Why Students Should Still Take Piano Lessons Even if They Don’t Practice
By Laura Chu Stokes | July 10, 2019
“My students don’t practice enough!”
“Students have too many other outside activities to focus on piano lessons.”
“My student doesn’t even have a piano or keyboard to practice on at home.”
I’d surmise that quite a few teachers can relate, in one form or another, to the above. Conventional wisdom dictates that for progress and learning to occur, practicing must also occur. For students to truly appreciate musical development and growth—or in other words, dive deep—practice is essential. In fact, for most of my four decades of teaching, I’ve explained to families during our first meeting that arguably, the learning process happens between lessons: a time for discovery, perseverance, and creativity.
There are many suggestions and guidelines for how to address the lack of motivation to practice. Philip Johnston, the author of The Practice Revolution, has thoroughly explored the challenges and provides excellent solutions.
Certainly, to master any art form, musical or otherwise, focused practice time and strategizing is required. But what if—for a large number of prospective students regardless of age—a student has a general curiosity or desire to learn but not necessarily the time or discipline to address the necessary skills required to play an instrument? Is it possible for a teacher to approach lessons without the expectation of practicing but with a shifted focus of introducing new skills and concepts while encouraging students to enjoy the process?
I would say, absolutely! These students may not strive to perform or acquire technical expertise. There are many facets to what’s known as the Recreational Music Making (RMM) movement, which involves learning an instrument solely for the purpose of experiencing music and enjoying it, rather than to master it. Those who explore RMM opportunities could be such learners. That is not to minimize the value of such a musical learning experience; in fact, it can open doors for those who think or say, “It’s too late for me to play the piano.” My response: it’s never too late!
I am currently teaching group piano classes at a music camp in western North Carolina—58 high school musician-campers have elected to enroll in an additional piano class over three weeks of applied lessons, master classes, and concerts. These students have little-to-no experience playing the piano. I know that many will not actually practice piano outside of class and readily acknowledge that they are at camp to explore their primary instrument further, share in new musical experiences, and socialize. So my deliberate approach to each of the eight, semi-weekly classes is to engage, inspire, and widen possibilities by:
- Exploring harmonies and chord patterns.
- Learning to coordinate two hands, one of the often-heard reasons students believe they are no good at playing the piano.
- Honing ear-training through playing by ear or simple rote-learning.
- Singing—yes, singing!—while playing the piano. This is also a great time to sneak in a bit of solfège learning.
- Understanding theory concepts more confidently in front of a keyboard.
Although these skills may be learned fleetingly, it’s possible that the process and lack of practicing expectation can have its benefits by simply making connections to other areas in their musical journey. If just one of the above concepts can pique a student’s interest, practicing-to-master does not have to be the sole objective.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that practicing should be considered an optional activity. However, the phrase “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink” seems to apply when wrestling with the challenges of practicing. When we were piano students, we ourselves were probably encouraged to practice, practice, practice (how does one get to Carnegie Hall?), but each of us had different discovery paths, likely with many hiccups along the way.
I have recently been exploring the concept of Piano Club, primarily targeting busy teens and adults interested in learning basic keyboard skills, or even those who are returning pianists. Some texts that would apply here include Piano for Busy Teens, Piano 101, and I Used to Play Piano. We are fortunate to have a plethora of teaching materials now compared to yesteryear when there were fewer methods or creative pedagogical materials available. Exciting contemporary-sounding music and hands-on activities such as E-Z Notes teaching tools provide motivation for students. Early forays into composing and improvisation can be encouraged by learning a few pentascales and rhythmic patterns. These activities can be exciting, fun, and beneficial. None require further dedicated practicing. Of course, there is the explosion of technology-based apps and sites that can ‘turn-on’ a student’s interest into non-performance-based music careers including theory/composition, music engineering, music therapy, marketing/arts admin, and more.
I recently attended a Ben Folds concert that fascinated me while making me wonder about his practice habits. His banter with the audience suggested that he was far from a model student, yet he has managed to create a unique niche as a pianist/artist. Whoever taught him would be proud. Whether a teacher continually touts the importance of practice or simply inspires tomorrow’s artists, it is important to remember that we can have an everlasting impact on our students.