“I am happy when I have practiced … I have done my duty” *
One important thing I have learned over the years is that if a student profoundly does not want to do something, there is not a force on earth that can make him do it. So you, the teacher, have to find some way to work around this. The most effective strategy is to help the student change his attitude about the task at hand.
For example, I have a student who has great difficulty practicing pieces and studies she does not like. There are many people like this in the world. They cannot bring themselves to do something they dislike or aren’t in the mood to do. This has to be seen as a problem, not a lack of discipline. My student is one of them and I realized, after nothing else worked, that she would have to overcome this so she could practice effectively (not to mention live effectively). Because she divides the whole world (people, food, homework, music, etc.) into “like” and “don’t like,” I had to convince her that she does not have to make these decisions. Does she like to be judged? The answer is no so I tell her not to judge others. If she can avoid deciding that she doesn’t like something, it will be easier for her to handle. Actually I told her that since she has to practice that particular study anyway, she might as well decide she loves it. Yes, she looked at me as if I were crazy, but I pointed out to her that while she cannot control all the things that happen in her life, she can control how she thinks and feels about them. Therefore, if she sees a scale, for example, as something that will help her play her recital piece better, then her attitude will change toward it. It’s not a matter of learning to tolerate something (here patience rears its ugly head), but helping students develop the ability to transform what they may perceive as an unpleasant task into something that will help them live better. If they can’t convince themselves to enjoy the process of learning something, I tell them to think how happy they will be when they have mastered a particular skill or learned a certain piece.
I also tell my students that they have to love their scales. Why? Because if you love them, you will do them well. If you hate them, you won’t. It is that simple. All my students think at first they should hate scales, an attitude I have never transmitted because I happen to like them. But they all feel that way, until I convince them otherwise (well, I try anyway). Of course, the students who love their scales have a much easier time with everything. It isn’t the task that poses the problem, it’s how you think about it. Students have to be trained in this form of good mental hygiene. And this is where we can help them.
You could do this:
- Give your student some annoying study without saying much about it.
- You tell her she has to do it whether she likes it or not.
- Become irritated with her when she comes back the next week without having practiced it well.
- Repeat steps 1 through 3 for various lessons when you then give her another study with the same results. (What patience you need!)
Try this instead.
- Give your student some annoying study.
- Tell her that it is a challenge to her musicality to make this study sound like Brahms.
- Tell her that if she masters this study, the lessons she will learn from it will stay with her for the rest of her life. Therefore she should love this study for the technique she will get from it which will help her play whatever piece that she really wants to learn (making sure you use bait, whether it be Christmas carols, the Pachelbel canon, or a Mozart violin concerto).
- She comes back the next week not having practiced it particularly well and you repeat steps one to three for various lessons when you give her another study with hopefully better results.
4. She comes back the following week (as my student did) with the study practiced reasonably well, telling me that she tried my “philosophy” and it is working even for her school work.
What’s the difference? With both methods she will finish the study sooner or later. The difference is that with the second you have incorporated good mental hygiene into the lesson and sooner or later the student will figure out how to reason the same way. Of course, maybe your argument will take the first time and she will return with the study well practiced. Miracles do happen every now and then, but don’t count on them. The point is that good mental hygiene and healthy attitudes have to be learned and YOU have to teach them.
Good thought patterns become good mental habits. Helping your students to have a positive attitude towards practicing is an important part of the job. Good attitude is what pulls us through those difficult moments when we have to practice something we really don’t like much. Good attitude helps us acquire discipline, which is the capacity to do something you really don’t want to do with a minimum of fuss. Taking an unpleasant task and finding something pleasant about it really helps. If nothing else, tell them to think how good they will feel when they have accomplished it (as in the above quote). Mind you, I am not saying that all practicing should be fun. But our students should become skilled in finding a way of thinking about it that will make it less onerous. Yes, they have to practice but they don’t have to be miserable!
Next, Hard core non-practicers and parents who won’t help.
* Viktoria Mullova, from the same interview