Strategically Planning Practice Habits


I recently ran across this article about a Stanford researcher who studied ways to help B+ students raise their grades to As. The overall goal was to teach students to think strategically about how they would study:

“Our key insight in this research is the importance of being goal-directed and thoughtful about how one chooses and uses resources for learning—or to achieve any other goal for that matter,” Chen said.

Not surprisingly, the students who set goals and made a plan to achieve those goals were able to raise their test scores. Those students, when questioned, also said they had less stress taking the exam after they had strategically planned how they would study for the exam.

The article also stresses the importance of self-evaluation:

“In one experiment, 12- and 13-year-olds significantly improved their writing skills by learning to better evaluate the quality of their own work…Kids were taught what makes a good piece of writing and how to critique their own work. ‘Instead of relying on the teacher, they are taught strategies to improve their own writing—that’s the self-regulation,’ said Emily Yeomans, senior program manager at the EEF.”

Self-evaluation is a skill piano teachers have historically stressed. I remember in a college piano pedagogy class being told that my job was to work myself out of a job. That is, if I’m teaching well, my students should learn how to evaluate their own playing and make corrections as needed.

The article suggested the teacher use questions such as these to direct self-evaluation:

“What you are doing doesn’t seem to be working very well. Is there something else you can use that would help you do it better?” or “Look at the way they are doing things. Do you think they could have gone about it in a better way?”

As piano teachers we have an important job and opportunity to help our students learn how to approach piano practice.

  1. We do this first by presenting a quality representation of what the end result of the practice will be – either by playing the piece well yourself or by providing quality recordings on CD or YouTube. (What will the piece sound like when I have played it correctly?)
  2. Then we teach the student the technical and musical components he needs to think about while practicing (What do I need to work on?),
  3. how to practice to accomplish the goal using repetitive, mindful, goal-oriented practice (How will I work on these things?),
  4. and how to evaluate the quality of the practice. (How will I know when I have played this piece correctly?)

All of these aspects need to be discussed at each lesson so that the student has a concrete plan of how to achieve their goals for the week.

Sometimes we make a working list on the musical score of items the student will be working on/listening for during practice. As pictured below, often I will layer concepts to be practiced: here the student worked first on the components listed above the line, then later practiced the components listed below the line.


Personally, I think this job is both thrilling and humbling. The way we help shape our student’s practice habits may potentially shape the student’s study and work skills and help them succeed throughout life in many different paths.



To Make Up or Not to Make Up?

As a piano teacher, one thing I have learned is the absolute necessity of having a clearly written studio policy.  I hand the studio policy out to each family at the beginning of the fall semester of lessons (or to new families, at the beginning of study), regardless of whether they have been in my studio for only a short length of time or they are seasoned veterans.  I strongly feel that good communication solves many issues before they even become issues.


One topic necessary to include in any good studio policy is that of makeup lessons.  My current policy reads:

“At the end of each semester, there will be a week for make-up lessons.  You are entitled to receive one make-up lesson for any and all lessons you may have missed during the semester.  If you did not miss any lessons, you will not have a lesson that week.”

I personally enjoy having a week at the end of the semester designated for makeup lessons.  It feels like the cool-down at the end of a long workout.  It provides a little extra breathing room, and gives us some margin to work within the limits of a sixteen week-long semester.


Recently, I have come across some very interesting articles making the case for offering no makeup lessons, unless the teacher must cancel a lesson.  While I do not intend to change my current policy on makeup lessons, I appreciate the philosophy behind the “no makeup lessons” stance.  I appreciate the fact that teachers should be regarded as professionals who “sell” their time and expertise, and it is the responsibility of the student to use the time that they have purchased wisely.


You may find the main article I’m referring to here.  Another article on the same topic is referenced within the first article.