056 – What to Do When Student’s Don’t Practice

The Piano Pantry Podcast is available on these podcast streaming networks:

Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon MusicGoogle PodcastsOvercastiHeart RadioCastboxPocket CastsRadio Public


Episode Summary

10 ways we can turn a potentially frustrating lesson into a positive musical experience.


Items Mentioned

Focus Activity

Four-Star Sight Reading and Ear Tests by The Royal Conservatory

Get Ready for Pentascale Duets! by Wynn-Anne Rossi and Victoria McArthur

Get Ready for Major Scale Duets!

Get Ready for Minor Scale Duets!

Get Ready for Chord and Arpeggio Duets (Book 1, 2)

Piano Safari Sight-Reading Cards

Pattern Play: Inspiring Creativity at the Piano by Akiko & Forrest Kinney (Books 1-4) published by Frederick Harris Music

Note Rush app

NinGenius app

Staff Wars app

147 Tunes to Harmonize


Related Blog Post

12 Ways to Turn a Potentially Frustrating Lesson into a Musical Opportunity


One question that seems to pop up over and over among private music teachers is what am I supposed to do in a lesson when a student shows up with having had very little to no practice.

As a private piano teacher with more than 20 years of teaching experience, I have struggled with the same question off and on over the years. We want our students to make progress and feel like time is not wasted, so when you feel like you’re repeating the same material once again, yes, it’s very easy to feel irritated and, in turn, risk have the lesson take on a sour note.

Ultimately, what do we achieve by letting that attitude take over? It doesn’t really feel good for anyone to approach it with “OK, we’re were just going to have to go over the same things we did last week.”

So, in todays episode we are tackling 10 things we can do to turn a potentially frustrating lesson into a positive musical experience.

I’m Amy Chaplin and you’re listening to the Piano Pantry Podcast

Do you have students that ever come into lessons squirrelly because maybe they just got out of school and haven’t had a brain break or maybe they want to spend 5 minutes telling you everything about their day.

Try including a short little 30-second focus activity to bring them into the lesson time. It could be a short series of body stretches and movements you do every time, a series of echo patterns or playbacks or even a brief listening activity.

A few years ago, I came up with a fun chant-like activity that starts like this:

“Look to the left and right, tilt your head side to side; Gentle twist from the waist, body circles, that’s the way. Lift your shoulders up, up, up; Let them go down, down, down” and it continues for several more phrases.

I found this type of focus activity useful for any age whether I was using it as a focus activity for younger students or touting it as a way to stimulate circulation (as Marvin Blickenstaff would say) for older students before diving into the lesson.

If you’re interested in checking out this particular activity I created, find it and more in the shop on Piano Pantry.com – grab the link in the show notes.

Not letting ourselves get frustrated when students come in and tell us they haven’t practiced is something we’ll probably always have to work at. Don’t get me wrong – if it’s something that’s ongoing and habitual – that’s a whole other topic for another time. What we’re talking about today is the occasional time that students may have just had a busy week or were out of town since their last lesson, or just didn’t prioritize.

Just the other day I had a student tell me flat out they didn’t practice much because they chose to play games instead. Rather than shaming them, I always begin by thanking them for being up-front and honest and taking ownership of responsibilities. Then I assure them I’m not mad, it’s not the end of the world, and there are always things we can work on – all of which I’ll share with you today.

If we dig a little deeper, though, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, I think it’s possible that the frustration may not just be that the student didn’t make progress on repertoire but that deep down, we’ve now been put on the spot to perform in a setting we weren’t planning for.

Am I hitting a nerve, maybe just a little?

The good news is as teachers, all we need is a toolbox of musical experiences we can pull out of our back pocket at the drop of a hat. Once you have all of these compiled and filed away in your mind, or maybe even on a reference list you keep next to the piano, perhaps we can begin to look at it not just as an intrusion in our plan, but an opportunity to do things we perhaps don’t normally take time to do because it’s easy to just focus on passing pieces.

OK, I better get my list going. Here we go…

#1 – Sightread… anything

Sightreading is a super-easy tool to pull out because you can keep a stash of sightreading materials all together right next to the piano. Some of my favorites include the Four-Star Sightreading series from The Royal Conservatory and the sightreading cards from Piano Safari. There is also a series of duet books out there by Wynn-Anne Rossi and Victoria McArthur called Get Ready that are duets with the student playing pentascales, major scales, minor scales, or chords and arpeggios. I would only recommend you do ones students are super confident on the technique patterns.

You don’t even need special materials to do this really, just pull out books that are a couple of levels below their playing level and have them sightread actual repertoire

By the way, all of the examples you will hear today, you can find in a blog post on PianoPantry.com. It will all be linked for you in the show notes. So don’t worry about pulling over or hitting pause to write it down.

#2 – Practice reading various textures.

For some of your more advanced students, keep some old hymn books or even choral scores on hand and have them work on reading 2, 3, and 4 part part-writing

#3 – Do some improvising.

Books like Forrest Kinney’s Pattern Play Series are nice to keep on hand just to give you some easy frameworks. For younger students, you could have them write out a 4-line story and then give them parameters in order to create. Such as have them decide if they will play loud or soft, fast or slow, on what part of the piano – all of these things to help fit the mood of the story or the animal it is about.

#4 – Games or Flashcards

Perhaps one of these easiest or most obvious things we can do is just to do some activities that reinforce musical concepts whether it’s practicing notes on an app like Note Rush, Staff Wars, or Ningenius, or pulling out a special piano game. It might even be a good time to use a game you usually reserve for group classes because they take a little longer to complete than what you might normally use for a quick game in a lesson time.

#5 – Teach them some new practice techniques

Maybe you spend half the lesson time going over their pieces but you teach them a game that they can do at home in their practice time to change it up. Ask them how they normally practice a piece and, instead of telling them their not doing it right by just playing through it once, tell them that you want to challenge them to try something different in their practice this week like practicing the piece backward. Then, proceed to walk them through the process of practicing it in reverse. Say, the last 4 measures, then the last 8 measures, then 12, you get the idea

#6 – Switch Roles

Back in the day, when I used to sit on a roller swivel chair, my students especially loved switching roles. (I always gave them to one good swirl then after that it was stationary.)

You could play a piece at their level or a little below that they don’t know, making intentional mistakes along the way, and have them listen and tell you what you could improve – they get to be the teacher.

Did you miss incoporating dynamics? Did you play the wrong rhythm in measure 3? Did you play at the correct correct tempo marking?

Enlist them to be engaged and active listeners.

#7 – Perform for them

How often do our students really get to hear us play? They might hear us play their pieces but what about at our level? Take 5 minutes to perform a piece for them. For some of my older students, I might ask them to follow the score and, when I stop randomly, see if they can point out where I am in the piece.

You could then talk to them about things they heard – maybe they’re in aw of how much sound you can get out of the piano and you can talk about how they can get a beautiful loud tone too by playing with good arm weight and so forth.

#8 – Practice harmonizing or transposing

Choose simple tunes that use tonic and dominant harmonies to begin and just sing the tune while playing around with adding harmony – chord roots in the left and root position chords or blocked chords in chose positions or in inversions for smooth movement are an easy way to begin.

There is a download of 147 Tunes to Harmonize has lots of songs to choose from available on PianoPantry.com

Take short sight-reading exercises and practice transposing into different keys

#9 – Have Musical “Conversations”

Do a series of aural rhythm pattern echos…

echo pattern

play on one key

create a simple melody

Question and answer phrase

Tonal patterns in chord progression positions

#10 – Play “I Spy”

Grab a stack of music and have them randomly open to a piece, then quiz them on the score. How many measures – where’s measure 19, how many Low C’s do you find in the song, what key is it in? How do you know it’s in harmonic minor (we see accidentals on the raised 7th).

  • How F# are there in the song?
  • “Find a single eighth rest on beat number 4.”
  • “How many times does it change keys?”
  • How many times do the dynamics change

There are so many ways we can create a rich musical environment – this list is just the beginning. Whatever activity you choose, remember that our main goal is a embrace what could easily be a negative experience into a successful and joyful musical one!

Thanks for sticking around to hear today’s tiny tip. I wanted to share something with you that I’ve been doing that really helps me feel organized in my day and that is to visualize myself going through the day. The best time to do this is at the end of the day going into the next. Visualize your entire day starting with your morning routine, what your plans for meals are, your work schedule, projects that may be on the priority list to be completed, and more. Of course, life happens and it’s realistic to realize it may not all work exactly that way we visualize but I have found the practice to be crucial in helping ensure highest priority items are not delayed by busy work. Give it a try – it takes almost no time or effort and yet can help achieve great results.