"Practice Teachers"

Edited: April 26, 2019, 5:20 PM · TL:DR: Why aren't "practice teachers" more of a thing?
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I remember reading about the concept of "practice teachers" a while back (I can't remember where I read it, but I seem to recall them mentioning it was much more popular in Europe than here).

Anyways, I suppose I didn't give it much thought at the time, but in the past few months I begin thinking about it, because I have several students, both younger and older, that have expressed to me that they would enjoy being involved in the learning process in other students.

In thinking about how they could be involved without being able to play at a high level, I had the epiphany that the single biggest issue I have as a teacher - and, it would seem, the biggest issue for *most* teachers - is simply having young students practice with both quantity and quality at home. In an ideal world, one of the parents would act as the "practice teacher" at home until the child develops a good work ethic on their own, but I've come to accept that this is no longer realistic to expect of the average family; there are just too many distractions/obligations in today's world for the parents to have the energy to be good practice teachers (although YES, there are exceptions to this).

My students are always so engaged in our lessons that I find it baffling that at home it's a totally different story. I try to impart to the parents *what* I'm doing that makes lessons engaging, but it just never seems to carry over to the at-home situation. The "fire" for teaching just isn't there. I really think it's just that parents these days are so tired. Dual-income, tons of extracurriculars, etc.... They just don't have the energy to care as much as I do. I genuinely enjoy teaching and would still do it even if I had income from a different source and didn't need the money (although perhaps not 40+ students, lol). I taught plenty before I ever got paid for it. But this same attitude just isn't realistic to expect in the average parent. And I really can't blame them: teaching is all I do, so it's easier for me to have the energy to do it all the time... if I were in their shoes, I would probably have the same lack of overall energy.

Anyhow, my personal solution to this issue is going to be to train a small fleet of my better students, who have expressed interest in the idea of teaching, to be able to be effective practice teachers. Basically, I want them to keep practice engaging, give basic advice, and most importantly just make sure the practice actually happens. But they also need to know which lines *not* to cross: for example, they are not to worry about technique except in the most basic way, they are not to assign new songs, etc.... They will have to teach for free for a while, and then can charge a modest fee for their hourly services (something similar to what a babysitter would charge). I will then create "profile pages" of each practice teacher that will list their basic stats (such as experience, playing level, etc...), prices, and a picture of them, and parents will be able to pick out which one they feel is best to use. They can then contact them directly.

In doing this, they will be receiving important experience in teaching while also helping the students who would have inevitably failed if they didn't start practicing eventually, and the parents will be happy because their child is happy, improving, and a big burden has been lifted off of their shoulders (parents really hate having to admit to me each week that they failed in helping their child to practice).

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Off-topic but still related: it's my fantasy to build a system/school where each tier of student has the opportunity to assist in the learning process of the lower tiers of students, while still being a student themselves.... thus leading to a system of immersion and cooperation, not to mention the benefits to one's own playing when you begin teaching (the biggest leaps in my own playing ability were epiphanies from trying to explain something to someone else). And kids love explaining things to other kids.
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Anyways, my *official* question is this: why aren't "practice teachers" more of a thing? Are they just too expensive for most parents? And if that's the reasoning, couldn't it be argued that it's more expensive to just keep throwing money into lessons that don't go anywhere?

Or perhaps there's just not a system in place for "practice teachers" to even exist? Perhaps they're all scared off by the idea that you have to be at a professional level before even considering any form of teaching?

Replies (31)

April 26, 2019, 5:23 PM · Not just too expensive, but then you have to schedule your child's violin practice down to the minute. People with families need more flexibility.
April 26, 2019, 5:35 PM · Here's my take as both a teacher and a parent of musicians: Teachers have spent their whole life developing efficient and regular practice habits. Kids just don't have that. And most parents have a lot going on. If I could get my kids to do their 15 minutes in between other activities, homework, and family time, I was happy.

Honestly, I looked at music as an enrichment activity for my kids that they may or may not take more seriously later. Most parents do.

April 26, 2019, 6:23 PM · Paul: I have found that time/scheduling isn't *actually* the primary limiting factor for most people. Although people will cite "time" as the main problem, I have found it's actually a lack of energy that causes the most problems, and "time" is just a stand-in word for lack of energy. People don't like sounding like they're making excuses, and a lack of time makes it sound like you're so impossibly busy that you couldn't possibly squeeze in the 15 minutes each day. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I have found this to be the case the majority of the time.

Plus, a "practice teacher" would probably be able to be more flexible than a regular teacher, since their role isn't the same as a primary teacher. Their role is just to make sure the practice occurs, even if fulfilling that role means being willing to reschedule in the middle of the week. I feel like "flexibility" would definitely be in the official job duties for a practice teacher, whereas that's not generally expected of a more qualified teacher.


Julie, you will notice in my original post that I absolutely agree with most of your points.

However, in my experience, it isn't that enriching unless the child actually improves. No one likes playing the same level of material year after year. Human beings need a sense of progress to be enriched.

And unlike some other activities that require fairly minimal practice to improve, violin needs regular practice for anything to really happen beyond the slowest crawl. Not a crazy amount, but even 15 minutes every day, or perhaps a 45 minutes twice a week can make such a monumental difference in how they perceive the instrument (and in how accomplished they feel as humans). So wouldn't having a practice teacher actually help in the role of music being an enrichment activity?

Obviously I'm preaching to the choir since you are a teacher, but I wanted to verbalize those points in case others read this. I also felt like you were actually making a case *for* having practice teachers by mentioning the part about kids not having good practice habits, but wasn't sure because you never explicitly stated your opinion on the concept of practice teachers.

April 26, 2019, 6:45 PM · However, in my experience, it isn't that enriching unless the child actually improves. No one likes playing the same level of material year after year. Human beings need a sense of progress to be enriched.

Sorry, to clarify: sometimes the teacher's idea of progress is different from the student/parents'. That misalignment can lead to angst.

April 26, 2019, 7:21 PM · I see, Julie. I suppose I should clarify, myself, that the students I'm referring to - whom I believe would benefit greatly from having access to a practice teacher - are the ones who practice *zero*, or close to zero, despite all the best advice to both them and their parents on repeated occasions. They are students who essentially make no progress at all.

These students will definitely lose momentum eventually and stop enjoying the instrument, but they also do terrific under supervision, and seem to love the feeling of progressing. If a child just didn't enjoy lessons and then *also* didn't practice at home, then I would simply say that child probably isn't suited to music. But if just adding a source of practice supervision can make the difference between them making progress that they can feel proud of and their teacher can at least be satisfied with, then I believe a practice teacher is the ideal solution.

I think some people tend to be weirdly idealistic about using alternative methods to make practice happen. They seem to think that if a child doesn't practice on their own right from the start, then they're simply not suited to playing. But that's based in fantasy, not reality.

For example, I had/have a young student who was terribly behaved in lessons and did terrible practice at home despite the parents' best efforts. I recommended paying her a small salary for good efforts, and as a result, this child went from being a fiery, stubborn kid with awful manners to being an amazingly engaged student who now loves music (please note, this will only work with a certain type of child who wants to use money to buy things). And yet, I bet you 1/4 people on this board would say that you should never use $$ to motivate kids to practice.

Anyways, I guess that's another rant for another day.

April 26, 2019, 8:05 PM · I teach in school. I would be glad if there are "homework teacher" to do homework with my students. However, society expects us to teach students to do homework at home, and to teach them things like self discipline, time management, give them motivation / punishment etc. to ensure they do it. I don't know if my analogy make sense… if it does, I think guiding your students to "learn to learn" is an integral part of a teacher's core duty, we're also paid to do that. My two cents.
April 26, 2019, 8:06 PM · Ideally, a parent or perhaps older sibling should oversee practicing every night for at least 15 minutes. When my daughter started three years ago, I returned to lessons, regular practice, and studying music. I feel that it is important to lead by example and it gives us something we can do together. At first I sat in on our daughter's lessons. I would keep track of the important things to work on during practice through the week. After a while, I would wait in the waiting area and her teacher would just come out at the end and update me on what we should be working on and general progress.

I honestly don't know how a young student could really learn much without a practice buddy. They need someone to provide guidance and direction and remind them what their teacher is emphasizing. I think even if the parent doesn't play violin, they can still provide direction using what is observed in their lessons. I also wonder what a parent that doesn't play do about tuning? I also wonder if violin is a good instrument for enrichment only when there is no guidance at home. Perhaps piano, guitar, or recorder would be better.

Our daughter is now in her school's orchestra. She has a very nice bowing arm and good intonation especially compared to others. It is obvious that many of the others in her orchestra don't practice much and lack a lot of technique, but they all seem to enjoy themselves.

April 27, 2019, 4:12 AM · Horace said: "I think guiding your students to "learn to learn" is an integral part of a teacher's core duty, we're also paid to do that."

I think it goes without saying that I already do this. This is a crucial aspect of teaching violin, and perhaps the most important guiding principle of all. I have a high success rate of students actually doing what I ask of them, and of them learning how to learn. Regardless, there is always a small percentage of kids that nothing else is going to work for, due to some combination of parents being too tired, the kids being too distracted, an overall lack of structured supervision at home, etc.... Much like how some kids in the classroom *need* a tutor at home, or they simply wouldn't succeed, this is the case with a practice teacher. In fact, perhaps a "violin tutor" might be the best analogy for this kind of thing. Whereas a professor at school might be the analog for a primary violin teacher, a tutor that helps them succeed at home when they need extra help is the equivalent of a practice teacher. It's not just about discipline, but about having someone that is able to effectively dispense information to you during the week.

Another important aspect to consider: a violin teacher sees their student once a week, as opposed to a school teacher who sees them 5x a week. If I saw my students 5x a week this would all be a moot point. Try to imagine what your students would do in the 6 days between classes if they only saw you once a week!

Timothy said: "I think even if the parent doesn't play violin, they can still provide direction using what is observed in their lessons."

Very true, and I always appreciate parents who do this. But you also have to consider that some parents are genuinely just too tired/busy to be involved to this degree. And we can criticize them all they want, but unless we live a day in their shoes, we just can't know why they're so unable to be involved despite genuine efforts.

Here are a few "example" students from the past whose situations disallowed them from helping their kids with violin practice:

1) Parent A works more than full time because parent B is unemployed. However, parent B is very depressed and uses all of their motivation just to get through each day and take care of the basic needs of the kids.

2) Parent A is a single parent, working full time and taking care of their child full time, and their ex partner is dangerous/manipulative.

3) Parent A and B run their own business and are often out of town for at least a week. Child is watched by relatives, but it's always a different relative each day so no consistency in practice can be achieved.

4) Parent A has life-threatening health issues and parent B is out of town sometimes for a week or more at a time.


Obviously, these are all (real) examples of kids that would tremendously benefit from having an at-home practice tutor.

Am I just the only one that gets students with these types of complicated situations?

April 27, 2019, 4:27 AM · My wife and I have apprentices (usually college students or recent graduates) who serve as our practice partners for students who need that support because they are not mature enough yet to focus their practice themselves, or their parent(s) are unable to provide direction/feedback for their practice for the reasons above. Through this partnership, they also improve their own ability to assess the effectiveness of their practice strategies, on their way to becoming teachers themselves.
April 27, 2019, 5:03 AM · Thanks for the info, Gene! Really good to know I'm not the only one with the idea!
April 27, 2019, 6:03 AM · I'm wondering if part of the benefit isn't just creating a peer group to compare against. If you're doing private lessons, it is often hard to know how much progress you are or aren't making. And relying on the teacher to tell you that can really slow things down. Having a friend to listen to you (and vice versa) can keep you on your game a bit more, as well as training you how to listen better.
April 27, 2019, 6:36 AM · "I want them to keep practice engaging, give basic advice, and most importantly just make sure the practice actually happens. But they also need to know which lines *not* to cross: for example, they are not to worry about technique except in the most basic way, they are not to assign new songs, etc.... They will have to teach for free...

I like the general idea of practice teachers and have some experience doing it myself as a parent, and I not only did it for free but also paid for the privilege, over and over again.

But Erik, I'd caution you that it's not always going to work out, because every prospective teacher and student is different, as is their engagement with each other and others in the family.

I'd also advise you to not be too controlling or limiting - we as humans aren't cut out for being programmed or institutionalized, and a good part of what we bring to the world is our individuality and the engagement of our personal experience, aspirations, inspirations, and "brains". As a busy teacher you have a limited view of every student and not enough time to explore all possible problems or aspects of the student's playing. By opening up to additional teachers, you open up the possibility of them covering some of these gaps to the benefit of the student. All I'm suggesting is to not lose that opportunity even though there might well be some problems which arise in the process of learning, for the teacher and student.

April 27, 2019, 7:07 AM · If I may add my memories as a student here as a sort of counterpoint: I started lessons at 11 and went there alone. My mother took me to the first lesson but did not stay for it. I would have resented it if she had; my autonomy was important to me--more important I guess than rapid progress on the violin (my progress was quite satisfactory though). She never interfered with my practicing. She nagged when she did not hear me scratch my fiddle.* The nagging I could tolerate--even appreciated it, more than that would have irritated me.

I just thought I might mention this in this thread; some kids might not appreciate a practice teacher as much as the "real" teacher might like.

*Not much later she started working on her job again and had no chance of helping me practice anyway.

Edited: April 27, 2019, 7:58 AM · .”By opening up to additional teachers, you open up the possibility of them covering some of these gaps to the benefit of the student. All I'm suggesting is to not lose that opportunity even though there might well be some problems which arise in the process of learning, for the teacher and student.”

No, I agree with Erik on this. It’s inappropriate for the practice teachers to be teaching new technique or adding new repertoire. They don’t have the experience to do this. And they’re not really teachers. I would avoid the whole issue by calling them “practice coaches” or “practice buddies” instead.

As for the students who prefer more autonomy, that’s really not who this is the aimed at anyway. This is for younger children and/or reluctant practicers.

I think it is a good idea. I know I’ve read about somebody doing something similar somewhere else.


Edited: April 27, 2019, 9:12 AM · Yes Erik, I agree with most of your points.

For very young students or students who really won't practice by themselves for whatever reason, the lesson would be their de facto practice session. You can only ask them to practice in front to you. I know this is sad.

By employing a "practice teacher" at home, you're basically asking the parents to pay (nearly) twice, it's the same to ask your originally teacher to give two lesson per week?

For your info, in my place, there are Skype practice teachers available. They look at you and give minimal advice while you practice. I haven't tried yet tho. Not very useful for motivated students, not very useful for unmotivated students too…… I think.

April 27, 2019, 10:20 AM · "No, I agree with Erik on this. It’s inappropriate for the practice teachers to be teaching new technique or adding new repertoire. They don’t have the experience to do this. And they’re not really teachers. I would avoid the whole issue by calling them “practice coaches” or “practice buddies” instead."

I had some second thoughts and concede that there is a valid point here (though not that my points were entirely invalid), and that point also relates to the term "practice teacher". As in medicine, where the principle of doing no harm and not experimenting on patients (with qualifications) serves to protect the patient, teachers need to sufficiently supervise their charges so that they don't harm or experiment upon their students. The concept of "trainer" as opposed to "coach" might be more applicable - as someone who helps the student go through the drills - optimizing the time so that it's spent fruitfully and focused, and working on the problems with a view towards improvement instead of just playing and glossing over the flaws and not considering the material from the lesson.

April 27, 2019, 12:03 PM · I suggest trying something like this:

1. Start a duet/trio group, where it contains a more advanced student/practice teacher. The level of the music will be at less experienced. The advance student will lead the group to practise if they have not done so in private, and offer some degree of help if the other one/two are really struggling.
2. In the end, the official teacher comes and check the group and make sure nothing too horrible going wrong.

April 27, 2019, 1:10 PM · I think this is a great idea. My worry would be you'll have difficulty making it cheap enough for parents, yet a good enough wage for the older students.

Wealthy, ambitious parents already figured this one out. A friend of mine who graduated with a Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford and was conducting research in the medical school on a post doc used to serve as a "homework buddy" for high school students in the Silicon Valley area. Basically, she would sit with the kids while they did their homework and help out with math, statistics, writing, etc. as needed. In 2012-13, the rate was 90 dollars per hour, making it well-worth her time. I'll bet if these kids played instruments, they had tutors for violin, piano, etc. also.

April 27, 2019, 11:40 PM · I should add, my wife and I only do this for children in the single digit ages who don't yet have an established practice routine. Our apprentices (who are also our students as well) never teach any new material during their sessions, only guiding the students and answering questions through their practice regimen.

Occasionally, we'll get an older student that doesn't yet understand what effective practice is like yet, and we'll try have them show up every day or every other day for 20-30 minutes for a few weeks. This usually happens during the summer when that is possible from a time perspective.

We find the entire process very rewarding...it is a "buddy" system for younger players, and it helps our older students who want to teach get into the field by tackling smaller problems first (helping with specific techniques) before having to be completely responsible for an entire student's development. Where we live, the cost of a practice buddy is very reasonable--sometimes our apprentices are paid more to be a practice buddy than the exploitative strip mall music "schools" pay their actual teachers for instruction.

April 28, 2019, 1:00 AM · "sometimes our apprentices are paid more to be a practice buddy than the exploitative strip mall music "schools" pay their actual teachers for instruction."

I hate those music schools. I taught at one for a while (two, actually).

First one, when I was just getting started, told me they'd pay me $15/hour (out of the $50/hour they were actually charging for my services), and then proceeded to pay me $11/hour. I left within one month, and without notice.

Second one seemed so much better in comparison to the first that I thought I was lucky: they took only 30% of what I made, although of course I wasn't allowed to set my own prices. Right around the time I left there, they had started to take at least 50% of what the teachers made.


And of course, the students you tend to get at those music schools are also the worst possible students. Mainly because, who the heck would send their kid there for music lessons??

Edited: April 28, 2019, 3:06 AM · I think the issue is, not everyone that takes lessons is all that interested or invested in pursuing it long-term. It's very easy for families to put learning an instrument into the same category as swimming, math tutoring, cooking class, yoga, etc. There's just not the intensity of commitment to it--and that's fine!

I was an adult beginner at tennis at one point, and there was no point to spend thousands of dollars on racquets or hire a tour pro for lessons. Even at this point where I feel comfortable enough to play socially, I don't have the interest in investing 2+ hours a day into it to be an NTRP 4.0 player. There has to be market for those kids who only want to practice 15 minutes a day and participate in school orchestra, and don't particularly care about solo repertoire, playing in summer camps, or even investing much time in listening to classical music. It's just one of many other activities...

April 28, 2019, 3:20 AM · There's a definitely a market for those types, Gene, and honestly I'd be broke if there wasn't! :D

With that said, though, I do feel like casual tennis or other hobbies gives so much more satisfaction than casual violin (in this case, "casual" meaning you might practice 30 minutes a week if you're lucky).

I enjoy tons of casual things, but I wonder how much I would be able to enjoy violin if I wasn't even able to produce a basic, good sound on it.

April 28, 2019, 3:56 AM · A music school I know does not pay practice buddies. They function very much as "unpaid interns." The school charges $5 per 30 min session but their rent out studio space at $30 an hour so no one is making much money.

From what I've seen, the parents who are dedicated enough to bring their children to participate are already doing a fine job with practice.

With younger kids, it comes down to getting through to the parents but you can only work with people who are willing to work with you, generally speaking.

April 28, 2019, 5:31 AM · I restarted violin attending a local music school. The location was just close to where I live.
But the headmistress got into quarrels with each and every teacher. After 1,5 years my fourth teacher was about to leave. So I got myself out of the contract and found a new teacher (privat, no institution attached) with whom I am now studying four 3,5 years.

Although those 1,5 years were probably not so effective for my violin skills I would not want to miss them. I enjoyed working with each of the four young musicians. All of them were performance students or young professionals. They came from Russia, South Korea, Ucraina and Spain.
They gave it their best.
If I could afford it time and money wise I would love to have a young practice teacher once in a while for specific topics. Like working on rhythm, bowing, piano accompaniment....

Edited: April 28, 2019, 11:11 AM · "And of course, the students you tend to get at those music schools are also the worst possible students. Mainly because, who the heck would send their kid there for music lessons??"

Don't judge the kids by where they happen to be, i.e. where their parents have taken them. It's quite probable that there are under-performing, but given a better environment and support, that could and should change entirely.

I started my son in an instrument store/school mainly out of ignorance, and also as a recommendation from another parent who told me that I could have him do Suzuki there (whereas RCM would be much more common otherwise) (and BTW the RCM also takes a huge cut for teachers using their facilities).

He didn't under-perform while he was at that school, in non-insignificant part due to my being his trainer, and as he's grown, and my involvement has lessened, he has slipped, despite being in a better school and with better teachers.

April 28, 2019, 11:49 AM · This is definitely a thing out here (in the Bay Area). And it really starts to add up. Our friends' daughter was taking violin lessons in middle school. Her teacher ($120/hr) insisted on a $2-3K violin as the minimal acceptable instrument for her ~Suzuki Book 5 lessons. She was told that 1 hr of practice per night was the minimum acceptable amount, and was strongly encouraged to hire a practice coach for several afternoons a week to help her along. I'm sure it helped–but at some point the whole arrangement became too much for the family and she stopped playing. I wonder sometimes: if she'd had a teacher who was a little less intense, would she still be playing? Maybe not.

Anyway, this is not to pooh-pooh the idea–heck, I'd love to have a practice coach!–but I also wonder about kids and motivation. If a practice coach is there to goad a kid into practicing, is it just throwing good money after bad? What's the best use case for this kind of supportive intervention?

April 28, 2019, 11:45 PM · Pretty valid concerns, Katie. I do wonder if kids who rely heavily on external motivational factors will ever really succeed in any meaningful way.
April 29, 2019, 2:01 PM · I think a practice coach is most effective in a situation where a very young student would normally have a parent practicing with him but neither parent is available. I actually had something like this myself as a young beginner; my mother was very busy with many obligations and my father, having only one arm due to a childhood accident, was clearly not a candidate to be my "home teacher." So my older sister, a high school senior who took lessons from the same teacher and who was reasonably (Viotti 22) advanced, worked with me.
April 29, 2019, 3:26 PM · Good info, Mary. I wonder how you would have done without that advantage? Interesting to speculate on the role it had on your overall success.

And, had she just been a supervisor, but couldn't play herself (but did attend lessons with you), would the impact on you have been much different?

Edited: April 29, 2019, 5:29 PM · I honestly do not remember much about that period of my learning--I was five! And I had only been playing for eight months or so when my sister went away to college; after that I was definitely on my own at home. I think my eventual success had much more to do with my teachers, in whom I was incredibly fortunate. My first two teachers were Alice Joy Lewis (from age five to eight) and Doris Gazda (age eight through fourteen). Perhaps you've heard of them. :-)
May 1, 2019, 12:51 PM · We approach by Rice University violin performance graduate students to baby-sit, and they worked out nicely as practice teachers. We pay them regular baby-sitting rate, and teaching rates for the time they practiced. The money we used for daycare shifted to the graduate students. So the financial impact is minimum, and we get quality help for us parents.

We do have turn overs about once a school year as the students graduate and move on.

The skills level of these Rice students are impressive!


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