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Elvina Pearce: Self-Directed Practice and Student-Centered Lessons

November 15, 2016


Back in the 60’s I was stunned by the results of a survey indicating that the majority of students who begin piano study have dropped out after no more than just two years of lessons. Since then, similar surveys reveal that this high dropout rate continues to exist.


Some Reasons for Student Dropouts


Perhaps two of the most common reasons given for student dropouts today is that children are so overly-scheduled with extracurricular activities that they simply don’t have time to practice, and that sometimes even parents seem too busy to provide the ongoing encouragement and support needed for a child’s success at the piano.


One reason which students themselves give for wanting to discontinue lessons is a dislike of practice. Because it is usually a “do-it-alone” activity, the “fun” element seems minimal, especially when compared with participating in group events with peers such as sports activities, singing in the school chorus, playing in the band, etc. In addition, when practice consists primarily of mindless repetition — just doing time at the piano and playing through pieces over and over again, often at too fast a tempo, and with few apparent goals or strategies for fulfilling them, the resulting pianistic and musical rewards are rarely satisfying enough to stimulate a desire to continue on with lessons.


I believe that the main reason for mindless, repetitious practice is because students don’t know what to do instead. To be able to replace the “mindless” approach to practice with purposeful repetition, it is important that students learn how to self-direct it in such a way that they can achieve maximum success with a minimum amount of time and effort. For this reason, I believe that topping a teacher’s list of primary goals for every lesson should be to prepare students for six days of productive self-directed practice in between lessons.



The Lesson Environment and Guidelines for Successful Self-Directed Practicing


Students are most apt to acquire skill in effectively self-directing their practice if the lesson environment provides a balance between being teacher-centered (one dominated by a teacher talking, telling, and demonstrating), and one that is student-centered, (encouraging much student interaction, discovery, and doing).


I believe that the most effective self-directed practice of pieces for the traditional (“average”) student is almost always based on the following guidelines:


  • Plan

  • Play

  • Evaluate

It’s usually the teacher who makes the lesson plan and decides the order of the events. But in student-centered lessons, students are sometimes allowed to participate in the modus operandi of their lessons. For instance, they may occasionally be given the opportunity to choose how they would like to begin the lesson. Let’s visit an imaginary lesson and suppose that a student wants to begin the lesson by playing a favorite piece, the “Toccatina” from Kabalevsky’s Op. 27. Below is an illustration of how the above three guidelines might be used in a student-centered lesson environment to promote an approach to productive self-directed practice.


Step One:  Plan (to always precede playing.)


Before the student (S) begins her play-through of the “Toccatina,” the teacher (T) asks her to select 2 things to focus on in her performance.  (These might be accuracy, creating a mood, technical security, phrasing, dynamic contrast, etc.) Let’s suppose that the S chooses 1) dynamic contrast, and 2) technical security.


She is also asked to choose two different things for the T to listen for, and she suggests 1) legato in the LH melody, and 2) a softer RH for the accompanying chords.


So now the S has a plan for her performance and she is she is therefore ready for Step Two.


Step Two:  Play (and listen)


Step Three: Evaluate


After the play-through, instead of the T immediately beginning to evaluate the performance herself, she asks the S questions about it: “What did you like about your performance?” Did your playing match your plan?” Let’s say that this S was happy with her dynamic contrast and the T agrees. In addition, the T also praises the S for the happy, light-hearted mood she created, as well as on her legato projection of the LH melody and its balance with the softer RH accompanying chords.


Next, the T asks: “Is there anything you would like to improve upon this coming week as you review the “Toccatina?”  The S mentions a number of stumbles which occurred in mm. 19-34, and the T asks her what she thinks might have caused them. She says “All of the many changing chords in the  RH.” So the T suggests that the S circle each chord change. (Note that it’s the S who does the circling – not the T.)  Then she asks the S to demonstrate how she would practice them. (Here, the key word is “demonstrate” the practice procedure — not just talk about it.) If the S is unclear about what to do, then it’s time for the T to jump in and illustrate a practice strategy that would work. (Note that the T doesn’t just tell the S what to do, but demonstrates it at the piano; and this should be followed by the S’s doing a bit of this practice step herself to be sure she understands what to do at home.)


Continuing on, the T says: “Since this was your only problem in the piece, it might be a good idea to do what first before you play through the whole piece?” (The S says, “Practice just these RH chord changes.”) “And what about a practice tempo?” The S decides that it would be wise to choose a slightly slower tempo, and the T asks her to select a tempo on the metronome which she thinks would enable her to have a secure performance.


Of course it’s the post-performance evaluation which always generates the practice strategies for the coming week. (In my studio, whatever practice steps are decided upon are usually recorded on an audio or video cassette tape for daily reference, and they also are often written on Post-It notes and affixed to the music itself.)


In the above make-believe lesson, what was done to create a student-centered environment?


1)   The S got to decide how to start the lesson and was allowed to choose a favorite piece to begin with – always fun!


2)  Guided by questions from the T, the S created a pre-performance plan, selecting specific things for herself as well as for the T to focus on as she played through the piece.


3)  Following the performance, the S was asked to evaluate it based on questions asked by the T: “Did your playing match your plan? What would you like to improve?”, etc. (Note that It was not the T but the S who first evaluated it.)


4)   On the basis of her evaluation, the S and T determined what practice steps needed to be used in the coming week of practice.


I believe that all four of the above things would occur frequently in a student-centered lesson environment.


Some Random Thoughts about Practice


  • Effective self-directed practice must always include having a pre-performance plan which designates specific things to think about and listen for while playing. (It’s the absence of a plan that opens the door to mindless, repetitious practice.)


  • A post-performance evaluation should always follow playing. (Did my playing match my plan? What went well? What needs improvement and how will I practice to improve?) If there are problems, it’s the student who must know what they are, be able to determine their cause, and then come up with a plan for fixing them.


  • Obviously, the formation of all habits (both desirable and undesirable) requires repetition, and much of all practice consists of repetition. But to be effective, each repetition should be preceded by a reason for doing it, and then by making some change(s) in the practice procedure itself, i.e., “When I play this passage again, what will I do differently?” (perhaps choose a slower tempo, or first practice each hand alone, etc.). In the final analysis, it’s only the purposeful repetition of accuracy that makes practice perfect.


  • Students cannot be expected to do anything in home practice that they have not done repeatedly and successfully at the lesson. If a procedure such as Plan-Play-Evaluate is to ever become a regular part of a student’s approach to practice, it must be done at every single lesson. When students have acquired the habit of always planning specific things to see, hear, and think about during practice, there will indeed be less mindless, goal-less repetition, and time spent at the piano will be more enjoyable and produce more satisfying rewards – and maybe it will even generate an ongoing desire to continue on with lessons!


As a teacher, it is my hope that my students will leave every lesson with a clear idea of the goals for their coming week of practice as well as what to do to fulfill them. I also hope that they will leave feeling successful. Most important of all, I hope that they will leave having had a thoroughly enjoyable experience of making music at the piano and are looking forward to returning for next week’s lesson!




Elvina Pearce studied piano in NYC with Isabelle Vengerova (whose students included Samuel Barber, Gary Graffman and Leonard Bernstein).  She was also a pedagogy student of Frances Clark, and one of the founders of the New School for Music Study and the Frances Center for Keyboard Pedagogy in Princeton, NJ.  For 14 years, she taught piano and pedagogy at Northwestern University, and from 2000-2006, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Keyboard Companion Magazine. Elvina’s concert career is highlighted by performances of the Liszt E flat Concerto with the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall, and in a coast-to-coast broadcast of the Chicago Theater of the Air, and by solo recitals in Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Elvina  has also presented recitals and workshops in more than 40 states as well as in Canada, the Republic of China, and Australia. She is nationally recognized as a composer of more than 25 published collections of piano music, and is the author of a best-selling book–The Success Factor in Piano Teaching: Making Practice Perfect  (available via AMAZON). Her awards include a 2008 nomination as an MTNA Foundation Fellow. In 2011, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy in recognition of her dedicated service to music-teaching and music-making for more than 50 years, and in 2014, Elvina was inducted into the Illinois Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame.

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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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