Becoming dispensable: Developing independent learners

As a beginning teacher, I remember repeating, “I just wish he would practice more,” or “Log all your practice time this week!” The pursuit of music requires incredible disciple, but I can’t help but wonder if we, as teachers, have missed the forest for the trees. Have we emphasized quantity over quality in our studios?

Frances Clark alleged, “A student is almost always motivated to practice if he leaves his lesson feeling capable.” What if we focused on practice effectiveness, empowering our students to work efficiently and independently, thus developing proficient and lifelong learners: what if we became dispensable?

Practice is the art of initiating change, and this poses a problem: neutral practice ground is nonexistent. Students are constantly inducing change, be it positive or negative. The more repetitions, the more permanent that change. As teachers, we should realize the importance of setting our students up for success at home. Last-minute, vague instructions will leave our protégées confused, frustrated, and unmotivated.

I venture that our top priority should be teaching our students how – not only what or when or how often – to truly practice, from the earliest stages. The majority of students’ learning occurs at home, so the quality of these practice hours supersedes our brief weekly glimpses. Lessons should serve as a microcosm of home learning, thus transferring the onus of responsibility onto the students and empowering them for success. I believe there are guiding principles by which we can frame the learning process, thus providing our students with a consistent method for practicing.

Now for the gritty details, the ones I have my students repeat in my presence no matter their level or piece. As their teacher, I make it my business to ensure their confidence in tackling their weekly challenges – from method book pieces to standard repertoire.

First, let’s teach our students to set goals. What’s the point of practicing if not to create a positive change? Teachers should aid students in dividing their pieces into daily practice segments, including specific (and realistic) speeds. Remind students to consider and daily reconsider: Why am I practicing? What do I hope to change? How can I accomplish this?

Secondly, we must teach our students to audiate, to borrow the term from renowned music educator, Edwin Gordon. This accentuates aural awareness from the beginning. Just by looking at the score, can students anticipate the type of sound they will hear? What kind of sound do the slurs denote? What character might staccatos imply? This underscores the adage, “Show, don’t tell,” and ignites student imagination. After connecting the visual and aural elements, immediately associate the physical motion that creates the desired sound. For example, in a piece with two-note slurs, guide the student in associating the drop-lift motion required to create the intended sound.

Third, take a moment to conceptualize the music and identify form, style, character, etc. – translate the foreign, decode the ciphered, and identify the unknown. This provides an obvious connection to music theory: what is the form of the piece? What is the final chord of the exposition? What descending scale makes up all those sixteenth notes?

Fourth, embody the rhythm and experience it with the student. Step away from the instrument and feel the pulse wholistically. Matthay asserted, “Rhythm is always alive – alive and vivid for one but always sufficient reason, that it is continuously and unceasingly on the move.” If introducing a waltz, feel the circular motion of 3/4 time by “drawing” air circles and gliding on downbeats. If a minuet, feel the dotted half note pulse, then eventually an emphasis once every six beats. Every student is unique, so use your imagination in a way that helps the student grasp the pulse musically, embodying and internalizing the music before the technical, pianistic challenges disrupt the big picture.

Fifth, ask students to identify large jumps and other places requiring a change of hand position. Emphasize the importance of each release as a preparation for the next position. Practice shifting by playing the last note or blocked chord of the first position and the first note or blocked chord of the new position. Once fluent, add a steady beat, guaranteeing students can shift in time. Slowly add the surrounding notes, until the two-bar overlap is fluent. For smooth choreography and correct sound, infuse technique from the beginning.

Sixth, begin hands separate practice in small sections, so that the student experiences success in a short period of time. To avoid aimless repetitions, provide specific tasks, i.e., rhythm counts, finger numbers, and intervals. Ask students to speak the smallest subdivision, as this safeguards an appropriate practice tempo and prevents rhythmic errors on long notes. Speaking finger numbers reiterates hand positions and creates an awareness of and consistency in fingering. Lastly, speaking interval names connects sight to feel, as students gain topographical security. This is also an invaluable step for transposition.

Begin incorporating musicality from these earliest stages. We cannot underestimate how motivating the music is to our students, especially when their own performances begin to match the teacher’s or a familiar recording. Enter aural awareness. James Friskin claims, “[E]very musical phrase which is played should constitute an exercise in ear training.” Self-evaluation is vital. We must relentlessly guide our students to an awareness of the sounds they are creating – give them our teachers’ ears, so to speak. With a gentle reminder, “Does the sound match the score?” students can focus their energies on crafting the desired sound.

When is it appropriate to play hands together? Every child progresses differently, so this is a judgment call. A good principle to follow is to first play hands together at half the hands-separate tempo, gradually increasing the speed without sacrificing the sound. Keep the sections small, as students will have a greater chance of immediate success. For most beginner and early intermediate students, hands together practice will likely happen mid-week or the following week at lessons. Use your judgment!

What happens next is arguably the crux of the entire lesson. Everything up until this point has been teacher led. It is imperative that students replicate these steps on a different section of music at the lesson. I ask students to independently model practice in the subsequent four bars, only interjecting for brief reminders when needed. These several minutes provide more insight into my students’ practice habits than a whole week of fuzzy repetitions. We regularly see the product of practice, but I argue that the process reigns supreme, as it determines the quality and productivity of that practice.

My favorite studio tips for building effective practicers:
• Audio/video recording in the lesson and at home – iPad, iPhone, Zoom recorder, etc.
• Students should practice right after the lesson for best retention!
• Mid-week “check-in” videos – students send a 2-3 minute clip of their progress
• Student-led practice schedules with specific goals – I often recommend several short practice sessions each day, to maintain focus, especially for young students
• Score study to continually connect sight and sound
• When in doubt: hands separately, slow down, and smaller sections!
• Students should repeat what they do well to solidify aural, topographical, and visual memory
• Maintaining communication between teacher, student, and guardians

These are just tools. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, but there are overarching principles that successful musicians and learners follow. The sooner we instruct our students how to practice, the sooner they will achieve independence. If pedagogy is the “art and science” of teaching, basic practice often falls into the science category. The artistic aspect brings us back to Tobias Matthay’s words: “And our ‘best’ is not what we happen to do casually, without hard trying, but that which we can only succeed in doing with every nerve alert and tingling on our work, in keenest and passionate endeavor to help our pupil to the utmost of our powers.”

Master teachers aim to follow principles, not formulae. Master teachers tenaciously seek the best interest of their students. Master teachers continually learn and grow. Master teachers stay the course. Let us emphasize the importance of quality over quantity, take time to engage in the struggle alongside our students, and stand back and applaud as our students grow in independence and musicianship. Until eventually, they won’t need us.

JessieWelshJessie Welsh received her MM in Piano Performance and Pedagogy from SMU and holds undergraduate degrees in Piano Performance and Music Education. She is an active performer, teacher, collaborator, and presenter, with special interests in piano ensemble and practice habit development. Her primary teachers include Carol Leone and Rebecca Penneys.






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Friskin, James. The Principles of Pianoforte Practice. New York: H.W. Gray Co., 1921.

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Matthay, Tobias. The Act of Musical Concentration: Showing the True Function of Analysis in Playing, Teaching, and Practising with a Note on the Subconsciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934.

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Newman, William S. The Pianist’s Problems: A Modern Approach to Efficient Practice and Musicanly Performance. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.