V.com weekend vote: What should a teacher do when a student hasn't practiced?

January 13, 2017, 9:57 AM · Most of us have probably been there: that first lesson after a vacation or busy week, when little or no practice has occurred. Now it's time to play for your teacher, and it doesn't feel so great.

student teacher lesson

I'd argue it is best to show up to the lesson anyway, to get back in gear so that better progress can happen next week. Missing that lesson can actually make the situation worse, setting the stage for more backsliding and avoidance. So go to your lesson.

I've seen the situation from the vantage of a teacher as well -- it's usually pretty obvious when a student has not been practicing. Some of the signs include a certain lack of familiarity with the assignment, a sudden interest in chit-chatting or other avoidance techniques, and then simply stumbling through the music.

What is the teacher to do? One can go ahead with the lesson plan, but it will wind up being a bit of a repeat from last week. If the not-practicing is becoming a habit, then a lecture might be in order. If the student was just slammed this week, then maybe a change of pace would work. I still remember being an over-busy senior in high school, very uptight and worried. I was probably somewhere in the process of tearing my hair out over being unprepared for the next violin lesson when one of my jazzy trombone-playing friends shared a story that impressed me: he'd shown up to his lesson after not practicing all week, and his teacher simply said, "Okay you didn't practice, let's just read duets!" What? They had a great time, apparently. And it gave me the notion that it's okay to think outside the box.

Of course, you can't do that every week!

For this week's vote, please choose the option that you feel is best. What would you want your teacher to do, or what would you as a teacher do, if a student has not practiced for a lesson?

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January 13, 2017 at 05:13 PM · I plumped for the first option. If after practice during the lesson the student feels they are playing better, they may be encouraged to practise. But sometimes the second option could be better, and maybe while playing duets, something might come up that you can work on with the student for a few minutes. Occasionally a stern lecture might be required, but never pretend nothing's wrong - at any rate, not for the whole lesson (Stanford would let his pupil, John Ireland. hear music he had composed exactly as he had written it, and then say "You can hear it won't do, my boy. You'll have to find some other way").

January 13, 2017 at 05:34 PM · The first or second option are kind of equivalent, but one could choose depending on what you think the student needs. In my view either one of these should happen a lot more in violin lessons anyway.

By the way, the comic strip "Funky Winkerbean" from January 8, 2017 is relevant to this vote.

I found it here:


January 13, 2017 at 06:12 PM · Only once in my life did I show up not having practiced enough on my violin (I was about 11 years old). I was given a stern talking to the entire lesson time and my teacher threatened to call up my father and tell him he was wasting his hard earned money on me. This last comment was so powerful and fear provoking that I was always well prepared for lessons both on the violin and piano for the rest of my life, even well after I had left home for college. Ironically, today, I consider that violin teacher as one of the most important mentors of my life.

January 13, 2017 at 06:23 PM · Paul, omg it's my jazzy trombone friend at his lesson, in that comic!

Charlotte, it seems like it's not in fashion these days to scold students, but I think it can be effective at the right time and in the right context.

Of course then, there is the Whiplash model -- mad terror. I think that used to happen more than it does now -- throwing chairs at students is definitely out of fashion!

January 13, 2017 at 06:31 PM · Scales and arpeggios all the way through...

January 13, 2017 at 06:31 PM · I think it would be a great opportunity to do some technical work, like Schradieck or Dounis.

January 13, 2017 at 06:57 PM · I'm pretty sure I do all of those things depending on context. For a more committed and advanced student, where this is an uncommon occurrence (just an unusually busy week, they were out of town, etc.) I would be more likely to use the duet/sight reading option or just ignore the lack of preparation. For more beginner level students I would probably practice with them. For students who chronically come unprepared at any level, a combination of a lecture on practice and making time for practice, and practicing with them while discussing how to practice successfully makes more sense.

I remember in middle school I once forgot to practice a certain piece or exercise that my teacher had assigned and receiving a lecture about practice, after which it was acknowledged that I was one of just a few of the teachers students who was almost always prepared for lessons. I thought in that case, that the lecture was unwarranted, because surely we are all human and allowed to be unprepared/forget something once in awhile and a lecture towards an otherwise prepared student the one time they mess-up is a great recipe for breeding unhealthy perfectionism.

January 13, 2017 at 09:48 PM · Voting on a set of choices doesn't really do this topic service. There are a myriad of reasons why a student didn't practice and no single technique works for every student. Adult students (I was one) have different issues/problems.

My position has always been that the student comes to me because she wants to learn how to play. Not practicing is telling me that something is in conflict with the initial desire to play the instrument and I need to determine what the conflict is so lectures are out.

That being said I have asked some students: "Do you really want to continue lessons?" Once I actually got a "No" answer. I came to realize that there were other problems that were overwhelming my student and the violin was the last thing on his mind. I told him he could return any time but I wasn't going to pressure him. Two years later he returned and has continued to grow his skills.

Some of the "Professional" teachers tell me I'm too soft but the students I've been teaching actually like playing the instrument and have made other teachers happy when I've passed them along for additional skill building.

There is no right answer. My route is to find the root cause and try to fix that before going further. Music is fine and fun but many lessons are simply about life itself, making choices and solving problems.

January 13, 2017 at 10:45 PM · As a mature adult pupil I practice hard often and well but I do have "off" weeks and sometimes some weeks that for some reason there has been little practice (e.g. illness, extreme heat). I sometimes want to cancel the lesson but have learnt best to go - my teacher understands and we focus on scales and duets (simple) and just enjoying music. The enjoyment gives me the burst to get back into a serious and proper practice regime. We are all human - some weeks are better than others and we also lose a bit of zest from time to time. That's life.

January 14, 2017 at 12:05 AM · You know, that gave me an idea. In the dance world, the lessons are a "class", with many students, and you take them several times a week. There usually are no privates, at least here in America, unless you have a pretty hard core stage parent who is willing to pay for them.

Doesn't Suzuki do something similar? Group lessons for youngsters just starting out, then that gets winnowed down to smaller groups until you end up in privates at the advanced levels. That may help with small children not practicing, older students........

January 14, 2017 at 12:52 AM · periodically my teacher asks me to demonstrate how I practice something specific at home (like a particularly difficult shift, or the "music"). Over the years this has opened my eyes on not only on what but HOW I use my practice time, and have learned new practice skills. Very valuable.

January 14, 2017 at 03:39 AM · I would ask them if they would actually like to go forward with the lesson, the first few times. If they said no, then there would be no lesson that day, if yes, then I would let them choose how they feel their time would most productively be spent with me. If it kept happening, we would discuss motivation, and interference from personal issues as the student felt comfortable. Unfortunately, the situations where I have taught have all been in institutionalized settings where the students cannot be simply turned away for a week.

January 14, 2017 at 03:52 AM · Wow ... a lot of votes for the stern lecture. What happened to all of that "nurturing with love" stuff y'all have been preaching for years?

Remember -- the stern faces backward.

Maybe the "stern lecture" could be some listening -- to recordings of Isaac Stern, that is.

January 14, 2017 at 04:11 AM · One of most memorable lessons I ever had was when I came unprepared. I was supposed to play Mozart. After a few miserable minutes, my teacher looked at me and said, "we will listen to Mozart," and we spent the hour listening--but to his opera, Rosenkavalier, not violin music, w/ my teacher highlighting particularly characteristic gestures or phrasing. I learned SO MUCH in that lesson, and returned to work with a vastly expanded panorama of musical ideas...spent months translating them to my instrument.

January 14, 2017 at 10:34 AM · Something else. It definitely depends on the student and where they are at in their learning. After vacations I generally expect students not to be as ready as in an ordinary week, because most of my students have been traveling and thrown off of their already hectic schedules. I like to start off a lesson with ear training activities which gives the child a chance to mentally tune in as well as physically. I try really hard to find out what is new and identify what will spark their interest in learning, and go with that. There is a wide range of personalities so there is no one recipe that works, other than getting clued in to what the student is able to do or not do at the time. I do do duets often but not as an alternative, as part of the lesson. And as far as scolding being out of fashion--I definitely do not hold back when a scolding is warranted. One student, for example, has periods when she just does not do her practicing, and this is not acceptable to me because there are other students on the wait list who would gladly be taking her place, so when she "forgets" to take it seriously at home, I have to remind her that a conversation with her mom about it is in order, in addition to a scolding. But that is definitely the exception.

I think parents need to realize their role in helping their children learn by helping them establish a regular time for their practice. This is to me one of the biggest obstacles in this age of distraction. Another problem parents can help solve is by encouraging their child to love practicing and not the opposite. I have another student who is really a fast learner and enjoyed practicing but the mother had told him "everyone hates practicing" probably in an effort to console him, but it actually inspired frustration. Parents need to realize that their words (as well as actions) can and do have a long lasting effect sometimes.

And, actually I find that students can often make a leap in their learning after taking a short break of a week or so from their violins. It's like the brain takes time to let things settle in before they are translated into use for music making.

January 14, 2017 at 11:42 AM · First, I try to find out the reason(s) for lack of preparation. If mundane enough, I deliver a short lecture reminding the student of expectations, specific priorities, goals, any upcoming deadlines, plus the importance of prioritizing commitments, causality, mindful repetition and consistency in the learning process. Mentioning respect of their own potential, the special opportunities available to them, and their parents' financial investment. Followed by scales, arpeggios, double stops, Schradieck, and etudes -- focusing on foundation skills and maintenance (I have a special red music binder with these materials). NO pieces/sightreading -- I go for the stick here, not the carrot, since most students I see get plenty of carrots for simply existing. My students play scales, arpeggios, and etude(s) at EVERY lesson, anyway... Foundation, discipline, self-mastery! :)

January 14, 2017 at 11:03 PM · When I started to have jazz piano lessons in high school, "programmed listening" was part of the curriculum. We'd listen to a track, and my teacher would comment on what I was supposed to be hearing. Wow. What an education. Very steep learning curve. I recommend this highly.

Violin playing is more than playing the violin.

January 15, 2017 at 11:44 AM · :-) As violin teaching is more than teaching the violin. But sometimes I tell my brain to shut up and just teach the trusted violin.

January 16, 2017 at 07:37 PM · I rarely have students who don't practice, but I did have one who chronically never practiced. I would say "Did you practice this?" he said yes, a little bit, which was an obvious lie. I put a note in his music that said "The password for next week is violin." I asked him what the password is, he looked at me confusedly said he didn't know, then he took out his music. When he read the note, his face turned really red and he was very embarrassed. We had a good laugh, talked about practice routines, and I had a conversation with Mom. He started practicing.

January 17, 2017 at 04:28 PM · A lot depends on the student and the situation. The Moscow Conservatory will have different expectations than your local Suzuki studio. And Dorothy Delay famously did months of in-lesson therapy for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who had almost stopped playing, before threatening to throw her out of Juilliard.

January 17, 2017 at 04:35 PM · Cut 'em loose. After some admonishments over a period of time. Eventually, you have to show him/her the door.

January 17, 2017 at 04:36 PM · Perhaps more to the point. Did you ever have to make Brian May practice his guitar? Or Kenny Baker practice his fiddle?

There is your answer then.

January 17, 2017 at 08:41 PM · So many ideas, I love all these answers! Julie, you really busted your students, lol! Sounds like it worked! I do agree that different actions are required for different situations -- but I like putting it to the vote to get the conversation flowing! The chronic non-practicer certainly deserves the stern talk more than the motivated student who had a terrible case of the flu and couldn't practice this week!

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