5 Things to Teach Adult Music Students About Home Practice

This article about practice for adult music students was written by Dr Jen Narkevicius, CMP, CME. Dr. Narkevicius is a harper in Virginia, USA. Her innovative teaching combines expertise in psychology, gifted and talented education and ergonomics. She is a Certified Music Practitioner and Certified Music Ergonomist as well as President and Competition Committee Chair of Scottish Harp Society of America, Secretary of National Standards Board for Music Ergonomics and instructor at Ohio Scottish Arts School. She blogs weekly at www.jeniuscreations.com.

Adult students are just like any other student and adults are different. No, these are not contradictory statements! Just like students of any age, adults need to be taught to practise so they can become proficient musicians. But adults have constraints and responsibilities that younger students don’t have, which may affect their practising.

Adult students are actively investing time and money in their self-improvement by taking music lessons, so they’re motivated. And although their “whys” may vary, adult students are acutely aware that they’re making sacrifices (a daily latte? reading time? cleaning the bath?) to have the time and money to buy an instrument and to take lessons. Therefore, adult students must see a return on their investment, which will require practising at home.

Even adult students who studied music as children won’t really know how to approach practice when they begin lessons as a grown-up learner. 

In addition, because they’re supposed to be “all grown up”, they may be intimidated or too embarrassed to ask for help, thinking they should already know what to do and resorting to simply playing their pieces over and over.

Busting Practice Myths

There are numerous assumptions about the practice habits of adult music students which might get in the way if they’re not addressed right up front. My favourites are:

  • Everyone, at every age level, practises the same way.
  • Adults instinctively know how to practise.
  • Grown-ups know what to practise.

You know what I say to those? Bah! Fiddlesticks! Hooey! 

Not all humans, whether adult or child, practise the same. Adults can be as clueless as kids about how and what to practise – if not more so. They’ll need just as much guidance and instruction as learners in any age range. 

Before adult students ever come to their first lesson, the importance of spending time learning outside the lesson must be addressed so they’re not surprised at the amount of work involved in learning to play an instrument. From the very beginning, teachers must stress to their adult students that they’ll be expected to learn how to teach themselves through effective practice.

Teaching Adult Students How to Practise

Instruction in these 5 basic practice tenets will provide adult music students with the tools they need to practise effectively at home and develop as musicians.

No. 1: Set Practice Priorities

Adults will set priorities for their practising with or without guidance. Their limited available time will require that they prioritise, so it’s essential to help them do that. 

They’ll need help to order each day’s practice time amongst the work they’re doing. Prioritisation includes what to do and when, but also when to stop and move on to something else.

Thoughtful, thorough, well-written lesson notes are central to helping adult students set (and meet) aims and objectives in their practising.

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It’s also important to remind adult students to prioritise their daily lives. There will always be activities that impinge on their practice time. Home life, work life, other hobbies and free time can make getting to practising (and building a habit of practising) difficult.

Since many adults see self-edification, enjoyment and enrichment as luxuries, they may struggle with prioritising their practice as an essential element of the learning process. Be sure to remind them occasionally that it’s OK (even healthy) to do something else for themselves instead!

No. 2: Have a Practice Plan

Practising without a plan may feel fun and easy-breezy, but it will quickly become a quagmire of half-learnt pieces, incomplete progress on technique and festering frustration. 

Creating and sticking with a practice plan allows adult students to decide how to spend their limited available time doing the work needed in order to advance. This plan can help adults see the difference between “playing” and “practising”.

Know Where You’re Going

Beginning students need significant help developing their goals. Adults often bring preconceived ideas about what their aims should be. They’ll need help managing their expectations so they can craft realistic goals. 

As students grow, their objectives need to grow with them. Guiding adults through that growth process will help them continue to develop both capability and confidence.

Know Where You’ve Been

Students need to be aware of their advancement to date. But, more importantly, they must have an appreciation for the nonlinear nature of progress. This may be one of the most difficult things for adult students to fully understand.

Adult learners must accept that improvement WILL NOT be consistent. Instead, they’ll have “fits and starts” with the occasional backslide – all of which contribute to their development (whether it seems like it or not). It’s imperative your adult students come to take a broader, multilevel view of achievement to see the long-term progress housed in a short-term setback.

Getting From Point A to Point B

Students will need guidance to help them get from here to there. They need a map to help them find and keep to the path. So help adult learners to understand how technical work, musicality, focused learning, polishing and performing are all part of the path that leads to mastery.

There are ample opportunities to highlight these elements in lessons and to capture the need to follow the path in the lesson notes. Show students how mixing things up by using different start/stop points, changing how they enter error-prone areas, etc. can help them on their musical journey.

Who says adults can’t have fun practising? Help them see how to mix things up with ‘Flamingo Focus’ cards, available exclusively for members of Vibrant Music Teaching. Not a member? Learn more at vibrantmusicteaching.com.

Include Practice Breaks

Adults can be very focussed, and many will work extra hard to prepare for their lesson. Since that’s often the case, it’s essential to teach them the importance of taking breaks.

Teach these learners the various types of breaks they might take – from getting up and walking away from the instrument, to switching tasks, to playing a music theory game. (Yes, adults like to play games, too!)

It’s also important to “give permission” by sharing how, when and why the teacher takes breaks within their own practice time. I like to remind students of the comment from violinist Jascha Heifetz that (I’m paraphrasing here) if you’re doing it right, you won’t need to practise more.

No. 3: Track Your Practice Plans

Writing down what’s going on during practice sessions is a tremendous tool. Unfortunately, this seems to be a step students skip because time is short. But keeping a practice journal is essential so adult students can:

  • Capture what they’ve already practised and what’s left to do
  • Note where they left off and where to start next time
  • Verify progress against their practice plan, along with how far they are from the standards they’ve set
  • Ponder how they felt at the end of the practice (frustrated? delighted? meh?) 

The form of the journal is not important – a notebook, a star chart, a collage, a poem. Form only matters in that it helps students keep track and helps them stay on the path to their goals.

No. 4: Schedule Your Practice

Adults have many plates spinning. And although music is important to them, it must be acknowledged that for most adult learners, practising will not be a first-tier activity.

Teachers may need to guide adult students toward explicitly identifying where music practice fits in their daily (weekly/monthly) routine. Students must ensure their practice happens regularly – often by linking practice time to some other activity already established in the schedule.

Two particularly important points need to be made repeatedly to adult students. 

  1. No one “makes” time. We can only find or take time. While adults have to be disciplined they equally must be gracious and understanding that sometimes practise is just not going to happen. Life gets in the way. 
  2. Students need to give themselves permission to miss a practice session without pillorying themselves. But they also must understand that they’ll likely have to make some changes to get practising back into their day.

When I have an adult student who is not making it to the bench regularly, for whatever reason, I write in their lesson notes that the assignment for the week is only to sit on the bench every day – not even play a note. They should just plant their butt, and then get up and walk away.

This causes a little laughter, but it does get them on the bench! And who can really just sit? So, they may get 3 – 5 minutes of practice in. 

All the adults in that situation (student and teacher) just need to be patient. The instrument will pull them back.

No. 5: Analyse to Improve

Once students are practising regularly, they can become more analytical of their own practise. 


Examining one’s own performance doesn’t mean students should be unkind to themselves if they haven’t made as much progress as desired. Students must accept their own limitations regarding time, progress or performance. They must allow themselves to have ups and downs in the learning process. 

And honestly, unless their goal is applying to conservatory, practice will sometimes have to take a back seat to the rest of their lives. 

Appropriate Comparisons

Analysis will lead to comparisons. Adults need to be urged (reminded?) to make appropriate comparisons. There are no Jones’ with which to keep up! There’s only where they are today compared to where they were yesterday

Consistently documented practice helps students know where they were so they can compare with their past selves.

If students have a hard time with this, an accountability partner might be helpful. These partners don’t even have to be music students; just a person the student is comfortable with to share progress, setbacks, challenges, joys and frustrations.

Adult students don’t need to stress about learning to practise – they can just grow at their own rate. By focusing on practising for their own reasons, working toward their own goals and enjoying the time they spend on their music, they’ll get there.

Which of your own practice tips will you share with your adult students?

We’d love to hear your ideas so we can put them in our toolkit, too.

If you liked this post, Nicola has an entire page devoted to the latest-and-greatest practice resources. Check it out today!

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