When Your Student Hasn’t Practiced

It is not at all rare for a student to cancel their lesson because they haven’t practiced that week. Apparently, this seems to be a reasonable attitude. After all, if the student didn’t practice, are we just going to repeat whatever we did last week? The teacher will chastise the student for not practicing, and nothing will really get done, because we’ll just end up going over what should have been done during the week. Some teachers even advocate this attitude, seemingly intentionally guilt-tripping their students. With a stern look, we hear “since you didn’t practice this week, you and I are now going to practice together.”

We can practice together

Actually, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for the student and the teacher to practice together. Watching the student practice can reveal a lot, and the teacher may not have been aware of problems the student was facing. As far as why the student didn’t practice that week, there could be many explanations. Perhaps the student didn’t know what to practice, or didn’t know how to practice it. Or, perhaps they tried practicing, and there were too many problems to continue. Maybe they got frustrated.

Much light can be shed on these issues if the teacher engages in an honest inquiry of what problems the student is having. There is really no place for blame here. The fact is that the student didn’t practice for the lesson. If the student wishes to make progress, the teacher must help figure out where the problems are and how to solve them. Not practicing is no more a character flaw than is being bad at rhythm or not being able to play scales fast.

But, why do you have to practice?

I do additionally question the extent to which students are required to practice. Especially with beginning students, why is there an expectation that they practice at all? Obviously, if the student is spending time working on piano apart from the teacher, they will probably make faster progress, but there are several issues to consider here.

  1. Who is to say that the student is practicing correctly? Many teachers take it as a given that, if they tell the student to “practice this piece”, productive work will happen. I don’t know why. The student needs to be taught how to practice.
  2. Even if the student is “taught” how to practice, who is to say that the student is practicing correctly? The student may have misunderstood the instructions, or perhaps the student did not wish, for whatever reason, to practice the way the teacher instructed. Perhaps the teacher’s expectations are too high, or simply not appropriate for that student.
  3. Whose expectation is it that the student make fast progress? If it is the teacher’s expectation, or the parent’s, but not the student’s, there could be problems. In the case of an adult student, both the student and the teacher might expect this. However, it might be quite unreasonable on the part of the student to expect so much of themselves.
  4. You can only practice so many things. The main reason I believe it is good to take piano lessons, and not say simply learn on own’s own through YouTube videos, is because it is essential to have an experienced pianist watch what you are doing, and steer you in the right direction. This is not necessarily actual formal instruction, but rather a transmission of skill that can only happen in real time, face to face. It is an experience, one which through much repetition, eventually should rub off onto the student. I want to practice with my students, regardless of whether or not they practiced for their lesson. This is not a punishment; it is a fundamental reason why I am useful as a teacher.

Why you should have a piano lesson even if your student hasn’t practiced

I believe we need to adopt an attitude of curiosity here, rather than blame, and not focus so much on whether or not students are practicing, but rather on forming clear goals and always engaging in a process of motivated action. I don’t believe that it helps anyone to blindly set expectations without reviewing the goals and desires of those involved.

So this brings us back to the initial question: “why should I have a lesson when I didn’t practice?” The answer should now be clear. There are many reasons to have a lesson besides testing how your practicing went. As a teacher, I want to talk with my students about what frustrates them in their playing. It does not matter whether or not they practiced. With beginning students, I need to review regularly how they are playing, and practicing is actually less important for them. The more frequent the lessons, the better.

I am not advocating that students do not practice, or that teachers do not ask their students to practice. But, please put this into the proper perspective. We can do so much more in piano lessons beyond reviewing practice. When students pay for a teacher, they have a right to expect an experience they could not get on their own.


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