Making time for practice

“How much practice did you do this week?”

I remember dreading this question as an adult voice student because my answer would almost always be “not much”. I was in my early 20s, starting out a career in a fast-paced organisation, partying on Friday nights and trying to show up to lessons on Saturday mornings. Singing practice was unfortunately a low priority when there were so many competing interests for my time during the week.

Alas, as a teacher now, I find myself asking this same question to my young piano students: “How much practice did you do this week?”

The responses I get are varied. Some will incoherently mumble something (= not much practice), some will go straight into giving excuses (“I had a birthday party to go to”), and some will very confidently say, “I practiced a lot.”  (That last response is always great, but sometimes “a lot” in a seven-year old’s mind can be different to what I think of as “a lot”).

Hearing the same kinds of responses week-in week-out gave me pause to think, why am I asking this question? What information am I really trying to get from my students?

It’s not that I want to police their practicing. Rather, I’m trying to help them develop the skills needed to play the piano in a proficient and confident way, while fostering a lifelong love of music. Anything that gets in the way of that – such as lack of practice – is a problem that needs to be addressed.

What I’m really wanting to find out therefore is, “Did anything prevent you from practicing this week and if so, what was it?”

“I Didn’t Have Time”

There are many reasons why students don’t practice, not the least being that it’s not always fun to do. It can be tedious and repetitive, and the benefits from doing it aren’t always immediate. That being said, “I just didn’t want to practice” isn’t something any of my students say (even though that might well be the truth).

Rather, the most common answer I hear is “I didn’t have time”. Then they’ll proceed to tell me all the things that they did have time for – tennis, swimming, watching YouTube, etc. Just this week, I had a student tell me he couldn’t practice because his dad made him play board games with him all week!

So when a student says, “I didn’t have time to practice”, what they’re really saying is, “I didn’t make time to practice.”

The great thing about time is that we get a fresh batch of it every day when we wake up and to an extent, we can decide how we will spend that time. There are certain things we do every day that can’t be left off the list – going to school / work, eating meals, going to sleep, etc. We give our time over to these activities without even thinking about it – they are just what we need to do every day. We always have time to do these things because we make the time for them.

The key, therefore, to addressing this first roadblock to piano practice is to actually make the time to do it. To prioritise it as something that needs to be done on any given day, as much as we need to take a shower or brush our teeth.

How to Make Time

Board games with dad aside, some of my students really do have a lot on their plates and have formally scheduled activities almost every single day of the week. Activities include competitive sports (training and competition days), tutoring (yes, even the little ones do this a lot here), language lessons, extra-curricular activities at school, and of course piano lessons.

I can see why a lot of them think that the only time they can practice the piano is on a day when they don’t have something else scheduled in.

However, when you dig a little deeper, there are usually spaces in the day when they could easily do a practice session of 15 to 20 minutes. It just hasn’t occurred to them to allocate their time this way because piano practice isn’t something that is locked into their schedule. It’s different if you have to physically go to a tutoring class or if a teacher shows up at your doorstep. There’s a trigger for you to go and do the activity. But practicing the piano is pretty solitary and it doesn’t have an obvious trigger for action. It’s easy to forget to do it or even to deliberately do something else instead (TV anyone?).

To get around this, it’s essential to treat piano practice as an activity that needs to be scheduled in. In the same way that you would set aside time for a ballet or gymnastics class, you need to set time aside on certain days for practicing the piano. This changes piano practice from being something that “I’ll only do if I have spare time” to being something that “I have to do today because it’s in my schedule.”

An Inclusive Process

For my students who need it, we will take time during the lesson to go through their weekly timetables to see where they can make time to practice the piano. I really like to include them in this process because I think it’s important for them to take ownership of the commitment to practice and to be clear on what’s being asked of them. Having a conversation about it also creates accountability because they’re the ones telling me when they will have time and how much they can commit to doing. There’s clarity on what’s being agreed upon and therefore a higher chance they’ll follow through.

To make sure they don’t forget what we’ve agreed, we write on their practice assignment sheets the days of the week they will practice (and even the time of day if possible). This makes it easy to have a conversation the following week about how things went.

Most school-age students have a fairly set schedule during a school term so the practice times will remain the same every week for the most part. Eventually the practice schedule should become so routine that they no longer need it written out explicitly from week to week. An in-depth conversation about it doesn’t need to take place again until a new term starts or something changes with their other activities.


Days of the Week Faces

A Little Nudge from Parents

While it’s well and good to have practice times written down and scheduled in, we all still need reminders sometimes to do what we’re supposed to. By including students in the development of a practice schedule, I’ve tried to shift a large part of the responsibility for practicing to the students themselves. Depending on the age of the student however, they’ll probably still need mum or dad to give them a nudge every now and then to remind them that it’s time to practice. With a practice schedule in place though, hopefully there will be less debate about it and parents don’t have to be nagging machines on this subject.


Do you have a story to share about practice routines? Do your kids follow a schedule? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear about it!

Posted by Piano with Po, 0 comments

Let Them Be Silly

As a piano teacher, I am very conscious of every minute that goes by in a lesson. There is always so much I want to teach and there’s rarely enough time to squeeze it all in. 30, 45 or even 60 minutes can go by really quickly and it’s tempting to cut short parts of the lesson that don’t seem like they’re “value adding”.

However, what I’ve come to appreciate more and more is that these seemingly “unfocused” parts of a lesson can be more valuable than they appear to be on the surface.

Take for example the first time I introduced a backing track to my student Sarah*. We had been playing ‘My Piano Song‘ for a couple of weeks and she was having a hard time keeping to a steady beat. Having a backing track to play along to sometimes helps students with keeping time so I wanted to see if this would help her.

I pressed play on my phone and out blared a synthetic sounding melody accompanied by a boppy drum beat. We listened to it together once through, and then it was Sarah’s turn to play along with the music.

When we listened to the nine second introduction again, Sarah went from:

  1. Sitting still waiting to play; to
  2. Casually bouncing her head to the beat; to
  3. Getting off the bench entirely and doing what I can only describe as a belly dance.

There was so much dancing (and giggling) going on that she of course missed where she was supposed to come in with her piano playing.

But that was okay! It was the first time she had heard the track and this was her unbridled response to the music. Kids are so uninhibited and respond to new things in completely different ways to how adults have been conditioned to. Sarah was clearly enjoying the track so I let her continue with the belly dancing a little while longer. Not only was she having fun with a song that had become tiresome for her to figure out rhythmically, she was now listening in an engaged way and embodying the beat through her dancing. Having a few minutes of fun and silliness helped her to relax and we were able to approach the piece anew after laughing it out.

Anyone walking in on our lesson during those five minutes might have questioned whether I was “teaching” or simply letting my student run amok. At times when I’m teaching at my students’ homes I do get a little self-conscious and worry that parents listening in might think I’m goofing off too much with their kids.

But there is always method to my madness.

Learning the piano can be frustrating sometimes when you feel like you’re stuck and unable to do what you’re trying so hard to do.

A little bit of silliness can be just the thing that’s needed to help a student shake off some tension, re-energise and tackle the challenge again.

The silliness ends up being a very valuable use of five minutes if it means my student is happy and relaxed for the remaining 30!

“Enough of the silliness”?

Not in my lessons. Let them be silly!



Are you a fan of the silliness? Let me know in the comments below!


*I always change the names of my students for my blog posts to protect their privacy.

Posted by Piano with Po, 0 comments

Play and Practice Pieces

I give my beginner piano students a lot of pieces to play after their first month or so, introducing at least one or two new pieces of music each lesson.

Being new to the piano, every piece of music has something in it for them to learn, be it technique, patterns, rhythm or note reading.

Some kids are able to grasp new pieces and techniques quickly so having many pieces keeps things interesting for them. Some kids take longer to work through a piece of music but this shouldn’t stop them from having fresh material. A piece of music doesn’t have to be “perfect” before we get started on the next piece.

In fact, there’s nothing more frustrating than only having the same eight bars to work on, with nothing else to play.

Frustrated Child


By introducing a variety of repertoire to students, there’s bound to be a piece they enjoy more than the others, one which naturally makes them sit and play. This is the start of effective practicing for many kids and it usually doesn’t take long for them to play that piece fairly well.

The concept of the “Play” Piece

In my studio, I like to distinguish between “Play” and “Practice” pieces for my students. Play Pieces are performance-ready pieces that a student can play correctly without needing any prompts or help from me. These pieces have essentially been mastered and as such, students don’t have to practice them any further.  However, rather than forgetting about these pieces altogether, we mark the ones they really like with a coloured tab so they can easily find them to play whenever they feel like it.

I adopted this concept of the Play Piece from an essay written by Dr. Julie Knerr (co-author of Piano Safari) where she explains that children are happy to practice when they can play pieces they have already mastered. She refers to these pieces as “Review Pieces” but I re-named it for my students as it’s easier for them to remember to simply “play” them.

Children like to do what they do well. If they play pieces well, they will like to play those pieces. Keeping pieces as Review Pieces allows the student to build a repertoire and allows the teacher to continue to refine the student’s technique and musicality. This builds the student’s confidence, because he can play a group of pieces he knows really well.

Dr Julie Knerr, Piano Safari

Practice Pieces

As the name suggests, Practice Pieces are those that aren’t quite there yet and need to be actively practiced. It could be that a piece of music has just been newly introduced and the student is still getting familiar with it, or it could be that a piece of music presents specific challenges that the student needs to work through.

Sometimes during a lesson, I’ll listen to a Practice Piece and hear parts that need refining, but my younger students don’t usually pick up on the same things. In their minds, if they’ve played all the right notes then the piece is done. Never mind if the beat is off and they’ve ignored the rhythm completely!

What Constitutes a Play Piece?

To help my students understand how a Practice piece becomes a Play Piece, I put together a checklist to show them the areas they need to think about when practicing a piece of music. I’ve attached a copy of this Play Piece Checklist below in case you’ll also find this helpful to use at home.

There are essentially five main components to the checklist:

  1. Correct notes
  2. Correct rhythm
  3. Appropriate tempo
  4. Observing dynamics
  5. Articulation / technique

Of course for very early beginners, I’ll give a lot of leeway for Dynamics and Technique as these take a long time to develop and they won’t necessarily be able to exhibit excellence in these areas yet.


Play Piece Checklist by Piano with Po

By giving each student a laminated copy of the checklist to keep in their folders or propped up on the piano at home, they can see easily what they need to work on during their weekly practice for any given piece. This allows them to self-evaluate outside of the lesson which is a good skill to have for eventually learning to play independently.

When it comes to Play Pieces, More is More

Play Pieces are a wonderful way to show students how practicing leads to enjoyable, tangible outcomes. Having a bank of repertoire that they can play is not only fun for kids, but it also shows them (and their parents) how much progress they have made. Seeing proof of progress is a great motivator for learning and I really like how this system really helps with continual progress.


How many Play Pieces do you or your kids currently have? Let me know in the comments below!

Posted by Piano with Po, 0 comments