So your pupil arrives for their piano lesson. They sit and play what they have been working on, receive constructive  feedback, work on some important techniques with you and leave with some new challenges for the week ahead, confident in their progress, right? If only it were that easy… 

Pupils Who Won't Practise: A Matter Of Conscience

photo credit: Alexander Ward (licence)

I am pleased to say that almost all my weekly piano and keyboard pupils practise between their lessons. However, there are always some exceptions.

No matter how much I encourage, cajole, admonish or otherwise pester the life out of them, they still arrive for their next lesson having done no practice and made no progress.

I’m not talking about pupils who have had a busy week or have been away on holiday. From time to time there are good reasons why otherwise dedicated students miss a week of practice. No, I’m talking about the serial procrastinators and the downright uncommitted: you know who you are…

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Options

As a professional piano teacher, I see it as my responsibility to give the best value I possibly can to all my clients. So when faced with a practice-phobic pupil, what are my options?

  • First, I try to reason with them. They are paying to learn to play; if they come to me each week with no work in between, do they think it is reasonable to make any headway? Of course, just having a weekly lesson will sometimes enable you to learn, but only at a painfully slow rate.
  • I draw their attention to the Practice Diary I give to every pupil, in which we record tasks for the week and progress made on them. It includes a table showing the days of the week, with space for them to add a tick when they have practised, or write the number of minutes they worked at the piano. I make a point of checking this section (empty again!) at the start of each lesson.
  • If the pupil is a child, I talk to their parents about the importance of a daily practice and ask them if there is a specific time of day when they could encourage their child to sit at the piano for a short time. I emphasise the importance of a regular practice rather then a long practice. With younger children I suggest they might introduce some type of reward system.

Not sustainable

Unfortunately, I occasionally encounter a pupil who shows little or no response to any of the above. When this happens, I know there’s a problem: the downward spiral begins…

  1. The student arrives for the lesson having done little or no practice.
  2. They play through the pieces and exercises I set for them the previous week.
  3. They make most of the same mistakes they made last week; the standard has not noticeably improved.
  4. We work through the key areas and I show them which sections they need to work on and how to practise these areas in order to improve.
  5. I complete their Practice Diary (it looks similar or identical to the previous entry).
  6. They leave, and a week passes.
  7. Return to step 1.

The result of this repeating cycle? The pupil becomes increasingly negative; and me, if I’m honest. They (or their parents) are frustrated by their lack of progress and they become more and more bored in the lesson as we revisit the same material time after time. Sometimes I can relieve the situation by introducing different work at the same level, but this is only a temporary fix, not a solution: the underlying zero-practice problem doesn’t go away.

The REAL problem

You might say that if a pupil takes piano lessons and don’t practise, they deserve everything they get. I have sympathy with this view, but it’s not that simple because I have a conscience. The “Capitalist” voice in my head tells me if they are willing to pay every week for little or no progress, I should just take their money.  But the “Professional Teacher” voice refuses to comply: I am being paid to give value. If I cannot persuade them to practise, I cannot move their learning forward at a satisfactory rate. And if I can’t do that, I’m not worth my fee.

You see, that’s the real problem: integrity.  I was brought up with it and it’s at the core of my personal values and faith. I can’t shake it. Nor would I want to.

The Solution

And the answer is…no, there isn’t a good solution. Or if there is, I haven’t found it yet!

I could:

  • Put up with it and take the money.
  • Get more and more insistent, trying to make it less painful to practise than to put up with me nagging.
  • Ask that they improve their practice schedule or stop taking lessons.
  • Drop them.

None of these sit well with me.  The default solution is the first one: do nothing and hope they leave.  But it’s far from satisfactory. Fortunately, “zero-practice” pupils are few and far between. On the whole, my students are a well-behaved bunch!

What do you think? Are you a music teacher with experience of zero-practice pupils? How have you dealt with them?  Or are you a pupil – do you practice?  If not, PLEASE tell me why you take lessons!  I’d love to know.  Add a comment below!