How teenagers practice

I suspect all piano teachers broadly agree on the importance and value of consistent and deliberate practicing for all students, and that practicing is essential for successful learning and progression. How our students practice is in no small part down to us as teachers: during lessons we will suggests areas which need special attention and offer strategies for productive practicing. But once the student gets home, it is largely down to them and their personal motivation to ensure the practicing is done and done properly.

There is much to be gained from observing and understanding how professional musicians practice, and even the most junior-level students can learn from the habits of professionals. Productive, successful practicing, such as professionals employ, requires a high level of self-regulation which enables the musician to achieve specified goals.

Self-regulation involves:

  • planning, goal-setting and motivation
  • self-instructions and observation
  • self-evaluation and reflection

In addition to these key areas, the process of practicing includes knowing the right practice strategy to fit a specific task (for example, memorisation or rapid leaps) and being flexible about that strategy if it proves unsuitable t for the specific task.

An article in Psychology of Music highlights some common “types” of teenage pianist which I am sure most of us have encountered in the course of our teaching:

The “somewhat effective” practicer: this student takes his/her own notes for practicing in lessons and has developed reasonable practice goals. When he/she practices, he/she completes the assigned tasks (sight-reading for example), and is engaged when practicing his/her pieces, to the extent that he/she is able to identify errors and inconsistencies and puts these issues right by isolating or “quarantining” the specific areas which need attention. He/She is able to reflect on what he/she has achieved and what still needs to be done, and is satisfied that he/she is making good progress. He/She may even feed this back to his/her teacher at the next lesson, discussing the strategies he/she employed during independent practicing at home, and collaborating with his/her teacher on goals for future practicing. This type of student tends to make consistent and noticeable progress

The “surface” practicer: we all know this student……! She/he’s the one who plays the assigned repertoire from start to finish, stumbling over certain notes, chords or passages, but does not stop to reflect on or fix the errors, and feels that having got to the end of the piece she/he has “done the practicing”. Her/His teacher has highlighted some areas that need specific attention – she/he skims through these, repeating errors yet hardly pausing to reflect on how they might be fixed. She/He does not plan in advance or set goals for practicing, despite clear instructions in her/his practice notebook from her/his teacher. At her/his next lesson she/he might “wing it” to get through her/his pieces when played for his teacher.

So why do teenagers find it difficult to practice effectively? In my experience, a number of factors influence the way in which teenagers practice. These include:

  1. Unclear or confusing instructions from the teacher
  2. Student is unable to identify specific issues or problems in their repertoire
  3. Student is unable to judge or imagine how the music they are practicing should sound when played correctly
  4. An inability to transfer skills and techniques learnt in practicing one piece to new repertoire
  5. Over-reliance on teacher to tell students what to do
  6. Feeling overwhelmed by the task in hand or the thought of having to do 30-40 minutes practicing in one go

1 & 2. It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure the student understands the assigned practicing and is clear about what needs to be done between lessons. I find it helpful during the lesson to ask the student to identify problem areas, state what they should be practicing and to then prioritise specific sections of the music. I or the student then write these things in the practice notebook, often numbering them in order of priority. By asking the student to specify the practice goals, we make him/her complicit in the activity of practicing and give him/her a greater sense of autonomy, which in turn builds confidence.

3. Play the music to the student during the lesson, or listen to recordings, YouTube clips or Spotify tracks. Make these resources available between lessons, perhaps via the teacher’s website. Ask the student to listen in an active and engaged way and to highlight certain features of the music, such as articulation, dynamics or changes in tempo. I encourage all of my students to listen to and around the repertoire they are learning – not to imitate or copy good recordings or performances but to simply hear how the music is presented and to give them ideas about how they might work towards a desired sound in the music.

4. Clearly demonstrate to students, using explicit examples within their repertoire, how we never learn technique or skills in isolation: voicing a Bach invention for example provides us with the tools to highlight different voices in Beethoven or Schubert.

5. See 1 & 2 above. To encourage students to act and think independently and to self-critique, I ask all my students, teenage or adult, to comment on their playing at lessons before I offer my own observations. Many will inevitably focus on errors initially, so I ask them to find three things which they were pleased with and to comment positively. This kind of positive critical self-feedback is a crucial factor in working independently of the teacher and encourages confidence, self-regulation and self-determination in practicing,

6. Many young people are ridiculously over-scheduled these days, not only burdened by unreasonable amounts of homework from school, but also an abundance of extra-curricular activities from sport to private language or maths lessons. Making time for piano practice in such a cramped schedule can feel like a Sisyphean task for some teenagers. In addition. teenagers are often very tired from school and from the physical changes they are undergoing as they grow up. Thus, as teachers we need to be sympathetic and to offer practical ways to enable them to practice without feeling overwhelmed. Point out that practicing need not be done in one single chunk – two sets of 20 minutes at different times of the day may well be more productive, provided the student knows how and what to practice. Encourage “little and often” rather a long practice session the day before the next lesson. Set smaller, more achievable goals – ask a student to prepare a single line of music for the next lesson, rather than a whole page. I have found this “marginal gain” approach particularly useful for those students who are time-poor. Above all, encourage the student to enjoy their music and to gain satisfaction and a sense of personal achievement from their practicing.

Further reading

Self-regulation of teenaged pianists during at-home practice