Creating Piano Practice Pros Part 3: What to do when you’ve tried it all

As we dive deep into piano practice this month, I wanted to answer the question that’s on everyone’s minds: what do we do when nothing works? What’s the magic solution when a kid just will not practice?

What to do when piano students won't practice

How to handle it when students won't practice...at all

Ha, if only right? If there actually was a magic practice wand, I’m sure the teacher who invented it would’ve have patented it and made millions by now.

There’s no one way to “fix” practice. It’s a complex equation of parent involvement, student motivation and the right environment.

So what’s a teacher to do when they’ve tried it all and it’s just not happening?

You really have tried it all

I’m not in the business of blaming teachers for stuff, so please don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s the first question you need to ask with a student who won’t practice.

Have you really considered this from every angle? Have you thought about whether there’s an environmental factor that’s stopping them or whether there’s a way to connect better with their parents?

If so, then it’s time to give up.

Give up…but don’t give up

Don’t give up on the student, but give up on your idea of practice. At least for now.

There is literally no point having a weekly conversation/nagging session about practice with a chronic non-practiser. It doesn’t do them any good and it definitely doesn’t do YOU any good.

Believe me. It does exactly nothing.

It’s much better to just remove practice from the discussion altogether. You’ve tried everything already, you’ve done your due diligence so don’t feel bad about taking that stress out of your relationship with this student.

Just don’t mention it. Don’t set assignments. Don’t discuss strategies to use at home.

Give up.

And accept the progress your student can make in their weekly lessons. Sure, they won’t be “reaching their potential” but they’ll be doing more and enjoying music more than if we have this very audible elephant in the room.

elephant in the room

Redesign your lessons

So then what do we do?

Well, we need to throw out our usual lesson structure of listening to assignments and then assigning new ones, because there are no assignments.

Instead, plan your lessons around projects that you can pick up where you left off last week. That could be composing, theory work, or just pieces that progress slowly each lesson.

They’ll still make progress.

Accept the progress

The progress will be slow.

We know this. That’s why the practice expectation exists in the first place.

But it will still be progress. They can still move forward.

So just throw away your preconceptions and accept the progress at the pace it happens.

Revisiting the Conversation

Maybe, eventually, under this new paradigm – your student might start practising.


If not, I think it’s important to revisit this conversation every so often. Don’t chastise but just mention to the parents that more progress could happen if the practice did, but you understand that this might not be possible and you’re happy to provide a musical experience for the student each week.

It’s important that you are on the same page with the parents along this journey. If they’re expecting exams and competitions, you’re in trouble.

As long as everyone has the same priorities though, just continue to enjoy your time with this student and this new way of looking at practice and progress in your piano studio.

Do you have a chronic non-practiser in your studio?

How have you dealt with it? Do you find it frustrating or have you learned to accept where they’re at?

21 thoughts on “Creating Piano Practice Pros Part 3: What to do when you’ve tried it all”

  1. Just because we, as piano teachers, spent countless hours practicing for lessons in our early years, does not give us the right to expect such commitment from every student. In the case of the student who won’t practice, it is really about letting go of our egos… (after we have done modifications!)

    I have a student whose parents told me at the outset, that I should never mention the word “practice” because it will never happen. The Mom stated that because her son has so many after school activities every day of the week,(a total of 9, to be exact!) and homework, that her son will not have the time to practice. She just wants piano lessons to be on the list of activities. I happily agreed….and the student and I have a terrific time together. He is learning. I do write down assignments only because one day, he may find some time to practice, but more importantly, it gives structure to the lesson time.

    • You’re so right Amy, I think ego is a big part of it for many teachers.

      Your student, the parent, and you are all on the same page, that’s the key. If they have realistic expectations, there’s no reason for him not to have music in his week (even if it’s only once).

    • “Letting go of our egos” – precisely! The best teaching advice I’ve ever received was along these lines, from a history professor that I looked up to in college. His words were along the lines of “I don’t exist to create carbon copies of myself. I teach to pass along what knowledge I can during the time I have with the student and hopefully impart a love of the subject.”

      When we teach the same way that we were taught and expect the same hours of practice that we put in along our journey, we’re trying to create carbon copies of ourselves, whether or not we admit it. It’s far better to create conditions where the student can fall in love with the subject and choose to put in the time. Not every student will fall in love with music, but we can make sure no one ends up hating music!

  2. I agree completely! I had a wonderful family of piano students and the youngest just never practiced. I adopted an accepting attitude and Voila! When he reached sophomore year in high school, he took piano and was therefore compelled to practice 5 hours per week ( during class time)! His teacher graciously told him to practice my assignments. He blossomed! Now a senior, he’s not the most regular in practicing, but better.

    • What a great story! It won’t always work out like that of course, but that doesn’t mean that there’s any point creating a negative experience for the non-practiser. Either way, they’re better off when we just accept them.

  3. I have a few students who fall into the category of non-practicer. After years of being frustrated with this I decided (as Nicola says) to give up and accept it. So long as the parents understand that progress will be slower and are OK with that, I no-longer feel guilty that I am not doing my job properly. Now I am free to enjoy the student for who they are.
    I think that the key is all parties having the same expectation as to the level of practice. Then it is easy to set up the lesson plans around that understanding. After all, many other activities – like soccer or ballet – have a minimal expectation for practice at home. Those who practice will improve more quickly than those who don’t, but everyone can have the same enjoyable experience.

  4. I am dealing with this right now with one of my kiddos, so I really appreciate this post! Sometimes it just doesn’t work for whatever reason. Late this summer I finally decided to change my attitude when he comes into the lesson without having practiced or completed any of his assignments. I decided to try “winging it” with some of our favorite piano games and activities, including making up silly lyrics to little pieces that we learn together. He seems to really enjoy that, so I think I’ll go with it and see where each lesson takes us instead of constantly stressing out about his lack of practice.

  5. I too have somewhat accepted it and it makes my life much easier. Last year 2 students said they would practice 10 minutes a day. I did lessons with 10 minutes of practice in mind. They told me that so I would not expect much. That way, if I got 1/2 hour practice then things would be better. So, I accepted it and the parents don’t care. I do at times, wish I had the option to only take students who are really interested and willing to put in effort. But, I do fight back at times. The recital is coming up and I sent all my thoughts on how to prepare a piece to the one student via e-mail. That way, it is in writing. I have heard nothing back from her. But, if she doesn’t do well at the recital, the fault lies with her, as she has several months to work on it.
    School doesn’t start for 2 weeks and I asked her to practice 45 minutes until school starts and on holidays they are home so she can prepare for the recital. Although they may not want to practice, I think practicing goes along with lessons and commitment. I don’t think it is fair to me to have them come unprepared to lessons week after week and think it is OK. I know they don’t do that with homework at school. I consider lessons somewhat like classes in school but I can’t enforce much because school is definitely a priority. I will see what this girl comes up with. Last year I switched to a “no makeup policy” and it caused a lot of anxiety with this family. But, now that things have calmed down and the student knows the homework level in high school, I bet she will practice more.

    I’m also pushing with another family because this girl has so much ability compared to others I teach. I will only give up on this one once I have exhausted all my options to get her to practice.

  6. This is liberating! I had such a horrible day yesterday. I was so frustrated with my students for not being prepared for their lesson. Some repeatedly. I will definitely check in with the parents and also adjust my teaching to suit these students. I’ll make the most of each lesson focusing on what I can accomplish in that time. What a relief!

  7. Wow. This post made my day. I will definitely approach my non-practicer with a different lesson plan that will be enjoyable for BOTH of us!

  8. This has to be the hardest part of teaching and one that makes us as teachers feel we’ve somehow failed – when in reality the lack of effort is not coming from us at all.
    One thing I have learnt is to ask a lot more questions of both parents and children, especially to check if anything is possibly preventing or deterring them practising e.g. is piano placed in a room they feel isolated or the opposite, too noisy to concentrate (I discovered too late that one family had placed their piano in garage underneath house – needless to say all 3 children hated when it was their turn to be sent below…. all quit learning). Some kids have even revealed their piano ‘sounds’ horrible at home or they have crucial Piano keys that don’t even work! Always worth asking!
    And I’ve also accepted that occasionally there will just be that ‘one child’ who hardly ever practices…. ( usually also quite talented and wing it through the earlier stages of learning! ) ….. and there are parents too who are quite happy to pay for regular lessons and not concerned at all their child hardly ever plays!

    • In a way we have failed when this happens, but not in teaching, in parent education. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting all of this on the teacher’s shoulder, just emphasising your point about questions and communication with parents.

  9. Teachers also need to remember that we need to be mindful of the practice we ask of our pupils. If a pupil has only just put a piece hands together towards the end of a lesson they are unlikely to practice at home (certainly in the first couple of years of learning) as they won’t be brave enough to have a go at home without us sitting next to them giving little hints and encouragement. Much better to ask them to continue practicing hands separately so that when they come for next weeks lesson they’ll find it even easier to put it hands together.


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