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Of Robots and Clones

February 1, 2014

“Motivating students to practice and developing students who know how to use their practice time wisely is our biggest single challenge as teachers.”
 – Frances Clark


It seems quite simple:  We teachers give our students excellent practice guidelines, our students practice in precisely the way we have painstakingly communicated via assignment sheet, recordings, etc., and they return to the next lesson with repertoire beautifully prepared.  There can be  just one problem with this scene:  our students are not robots.  There is that pesky “free will” thing.


Another science fiction fantasy:  if only we could just clone ourselves!  Our clones would go home with each student and supervise each practice session. While at their homes, we would ensure that the bench is the right height and distance and direct the student through each step of the practice session.


Alas, the reality is that we see our students just once or twice a week, and there are some human tendencies that can get in the way.  A psychologist or scientist could explain the reasons behind these tendencies, and I can only report my unscientific findings below:


1) We desire instant gratification.  I consulted an expert in the field of piano study, my 12-year old daughter.  She put it this way:  “We want to be the best piano player without actually having to work at it.”


2) As my adult student put it, “We desire completion and musical resolution.”  My student clarified further by stating, “It doesn’t feel right unless I start at the beginning and go to the end.  If I play the piece through, I feel like I have practiced.”


3) The desire to please the teacher is not one that we all share.  When teaching and observing other teachers, it is always somewhat surprising to me when a student appears to be utterly indifferent to a teacher’s reaction.  Ultimately, teacher-pleasing is not the most desired motivator.  We want our students to be self-motivated.  I only mention this because  I am baffled; in  my own experience, I wanted to please my teachers.


Younger teachers tend to be especially perplexed when students do not follow through and practice in an efficient way that will obviously get results.  Students’ attitudes toward piano study can contrast vividly with their teachers’ own recent college piano study.  When one is motivated enough to earn a degree in piano study, the goals of the professor and student typically overlap considerably.  We know that the only area in which we can teach is the area of common interests, understanding, and goals:



When our goals are seemingly at odds with the natural tendencies of some students, we can feel as though the area labeled “both A and B” shown in the diagram above is a tiny one, and we are swimming upstream.  What to do?  I have been thinking about this topic, and perhaps our readers can add to the list below:


1)  Endeavor to choose repertoire that appeals to the student.  Again, from my 12-year-old expert:  “If a student likes a piece, the odds are that he or she will try harder to master it.”  Student input on repertoire selections can be very helpful.


2)  Work together to come up with practice strategies.  My daughter recently came home from her lesson and got right to performing the practice steps shown on her assignment sheet.  I asked her what inspired her particularly focused practice session.  She explained, “my teacher and I decided what practice steps we would need to to together.”  Examples of the phrases the teacher used:  “What steps will we need to learn this tricky section?”


3) Avoid practice steps that the student does not need.  If we ask a student to say the intervals aloud of a piece that has only seconds, or tap and count a piece that only  uses quarter notes and half notes, a student might get the idea that we are assigning “busy work, ” and we may lose credibility.


4) Practice together in the lesson and celebrate the results of effective practice:  A lesson is a preparation for home practice.  Students require a model of excellent practice on a weekly basis.


5) A “broken record” is not necessarily a bad thing.  Students need to learn about their teachers’ philosophy enough so that they can recite a few basic tenants from memory, word for word:  “Avoid starting from the beginning and playing through to the end if you are playing through errors.  You will only learn how to play errors with this approach.”  “Slow practice gives us time to think and can lead to an even faster performance tempo!”   The list is longer than this, but probably varies from teacher to teacher.


6) Avoid having too many “in-progress” pieces on a student’s assignment.  If a student does not have a list of pieces that can be played from beginning to end with ease, they may become frustrated.  If every piece feels like a struggle, the desire to just get to the end might take over.


7) Let your enthusiasm show!  My high school teacher, Mrs. De laVergne, would assign just little snippets of a piece as an exercise.  Before I knew it, I was playing more difficult repertoire than I thought possible.  Mrs. De laVergne was always passionate about the effectiveness of her practice strategies; this enthusiasm was certainly contagious.  That, combined with the obvious results of process-oriented study, transformed my practice and my playing.


Technology has not caught up with my “clone” fantasy, and even if robot piano students existed, they might struggle with an emotional connection with the music.  I think I prefer it this way, because it is exciting to see students learn for themselves the value of effective, efficient practice and the joy of independent learning.

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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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