Friday, July 1, 2011

Pushing Practice or NOT.

It's weird. I am not a Practice Pusher.  Really not. 
You see, I remember when I was a kid, learning flute.  I started in 4th grade (age 9), and our band director had "practice cards." You know what those are, right? Little 3x5 cards with a grid on them, with a space for parent signature to the right.  You were supposed to get a certain number of minutes per week (as a beginner, maybe 80 or 100), and Mom was supposed to sign to prove it was true.

Problem is, I was a pretty good forger.  I was also crafty.  I would have Mom sign, then I'd go back in and add numbers to the "0" I'd have on no-practice days.  So a "0" would become "20."  But? In reality, I loved to practice.  I really did!  I was one of the GOOD ones.  Right off the bat, I was the best flutist in the class. And if _I_ was doing this, what were the other kids doing?  Lying. 

I was also competitive, and I liked seeing the totals add up.  I hoarded those zeros like a crazed hermit hoards pinecones or old bird's nests.  They were Precious to me.  I remember sitting there on my couch in the family room, knowing I needed THIRTY FOUR minutes to get me up to the coveted "one hundred minute" mark.  So I'd set our little kitchen timer (the kind with the dial, and it makes a buzzing sound as it counts down), and put it on the couch next to me.  Then I'd play, and stop.  Check the timer.  Play, check.  Play, check.  FINALLY it would ding, and I'd happily write in my "34" and go my merry way.

I guess it's ok to inspire kids that way.  But as a private teacher, the idea of practice cards seems regimented and weird.  They are not getting a grade, and I have no way to punish them if they fail (if I wanted to punish, which I emphatically DON'T).

Here's what I do. 
At each lesson, I will hear almost everything I assigned for the week.  If something sounds wretched, I'll let them know, and say, "I'm guessing this one got little to no practice time?"  They usually nod, and act all embarrassed.  I tell them "THANK GOODNESS!" and they are amazed.  I remind them that if they HAD practiced this piece, and it STILL was this bad, I'd be terribly worried about them.  I suggest that perhaps in the coming week, they will put in some time on it?  They usually fervently agree.

You may be thinking, "What?  What kind of encouragement is that?"

The answer is, none, really.  It's me acknowledging that there's a distinct result when the action doesn't happen.  You don't practice, you sound like it.  There's no fooling another musician. 

On the pieces which DO sound well-prepared, I'll ask them how much time they spent, and how many days.  (I'll give them a range, such as, "Well, was it two days? Six? And do you think it was five minutes each time Twenty?" just to get them thinking.)  Then I remind them that it sounds so WONDERFUL, and they might want to remember the equation of Practice Time = Success.  I usually also invite the parent into the end of the lesson to hear the well-prepared piece.  This is a double-whammy of positive reinforcement.  The kid gets to feel that I am proud of them and want to show them off, AND the parent gets to hear that the kid is actually making progress, which helps ensure that they will continue to think of lessons as beneficial and worth the money.

I rarely if EVER have a parent listen to pieces that are failing.  I want the student to know that I'll never deliberately embarrass them (in a down-deep shame sort of way), and frankly, I don't want the parent to associate me with anything but positive input.

Do I really want to spend precious lesson time shaming someone?  Is that going to help?  I don't think so.  It might make them want to practice once or twice, so I don't get mad at them.  But does it teach them to rely on their own innate sense of cause and effect? Not really. 

A major reason I love private teaching is that I am selfish.  Through and through.  I like to run a happy ship, so to speak.  And if Kate ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.  I find a way to teach things so I can continue to enjoy my time.  I do enough disciplining and scolding at home with my dogs.  During lessons, I am selfish and make myself happy whenever I can.  I rationalize that it's so I can be the most awesomely enthusiastic teacher they've ever seen.  That may be complete fiction, but I"m still teaching after more than 20 years.

When I went away to college as a music major, my dearest wonderful father would call me and remind me to practice.  My older sister finally talked to him and said, "This is her chosen career.  If she wants to succeed, she's going to have to practice without any reminding.  And she will!  Trust her!"
And you know what? She was right.  I practiced (or didn't, at times) as needed.  I neglected it sometimes, and paid the price.  I developed a whole stable full of techniques to get myself to practice, and to stick with it. 

I know full well that my students will practice or not, no matter what I do.  And that's the way it should be.  I'm not the kind of person who can live with myself if I intimidate (or try to -- I'm not too intimidating) them or act ashamed or angry.  I have also realized (mercenary moment alert) that I get paid exactly the same for a student who is practicing and one who isn't.  I also get paid the same if I set out to have fun in a lesson or if I set out to be stern and discipline them. 

Think about that for a second.  Why am I teaching?  Because I love it, sure.  But mostly because it pays better than anything else I can think of that I enjoy without venturing into the illegal.  So my major qualifications are 1: make money, and 2: have fun. 

You may want to quit reading here and go research the mating habits of lemurs right about now, but let me stop you in your tracks.

My students LOVE me.  In a peculiar cultish way.  (which is awesome)  And they almost ALWAYS improve by insane leaps and bounds.  They win contests, auditions, tests, they go on to become performers, teachers, conductors.  I've taught for 20 years and they still come back and tell me how much I influenced them, and that I am a major factor in why they stayed with music for so long.

Not the results of a bad system, methinks. 

I don't accept crappy performances (in lessons), I don't let them think they can pull one over on me and fool me, and I don't let them get away with being merely adequate.  I will tell them if their music is BORING me.  I simply expect them to be amazing.  I tell them this constantly.  I don't get all gooey when they do well, but I do tell them that they finally caught my attention!

Now, all of that being said, I have several tools I use to help a student who is stuck in a no-practicing rut.  While teaching, I have to remember that I am teaching them HOW to learn, sometimes.  If they aren't practicing, it's possible that they simply don't know what to do, or how to get organized or how to self-motivate.  I have had these problems too, and know it's my job to get these across to the students.

First, the "Super Awesome Practice Tracking Device."
I clarify to the kids and the parent (let's say Mom, since it's usually the mom in lessons) that this IS NOT a practice card where the parent has to sign and so on.  That's not the point whatsoever.  It's a way to find strengths and weaknesses in their current system, and to work to improve.
It's just a basic one-week graph with boxes for each day.  Often, I hand-write this on a page of their music.
I'll start with the current lesson day, and go for one week.  I jot down all their pieces in the "today" column.  The deal is, throughout the week, if they practice a particular piece on any given day (for 5 minutes at least), they give themselves a smiley (I usually hand out a sheet of stickers if I'm organized, or they just draw it in if I'm not) for that day.  It's casual.  THey can do check marks if they are smiley-averse, or whatever suits them.

The first week, that's all we do.  No goals or expectations, just tracking. I often will text or email them once during the week to remind them to keep up the chart for research purposes.

Then at the next lesson, we go over it (provided they remembered to do it).  Much praise for any practice at all, and we compare the smileys to how good the pieces sounded.  (Cause and effect!) Then we discuss the structure of their week.  Here's a sample conversation:

"Ok.  Looks like, since your lesson was on Monday, you practiced again that night, and again on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday.  Lots on Sunday! Way to go! That's four days of practice.  Not bad at all!  How long of a practice time felt comfortable?
Kid: About 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes longer.
"Fantastic.  Sounds good to me. Are those days typically easy to work in some practice time?  Yes?  Good.  How about what happened on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday.  Did you forget or just get busy?"
Kid: "Well, school was busy those nights, and Saturday I was sick.
"Ok.  Of those three days, what two days are most likely to ALWAYS be busy?"
Kid: Probably the Tuesday and Friday.
"Sounds fair.  Do you think Saturday you can add, say, a 15-20 minute practice?
Kid: No problem, I think.
"Fab.  So for the next week, goals include doing a 15-20 minute practice on Monday after your lesson (great idea, by the way), Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, and adding one in on Saturday. Ok? Keep the graph going for another week.
Kid: What if I manage to practice on Tuesday or Friday?
"EXTRA CREDIT, totally."
Kid: Awesome.
"Be sure to give yourself ONE DAY completely off.  Figure out what day that will be ahead of time.  Even if you are TEMPTED to practice, tell yourself it's a mandatory break.  You have no choice in the matter. Mark it on your graph as DAY OFF.
Kid: Seriously?  Ok.

Notice what happened?  We are finding the easiest, most logical path, cementing it, and then adding just a little.  There is no sense insisting on something that just won't happen (practice 7 days a week), since that sets up the student for failure.  Set them up with reasonable goals that THEY SET THEMSELVES.  Then mandate some boundaries (at least 15 minutes, and have one day off) because boundaries feel good when faced with the unending process of practice. 

The next week, go over the graph one more time.  If the proposed schedule seemed to be working, make a note of the basics of it in your notebook on the kid's page.  This way, you can check in periodically to see if it is still going fine, or needs to be re-worked.

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