There’s a particular place a lot of students end up in that I’m sure a lot of music teachers know all too well. I’ve always called it “Practice Purgatory” and if there’s a time a student will drop off, this is usually the time. It’s a time that can be frustrating for the parents, teachers, and especially the students. So what is it Practice Purgatory, and how do we prevent it, or at least get past it if we’re already stuck in it?
Practice Purgatory is the difficult spot in a student’s growth early on, usually within the first few months of learning. It can rear its ugly head again later on as well, however. Basically, the student is stuck. They have gone as far as they can go with their current technical ability to the point where showing some new technical ideas or songs would overwhelm them, but they are getting bored of what they’re working on. I find this is especially true of guitar because of some of its physical demands. It takes awhile for a student to be able to strum along perfectly in time with some open chords, even if the student is a great practicer, and this amount of time can be really boring for the student if the teacher doesn’t approach it in the right way. How can we move on to barre chords and other songs if they’re still struggling with G-Em-C-D, but still keep their interest through that journey? It’s tempting to just keep throwing things at them to keep their interest, but this doesn’t do any good for the student if it ends up leaving fundamental holes in their playing.
This can be a particularly nasty cycle. A student has been working on something for awhile, and has been making some good progress, but is starting to get bored. Because they’re getting bored, they start to practice this trouble area less and less. This means they’re not going to progress as quickly, meaning more weeks they need to spend on it, which means they only get more bored, practice less instead of more, and so on.
This is what we teachers are here for. Sure, some students are extremely self motivated and will push through, but a lot of students need to be nudged. In these cases I like to see myself more as a coach than a teacher.
The obvious thing to do here is try to explain to the student why it is we need to get past this hurdle. For some students, this is all you need to do, but for a lot, they need some steady reminders. This is especially true for some younger students. If what you’re saying doesn’t seem to be sticking, than there’s no point in continually saying it in the exact same way. As a teacher, you’re responsibility is to be able to explain the same idea in a huge amount of ways. What might click with one student, won’t necessarily click with another. Through experience, you’ll accumulate a lot different approaches, but it never hurts to try and prepare ahead of time with a mental checklist of ideas. Getting the parents on board with this really helps as well so that the student is reminded beyond their normal lesson time.
Sometimes, it’s better to just show them rather than tell them. Sometimes playing one of their eventual goals and showing them how it’s built off what they’re working on at the time can be very enlightening for them. Seeing these techniques in action can really put a sense of purpose into their practicing, and can turn a below average practicer to a practice fiend. At times, this will only be in a quick burst before practice starts to fizzle out again, so remember to make it a point to remind them. In some extreme cases I even try to have the student play the song to really sink this message in. You have to be careful doing this with all students though, because this can potentially be tough for some students with low self-esteem. You should be able to assess your students personality type and see if this would work for them.
I think what’s equally important here, however, is to actually be preemptive. Sometimes if a student finds themselves getting stuck in Practice Purgatory, they feel like it’s over no matter what you say. This can be helped by talking about these challenges ahead of time. I personally not only do this specifically before talking about something new for the week, but will bring it up in general when I can. Again, steady reminders are helpful. Developing a strong practicing habit early on will very often make it easier to push through. If a student is already a lackluster practicer, all of a sudden hunkering down when they’re already feeling bored is a bit unlikely. As a teacher, your job is to communicate ideas and get these habits formed as soon as possible. Getting students hooked on results is the easy part, but getting them to fall in love with the process will always produce a happier and better student.
So don’t freak out if you find a student of yours is stuck in Practice Purgatory. You as a teacher can get them through this. Just don’t be one of those teachers who just says “Well keep practicing and you’ll get it.” This will not motivate a majority of students. We want more musicians in this world, not less, so take this with great responsibility.
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Guitar Instructor, Co-Owner
Falls Music School