When Practicing Goes Off the Rails

By Jason Heath

Everyone has a bad week of practicing now and then. I’m certainly no exception!

This happened once every few weeks for me in college. Maybe I had a big project. Maybe I was doing a lot of traveling. Whatever the circumstances, life got in the way, and suddenly I found myself realizing that I haven’t actually done a thing since last week’s lesson.

As a student, what should I do in this situation?  De-rail the lesson with conversation?  Fake it and brace myself for the same old comments when I can’t play anything?  Just admit that I had a bad week?

It must have been just as obvious to my teachers when I didn’t practice as it is to me with my own students now.

The problem was that now they were stuck with me for the next hour.

Handling a Bad Week of Practicing

Now that I am a teacher, I see things from a different perspective. Early on in my teaching career, I used to get visibly mad when my students didn’t practice. That sometimes produced results, but down deep it just didn’t sit right with me, and as I got older I learned other mechanisms that worked more effectively for me.

These days, my new mantra is “how can I help?”  After all, this person is paying me for my expertise, whether directly out of their pocket in private situations or through their student loans in a college setting.

Do I wish that they had practiced? Of course, and if it becomes habitual then we have a serious conversation and I try to help.

Some of my colleagues make their non-practicing students practice in the studio on their own for most of the lesson. These colleagues will leave the room out to socialize, catch up on email, or check Facebook, and then come back for the last 10 minutes of the lesson to listen to what the student has now practiced.  While I understand this tactic (you’re wasting my time by not practicing, so you will now spend this lesson time practicing), I’ve never really been able to do that, at least not since my first few years teaching (when I was a little more of a hothead).

Tactics for Handling “Bad Practice Week” Lessons

These days, I find that I do one of three things with students when they don’t practice:

1. Practice with them – Maybe I’m a pushover, but if someone hasn’t been working, unless I am in a really foul mood I will switch hats and become their practicing coach, barking at them like a coach and doing with them what they should have been doing on their own that week.  Again, they’re paying me for this time, and I want to offer something of value.  While I’d certainly be able to offer more value if they had practiced, and least I can do some reps with instruction and help them to strengthen some elements of their playing.

2. Help them with practice strategies – A lot of people have no idea how to practice.  This is understandable.  Practicing effectively involves creative problem-solving skills and a great deal of thought and awareness.  It is actually a pretty sophisticated skill and takes time to develop.  When my students don’t practice and as a result I don’t have much new to offer them (yup, you still stink), this can be a worthwhile way to spend our time together.

3. Play amateur psychologist – Sometimes a student is having issues that transcend the practice room.  As I’ve gotten older and had more experience working with young people, I’ve become more confident in knowing when I can offer some “dad advice” and help them to work through things in their life.  I probably only fall into this role 5% of the time that I’m teaching bass lessons, but I’m ready and willing to be an amateur life coach with my students if that will help them.

After going at it both ways (yelling at them for not practicing versus using the aforementioned techniques), I’ve found that the latter leads to more consistent practicing and a stronger relationship with the student, which leads to more practicing… a healthy positive cycle for sure.

Final Thoughts

In an ideal world, all of my students would consistently practice three hours or more every day and follow to the letter every instruction of mine.  But… (shocker)….. this doesn’t always happen!  Choosing how to deal with the times that aren’t ideal will actually strengthen practice habits if approached correctly.

Jason Heath teaches double bass at DePaul University and hosts the podcast Contrabass Conversations (http://contrabassconversations.com), featuring interviews from principal bassists from major orchestras.

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