The 7 Deadly Practice Excuses

As with anything in life, excuses are sometimes genuine and sometimes a force of habit. For example, I have a friend who is alwayslate, and there is always a good excuse for why. When she tells me her excuse it tends to waft over me like a familiar yet slightly irritating smell. In contrast, I have another friend who is always extremely prompt, and on the rare occasions she turns up late, I tune in with eagerness, excited to learn what disastrous events could have disrupted her carefully organised world. In her case the ‘excuse’ really does excuse her, whereas with the friend who is always late, the excuse rarely has any effect.

It is the same with music students who, week after week, turn up to lessons without having practised and always have a ‘valid’ excuse. Music teachers often get together and have outpourings of grief over this. Following are the top seven ‘Deadly Practice Excuses’. To students who use these a lot, beware… we’re on to you!

1. ‘I was too busy’

In my opinion this is the no. 1 excuse for getting a music teacher offside. It’s not fun knowing you’re bottom priority! There are a million examples of excuses that come under the guise of ‘I was too busy’. Here are some well-worn favourites:

· I had a sleepover and then it was my birthday

· We had visitors from overseas and I couldn’t practice while they were there

· I had lots of homework

The problem with all of these excuses is that it becomes clear to the teacher there is no routine (see Deadly Practice Sin no. 1) and that music practice is always the first thing to go when the timetable gets busy. This lack of commitment can be very deflating!

2. ‘I had exams’

Naturally the pressure of school mounts up from time to time, but in a well-organised household this should cause only a brief hiccup. There is no reason to completely abandon music practise for weeks at a time – simply reduce it a little to balance the work load. I have had some students do no practice for 3 weeks in a row, using the following excuses:

· My school exams are in 1 week

· My school exams are this week

· My school exams were last week (and I needed a rest)

Sometimes a second instrument is being learned and students have a music exam coming up on that instrument. It is of course perfectly understandable that the ‘first’ instrument will take a hit in terms of practice time, but again, once this develops into a regular excuse, the teacher of the first instrument starts to smell a rat… and more often than not, upon contacting the parents, finds out that the same excuse was being used on the other teacher!!!

3. ‘I couldn’t find my books’

This classic disorganisation can be solved by having a bag dedicated to music books that comes to lessons and stays near the instrument in between lessons. I do understand that things go missing from time to time, but how is it that the books go missing the day after the lesson and miraculously resurface on the day of the next lesson?

I tell my students that it is not acceptable to let any more than one day go by without contacting me to ask if they may borrow some music until theirs turns up. Since I can easily be reached by email/home phone/mobile phone/fax/sms/facebook/twitter/personal visit, this excuse will never fly with me.

4. ‘I forgot I had to practise that’

Sadly, many students try this excuse only to be ‘sprung’ when shown the clearly written instructions in their exercise book. I tell them that I do not write things down just to practise my handwriting!

From time to time, I become so caught up in the wonderful hands-on imparting of knowledge in a lesson that nothing will actually get written down in the ‘what to do for next week’ exercise book. This leads to the classic variation of Deadly Practice Excuse no. 4, which is ‘You didn’t write anything down’. However, most students have a thing called a memory, and this memory is designed for the purpose of recalling recent events, such as what was covered in the lesson. If too many days go by before the practice takes place, the memory may fail. Once again this goes back to Deadly Practice Sin no. 1.

(At this point I’d like to say that if parents can sit in on the lesson and be the ‘scribe’, it saves an enormous amount of lesson time and leads to excellent following up at home!)

5. ‘The pieces were too hard/I got confused/ ‘I’ve decided I don’t like those pieces any more’

This excuse is often employed by students who have an inkling they may have over-used Deadly Practice Excuses 1-4. However, most music teachers are well aware of their students’ limitations and usually don’t set pieces or tasks that are too difficult. More often than not, the ‘confusion’ results from not consulting the ‘what to do for next week’ book or simply due to lack of practice.

The announcement that a student no longer likes a piece of music may not be well received by the teacher, especially if the piece was selected by the student just a few weeks before, after a painstaking process of listening to every piece in the book and finally deciding on one or two. What usually happens is that the student has not really done any work on it at all, and figures that it now belongs in the ‘too hard’ basket.

Sometimes students fall in love with pieces, but after the first few of weeks of exciting note-learning they become disillusioned, because that’s when the more difficult nitty-gritty problem solving practice needs to kick in. So just like in all relationships, there is a honeymoon period at the beginning, and then some work needs to be done to keep the fire going! It’s always worth working through this, because the rewards are great. I don’t usually let my students drop pieces (especially ones they’ve selected) until they’ve done enough work on them to actually know whether they dislike them!

6. ‘Every time I tried to practice my mum told me to get off the piano’

As a teacher AND a mother, I find this excuse most amusing. The student who tries this one has clearly forgotten that it is mum who is paying for the lessons. What has usually happened is that the student forgets or refuses to practice at the allocated time, and repeatedly jumps on the piano (or whatever instrument) just as everyone is piling in the car to go to school, or other such uninviting activity (thus rendering practice a more attractive alternative).

Some interesting variations of Deadly Practice Excuse no. 6 are:

· My sister’s doing her HSC and it interferes with her study

· My father does shift work and my practice wakes him up

· We are renovating and the piano is covered and in another room

These excuses may work well once or twice. But if there really is to be a prolonged period of the instrument being unavailable, hopefully the parents will let the teacher know and procedures can be put in place to reduce the frustration on both sides!

7. ‘I was sick/on holiday/on camp

This, at last, is the only acceptable and reasonable excuse for doing no practice from one lesson to the next. In these cases the lesson can easily be filled up with intensive sessions on scales, sight reading, general knowledge, aural… the list goes on!

But… sometimes students perceive they are unable to practice when in fact this is not the case. For example, none of the following would excuse a whole week without practice:

· I was really tired after my sleepover

· I corked my finger playing netball

· My wrist starts to hurt every time I practice (but miraculously not for any other activity)

Pianists in particular should take note that they have two hands. If the right hand is injured, it’s perfectly reasonable and actually quite effective to practice with the left.

With regard to students being away, a little planning ahead can do wonders, such as informing the teacher well in advance when holidays and school camps will take place (sadly this does not always happen.) I usually write down a plan in the exercise book that takes this into account. I do not allow my students to cancel lessons due to lack of practice… there’s always so much to do!

I’d like to finish up with a suggestion for teachers and students. Keep a tally of which Deadly Practice Excuse is used and how often. Perhaps limit usage to a maximum of 1 or 2 per term, and never the same one twice! Keep it light-hearted and the student will hopefully be working towards establishing new habits. After all, we want the excuse to be deadly, not the practice!

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

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