practice piano

The Practice Detective Part 1: Why Lucy Hated to Practice Piano

Lucy’s mom looked broken. “She won’t practice piano! No matter what I do, she refuses to practice. But she still likes taking lessons. I told her she has to practice or I’ll pull her from lessons and she STILL isn’t practicing. We might only be able to do this till the end of the month unless something changes.” Uh-oh. Here we go again. It was time to figure out why Lucy didn’t want to practice piano.

It wasn’t due to any lack of love for music, of course. Lucy loved to play random stuff every day, and she was getting good at improvising melodies. She had really enjoyed some of those easy classical pieces in her Faber Piano Adventures book a few months ago. But for some strange reason, she just didn’t want to “practice” anything. Her improvisations were totally random and she hadn’t hit any of her weekly goals in a while.

This scene happens literally every week for some teachers. Years ago, I found a great way to deal with it. WARNING: When you read my solution in Part 2, it is going to seem totally wrong for a second.

“Lucy, why don’t you want to practice piano?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” she muttered. Typical 11 year old response. She was unconsciously nominating me for a job I had never signed up for: the “Practice Detective”. I now had to figure out why she wasn’t practicing, because she clearly wasn’t going to tell me. Her frustrated mother was in the dark, too, but sometimes kids will open up to a mentor or respected adult who isn’t their mom or dad. Knowing this, I politely asked her mom if we could have a few minutes to discuss things.

After Mom went and sat in the waiting room, I asked a better question. “Lucy, I used to hate practicing when I was your age. I really hated having to play other people’s music because I just wanted to write my own music. When I told my piano teacher about it, she taught me how to write my own songs down. It changed everything for me. What do you hate about practicing, Lucy?”

Her mood lifted a little bit, because she could see that I had been in her shoes before, and she could feel how much I genuinely cared about her opinion, and her happiness. I might not have had the same needs, but I was sharing my story with her. So she told me a little about her story.

“Practicing isn’t fun anymore.”

Now we were getting somewhere. I dug a little deeper.

“What isn’t fun about it?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” She said. Excellent total lack of useful information.

“Lucy, do you get confused sometimes?”

“Yes”, she said. I could see how that might be true, as she was learning Burgmüller’s “Arabesque.” There are a couple of tricky spots in it that we had been going over in slow motion. I asked another question.

“Can you tell me what is confusing? Do you have trouble reading the notes? Or is the rhythm confusing for you? Maybe we can go over the rhythm today.”

A look of guilt flashed across her face. “Sometimes it’s hard. I know I should practice more. I mean I could do it if I tried more.”

It suddenly occurred to me that there might be another reason she wasn’t practicing. I already knew she had the technical foundation to play “Arabesque” with a little work. Something else was going on. “Lucy,” I asked, “Do you want to learn a different song? What kind of music do you normally listen to?”

Her answer was quick and took me off guard. “Maroon 5!”

Ok, I thought. Here’s the problem. She wants to learn a Maroon 5 song and she’s actually bored with this Burgmüller piece. But she also had told me that she wanted to learn classical music. Her parents had expectations that she’d play “Arabesque” in the upcoming recital. And even if she was going to also learn a pop song, the foundation she was receiving in basic reading skills, harmonic analysis, and technique, would make a huge difference in the future. I couldn’t just let her abandon this Burgmüller piece. But I also had to figure out a way to motivate her to practice piano.

What do you think I did at that point? Drop a comment below and tell me what you’d do as a Practice Detective, and check out Part 2 of this series for my answer!