.” It may be painful and trying, but the teacher should wait about 15 minutes, taking notes on exactly what has taken place in the name of assignment practice, and then discuss with the student. Important points can be reinforced: 1) Did the student proceed from top to bottom of the assignment? 2) Was true practice evidenced (multiple repetitions of short, problemmatic passages; practicing those passages in a number of ways; etc.)? 3) Was progress evident? 4) Was there focus on sound, tone, and emotion?
    Efficient practice is a life-long quest, and we should not bemoan the fact that our students are not the most efficient practicers. (We weren’t either at that age!) And for the students, practice flies in the face of why they want to play the piano — they want to make music. Our job is to convince them through constant demonstration that efficient practice is the quickest way to the musical goal.


  2. This is so true! Thanks for the great points. In light of this same issue, this year I added a space underneath each assignment where the student is supposed to write at re beginning of the week what their biggest difficulty is and by the end of the week there is a separate space for them to write the best strategy they used to help overcome that difficulty. Thy can earn additional tickets in our studio incentive theme just by completing these spaces and that seems to be making a huge difference with them at least referring to their assignment books and thinking about the effectiveness of their practicing. We’ll see if that holds true throughout the year!

  3. I think often times we do not give the lesson assignment page importance. There are several ways we can do this. 1) Ask the students to read aloud each part of the assignment as it is written. 2) Hear the complete practice plan for each piece, then a performance from beginning to end. 3) Allow the student to be a participant in creating the practice assignment page (assessment by the student). What is the worst part? Why? What practice tools can help? 4) Include a musical question about each piece. Example: Are you listening to the length of each half note? Are you enjoying the silence of the quarter rest? Sometimes I have the student read the musical question before they perform a piece. Even though this takes time, the student is more engaged and more likely to improve their practice habits.

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