I love working with beginner students, especially little ones. Their creativity, imagination, and willingness to explore inspires & invigorates me. I particularly love the moments when they discover or master something new. The light in their eyes is beyond compare.
We as music educators know that those 30-minutes each we week spend with our students is crucial, but not enough to sustain growth in our students. Effective at home practice is essential to the development of every musician.
Practicing can be a little mysterious, especially for young beginners. And if mom and dad don't have much musical experience they might be unable to help, which can make it feel confusing or overwhelming.
Over the years I've come up with a variety of tools I use to help my students become independent learners, but practice steps have by far been the most helpful. Breaking down the practice process into easy, bite-sized pieces makes practice more manageable and helps beginner students develop successful practice habits from the start.
The cool thing about these practice steps is that your beginner students will experience success with their new pieces before playing a single note.
Two quick notes about counting and repetition of steps.
Counting is essential through all of these steps!
To count during every step, I have students say the finger number/letter name of the note then count the beats the note is held. For example, a whole note played on C would be said "C-2-3-4".
I encourage my students to repeat each practice step at home only moving on to the next when they know they've mastered the previous enough to (almost) guarantee success. If they struggle too much with a step, I have them go back to the previous one and review it before trying again.
Okay, now onto the Practice Steps!
1. Point & Read
I've found this step to be the most crucial step for student success. This is the most basic form of music reading broken down to letter names (or finger number depending on their level) and hands. I have my students point to the notes with the matching hand and read the letter name out loud.
There are a few things that I think lead to student success with this step.
First, they're isolating the notes that they'll be playing without having to think about finger shape, fingering, rhythm, steady beat, dynamics, or any of the other technical necessities of playing the piano.
Second, they are able to analyze their mistakes more quickly. Since their finger is right on the note on the page we both can see what they're looking at, I know whether or not they're looking in the right spot, and we can easily compare the current note to the ones around it making correction a breeze.
Third, they're learning how to track the music on the page. How many times have you said, "Look at your music" or "Keep your eyes on the page" or "Stop looking at your fingers"? By bringing both the hands and the eyes onto the music itself, you're starting the connection between all working parts before they even play a note.
And lastly, they're making associations between the notes and the hand (fingers will come later). I insist that my students point to right hand notes with their right hand and left hand notes with their left hand. This physical reminder translates seamlessly to their playing.
2. Tap & Read
Tap and read is everything from Point & Read with one change, they're tapping the rhythm instead of pointing to the note.
This step brings the rhythm to life without overwhelming your student with keys, fingers, technique, dynamics, etc. They're still saying the letter names and counting the rhythms AND they get to feel what those rhythms by tapping.
This is where I start getting creative in my teaching. I've had students tap on drums, on tambourines, with rhythm sticks, on their shoes, their head, their bellies. Heck, I've even had students stomp the rhythm in her bare feet. All I ask is that they say the letter name, count the rhythm, and tap with the correct hand. Beyond that, anything goes with this step!
I usually have my students do this and the first step a few times during their lesson and I'll sing the note names to help their ear hear what they'll be playing!
3. Play & Say (HS/HT as needed)
Now they're ready to start playing!
By this point, my student has read the note names, identified, tapped and counted the rhythms, and heard the piece through my voice. Even the most timid or perfectionistic learner will have enough experience to be able to play the new piece.
When students play & say, they are saying the note names the same way they did in steps 1 and 2 and playing. It's completely okay if this step doesn't happen during the lesson. Setting up the student's base knowledge of what they're playing will enable them to achieve this step in their at home practice.
This final practice step is one that my students look forward to because I tell them they aren't allowed to do this step until they have masters steps 1-3!
Once the first 3 steps are mastered, playing their piece will be so easy, they won't have to worry. They'll know when they're right and when they've made a mistake. They'll also know how to fix their mistake and learn from it!
Here are two free resources to help get you started using practice steps with your students.
Practice Step Post-Its are easily moved from piece to piece
Practice Step Stickers are smaller
Try using these practice steps with some of your beginning students and let me know how it goes!
Looking for more resources? I'm adding more to my Teachers Pay Teachers Store all the time!