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Making practice records work

There was a sign in my college piano professor's studio which said "Practice smarter, not harder." For a determined undergraduate who had no background in good practice habits, these were wise and important words. In fact, my work as a teacher is devoted to showing students how to make the most of their practice. I want them to be accurate and careful in their practice, and I want them to get results. 

Students making slow progress present a dilemma. Is the problem due to a lack of "mind spent"? Or a lack of "time spent"? As much as I want to focus on mind spent, I constantly run up against the reality that time spent is an essential part of the practice equation. Despite the best efforts of teacher and student in exploring smart practice procedures in the lesson, if the student does not put in time using those procedures, progress is severely limited. 

One way to determine the root of the problem is to ask students to keep track of their practice times. I admit to having limited success with the use of practice records. Students may "forget" to report their times, some students may be dishonest, and parents don't always follow through on signing the records. This year I have had more success by being more aggressive and consistent in my use of practice records. And yet, I know other teachers have much greater success with making practice records work. 

I asked two of those teachers to share their approaches to the dilemma of practice records. Amy Glennon, Educational Director at the New School for Music Study, and Kristine Konrad, an independent teacher in the Chicago area, show how we can add enthusiasm and incentives for putting in "the time." Success is guaranteed when quantity is added to the quality practice they teach their students. 

—Craig Sale

Creating incentives for practice

by Amy Glennon

With Frances Clark as a mentor, I find that I approach practice records with a dose of ambivalence. Two key ideas come to mind: 

  • "Practicing is mind spent, not necessarily time spent." 
  • The art of learning music is a reward in itself. We don't practice for stickers, prizes, and so on. 

I did choose the word "ambivalence" because, though these two statements are absolutely true, it is also true that it is the exceptional student who will practice each day without a reminder, and that maintaining a record of practicing is an effective tool for self-assessment. Furthermore, as teachers, we want as clear a picture as possible of what the student has done at the piano during the time between lessons. 

Incentives for beginners ​

At the New School for Music Study, we often keep things simple when approaching practice with beginning students. We begin by simply keeping track of how many days a week a student practices. The assignment sheet includes a chart for checking off when each piece has been played three times, employing the practice steps (see Example 1). 

This little chart gives the teacher an immediate picture of how the student has been preparing for the lesson. At the beginning of each weekly group lesson, I simply glance at each student's practice record. If a student has reached five days of practice, the whole class chants and claps rhythmically: "Congratulations Jonathan!" If a student has fewer than five days, we chant something encouraging like: "Almost, Natalie! One more day!" I started this practice on a whim, but noticed that students really increased their practice days after the first time that we did this activity. For very young students, my colleague Rebecca Pennington created the special practice incentive described in the sidebar. 

When parents ask about how much time is needed at this very beginning level, we respond that the time spent would be "however long it takes to cover each item in the assignment well." Following up with the parent, we might ask about how long it is taking to complete the assignment. If it only takes five to ten minutes to complete, and the student is well-prepared for the lesson, we know that it is appropriate to plan a more challenging assignment. 

As our students progress, we do provide some guidelines for the amount of time that is expected at each level: thirty minutes for the elementary student each day, forty-five minutes for the intermediate student (third year of study), and sixty minutes for the late-intermediate or advanced student, with a minimum of five days a week. 

Example 1: New School for Music Study assignment sheet for a beginner.​

Practice recognition programs

An incentive to both keep track of one's practicing and to practice regularly might be a school-wide, or studio-wide, practice recognition program. One year, the New School held a "practice Olympics" over a period of four weeks. If students achieved a minimum of 210 minutes of practicing over a weekly period, they received certificates with gold, silver, or bronze seals. If a student achieved this 210-minute goal for four consecutive weeks, they received the gold certificate. Silver and Bronze were awarded for three and two weeks of reaching this goal respectively. Some readers might find this number of minutes too low (an average of thirty minutes a day for five days) and want to modify the requirement. Although the requirements were minimal for this challenge, I especially liked the way that elementary students could be recognized for their achievements. I still use the 210-minute rule for my own daughter as a minimum for practicing. My own glimpse into the world of the parent of a piano student has shown me that it can be difficult to keep the practice routine going with the academic demands of today's students. 

Monitoring practice quality

Obviously, the time spent is not the only requirement for piano study. The quality of practicing is crucial. Asking a student to record their practice session can be so illuminating! Once I learned that a student who solemnly swore that she practiced an hour a day was telling the absolute truth. The hour was spent playing very fast and ingraining errors. In a significant way, she probably would have been better off not practicing at all. 

One of our new faculty members, Kristin Cahill, feels strongly enough about her desire to learn what is happening during the practice time that she is implementing a practice journal in her studio.​​ Kristin's article on this subject​ can be found at this subject can be found at student-practice-journals- and-reflective-practice/. 

I believe that as long as the teacher constantly emphasizes the connection between regular piano practice and the resulting intrinsic rewards of piano study, practice charts can be useful. Here are some samples of supportive phrases a teacher can use: "I can hear that your excellent practice is really paying off!" "I think that it would have been difficult to sight-play this passage even last month, but now it seems so easy for you. That regular practice is really helping your sight-playing skills."

Our Piano Detectives Club program for kindergarten students is a unique combination of group and private lessons, developed by Janet Johnson of The Music Clubhouse ( In this class, we offer two exciting practice incentives: 

In the winter months we have a huge snowman poster. The children can earn snowmen to add to our poster. Four days of practice earns a very tiny snowman, five days a medium-small snowman, six days a medium large snowman, and seven days a very large snowman. When the class reaches fifty snowmen, we have a treat at the end of class, usually fruit snacks and juice. 

In the spring, the class earns change, which is collected in a special jar. Four days of practice earns a penny, five days earns a nickel, six days earns a dime, and seven days earns a quarter. When the class earns $10.00, we have a piano-themed carnival. The incentive is placed at a strategic point in the year, so they reach the $10.00 mark right at the end of the year and the carnival can be our very last class. These practice incentives are great because the whole class works together to earn the prize. They often encourage one another to practice more, "Let's all practice seven days so we can get more snowmen!" 

Rebecca Pennington

Administrative Director, The New School for Music Study​

Teaching piano and the invaluable life skill of self-discipline

by Kristine Konrad

Practicing! It is so much more than telling students to go home and practice, then hoping they've gleaned enough inspiration from their lesson and have enough self-motivation to practice on their own. In this digital age, where instant gratification is everyone's expectation, working on something until you've "mastered" it has become a lost art. In my studio, I have discovered that I need to teach students not only how to play the piano, but also the life skill of self-discipline. My studio practice program addresses: who practices, what and how a student practices, why a student practices, when a student practices, and where a student practices. 

​Example 2: Practice Organizer

Who practices 

As a mother of three sons who spent the better of part of fifteen years watching their weekly soccer, basketball, baseball games, and golf matches, I am convinced that parents should show their support for piano lessons by attending lessons and supervising practicing. My policy requires that a parent or caregiver be present during the majority of lessons and then supervise practices at home for students ages fourteen and younger. Where a parent sits during lessons depends on the age of the student and their relationship with the student. Having heard the lesson, even non-musician parents may be able to answer questions when the student is practicing at home. Until a student is mature enough to practice in an organized manner, I ask that a parent practice with their student at home. For older students, I encourage the parents to listen for organized practicing and to be aware of practice habits.

What and how to practice: 

Through the years I've learned that students need explicit instructions regarding what and how to practice. I ask that students record specifically what they have practiced during each day of the week. To accomplish this, each week my students receive a "Practice Organizer," a chart I've designed that works with my teaching curriculum. As shown in Example 2, the format is fairly simple, but I have found that a more complex format seems to deter use. 

Students keep their Practice Organizers in three-ring binders and bring them to and from lessons. In addition to detailing specific instructions about what and how each student should practice, I also make notes on the Practice Organizer pertaining to things I need to remember or what additional things I would like to cover in the student's next lesson. Parents of students fourteen years old and younger are asked to sign the Practice Organizer each week before the student brings it to the lesson. 

Why practice and keep a record of practice 

Teachers and academicians across all disciplines have long debated whether extrinsic rewards motivate students to practice. After watching what motivated my very young sons, I decided that extrinsic motivators would be needed to encourage my young students to practice. In his book, Talent is Overrated, What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin supports this theory and suggests that rewards may vary depending on the age of the student: 

"More fundamentally, learning the skills of a particular field, one of the main objectives of deliberate practice, sometimes benefits from extrinsic motivators, especially in the early stages. Even the elite performers studied by (Benjamin) Bloom required plenty of extrinsic motivation when they were starting out in their field . . . . With time, however, 'the students increasingly became responsible for their own motivation,' Bloom reports. They set their own goals. Extrinsic motivators still played a role; students wanted to do well in public performances or competitions. But in part that was because doing so confirmed that they were making progress toward their goals, which is what they really cared about. These events also brought the students together with other top-level performers, so each student could figure out 'what he or she must still do to reach the highest level of attainment possible.' That is, the motivation wasn't just acclaim for performing well, but, increasingly, the inner drive to be the best."1

Over time, a multi-tiered practice incentive program has evolved in my studio. Incentives vary depending on the age, level, and goal of the student. Some of the incentives are short-term and some are long-term.

Star Chart 

My students are required to practice five days a week. They record practices on the Practice Organizer and parents sign it to verify practicing. On one of the walls in my studio, a chart displays the names of my students. If students have successful practice weeks, they begin their lesson by putting a star on the chart next to their name. My students are extremely motivated by the Star Chart. When I first started using the Star Chart, my students were so enthused that they developed their own elaborate system of rewarding colored stars: red—four days of practice; gold—five days of practice; silver—six days of practice; blue—seven days of practice; and even green for eight days of practice (possible if students practice on the day of their lesson after their lesson, every day in between, and then again on the day of their lesson before their lesson).

One of Kristine Konrad's students standing in front of the Star Chart.

Pizza Practice Party 

Unlike activities such as basketball, orchestra, or dance lessons, learning to play the piano can be a lonely venture. It may be intimidating and awkward if the only time a student sees his or her fellow piano lesson colleagues is at a recital. The Pizza Practice Party not only rewards students for successful practicing, but also provides an opportunity for students in my studio to socialize outside of a performance or lesson. Technically, only students who accumulate twenty or more stars (on the star chart) per semester are invited to the pizza party. However, since this event is so beloved by my students and offers the added benefit of socialization, that rule is often relaxed to allow more to participate. The party is held at a local pizza parlor and attended by students and their parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends. Everyone pays his or her own way. At the party, students are called up one by one and receive colored ribbons based on the colors of stars they have accumulated on the star chart—gold ribbon for gold stars, silver ribbon for silver stars, etc. Then we eat pizza and cake. It is very simple. Many may think that it is unnecessary to reward effort and not results. However, my studio offers plenty of opportunities for results-oriented rewards, and the Pizza Practice Party recognizes the efforts of all students, regardless of their ability or disability.

Treasure Chest 

While the Star Chart is a short-term reward and the Pizza Practice Party a long-term reward, the Treasure Chest is a medium-term reward. Students who practice five days a week or more for four consecutive weeks can choose an item from the "Treasure Chest." The Treasure Chest is stocked with items that usually cost no more than one dollar, and yes, it includes some candy! This concept is simple, but has been a huge motivator for my students. 

Results-oriented rewards

As mentioned earlier, my students are given many performance opportunities. These opportunities could be considered medium-long term rewards and are still extrinsic motivators. The performance opportunities include small group recitals, a large public recital, festivals, exams, and competitions. While many of my younger students are motivated by these performance opportunities, the students who are most inspired tend to be older. Repertoire selection can also be a positive motivator through both appeal and level of difficulty. 

One of Kristine Konrad's students with his Practice Schedule.

When to practice: Practice Schedules 

Sometimes a student who does everything right but still isn't practicing regularly, needs to look at when he or she practices. It may just be a matter of thinking through their daily routine and scheduling a time each day to practice. Some students do this on their own, but to ensure that everyone can reap the benefits of scheduling, my students complete "Practice Schedules" and post them on a foam board in my studio. They complete their schedules by filling in one week of their school, work, and other activities, along with time each day to practice piano. I like to do this at the beginning of every school year, when students are starting new classes, schools, and activities. All of my students post practice schedules, even older students and adults. Sharing the practice schedules also allows students to see that they are not alone in their quest to budget piano practice time. 

Where to practice 

It seems that where a student practices should not be an issue. However, occasionally there are circumstances that may warrant rethinking where a student practices and how the location could incentivize a student to practice. First, a student and his or her parents might consider the location of the piano in the home.

A student practices in Kristine Konrad's studio.
Because every student and family is unique, the ideal practice location will vary. Some may be more motivated to practice if the piano is more centrally located; while some may find it more appealing to practice in a quiet room. When studying for school, some students are more productive at home and some get more accomplished at the library. I have found that the same holds true for piano practice, especially with teenage students. Students who find it difficult to practice at home are encouraged to schedule time to practice at my studio during my teaching hours. A keyboard with headphones sits outside my studio door, and although in a perfect world it would be more beneficial for these students to practice on an acoustic grand piano, this scheduled practice time in a place that is optimal for them is preferred. The practice program at my studio has evolved over the years and I expect it will continue to change and improve as I learn from my students and colleagues. I do know, however, that developing the skill of self-discipline has allowed my students to achieve success, not only at the piano, but also in other aspects of their lives. And this is perhaps the greatest extrinsic incentive for at least one piano teacher.

The practice program at my studio has evolved over the years and I expect it will continue to change and improve as I learn from my students and colleagues. I do know, however, that developing the skill of self-discipline has allowed my students to achieve success, not only at the piano, but also in other aspects of their lives. And this is perhaps the greatest extrinsic incentive for at least one piano teacher.

1 Colvin, Geoff. (2009). Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. New York: Penguin Group, pp. 192-193.

Amy Glennon is the Educational Director of the New School for Music Study in Kingston, NJ, where she once studied pedagogy with Frances Clark and Louise Goss. She has presented at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy and the Music Teachers National Conference. She is the co-author (along with Ted Cooper) of four duet collections comprising the Side by Side series, distributed by Alfred Publishing. Her latest project involves managing pianopedagogy. org, a website devoted to piano pedagogy.

Kristine Konrad maintains a private studio in River Forest, Illinois. Her master's thesis (Concordia University Chicago), Teaching Piano to Students with Dyslexia, has led to speaking engagements that encourage teachers to use intervention techniques to help readers of all abilities. Kristine also holds a master's degree from the University of Chicago. 

Craig Sale, NCTM, is Director of the Preparatory & Community Piano Program at Concordia University Chicago, where he also teaches courses in piano pedagogy. He holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, and a Professional Teaching Certificate from The New School for Music Study, where he received his pedagogical training from Frances Clark.

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