ASK THE PROS | Violinist Ann Setzer – “Dealing with Students Who Don't Practice” [ADVICE]

The Violin Channel member Xiao Mao, from Singapore was keen to know: ‘What should the teacher do when the student doesn't practice?'

Ann Setzer

The Violin Channel member Xiao Mao, from Singapore was keen to know: ‘What should the teacher do when the student doesn't practice?’

We threw Xiao’s question over to respected American violin pedagogue, Ann Setzer:

"Hi Xiao, definitely one of the toughest problems a teacher has to solve!

Of all the myriad reasons students don’t practice; overscheduling, lack of motivation, lack of interest, cell-phone addiction, teenage rebellion, undeveloped discipline, poor confidence; the most common has to be boredom. It can be mind-numbing to do the same activity every day. Daily activities become automatic and mundane. We lose our attentiveness and fall into predictable and boring routines. Who doesn’t think about hundreds of things while brushing their teeth? Practicing that is predictable is not successful; practicing that is not successful is boring. So why do people get bored by practicing but not by checking social media every day?

A teacher’s role is to keep turning the kaleidoscope. If a student has lost their vision and mindfulness in their practice, it is your job to change the perspective. If a student is a “part to whole” learner, then change the focus of the lessons so they have to look at the big picture first. If you’ve been teaching a particular technique for a while and the student isn’t getting it, leave it and come back to it. Most likely the student isn’t ready to learn that yet. Constantly challenge their ears. Give them listening assignments. Give them reading assignments. We all tend to fall into the habit of practicing everything at a medium tempo so give metronome assignments so they have to play slower than they want or metronome goals so they can build to a fast tempo.

Challenging and engaging practice will keep the student moving forward. Give more extrinsic goals for a couple of months: games, competitions and performances. Tie your teaching, and their practice to other activities they enjoy. If you’re spending a lot of time teaching the critical instrumental skills, balance the lesson so you focus on their artistry and musicianship. Change repertoire. There are so many ways to make practicing engaging and challenging. Make them grade their practice. Teach them how to make a practice journal. Make them write down everything they are thinking about while practicing, (a truly revealing and embarrassing task). When students concentrate and deeply listen, they are not going to get bored.

If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve probably done your share of badgering, nagging (shades of Mom), ripping the music up and kicking it across the room (!), with varying degrees of temporary success. But if our long-term goal is to teach students how to teach themselves then practicing is their tool for achieving independence. Engaging the student’s mind and critical ear will spark their passion for practicing.

All the best luck Xiao!


A graduate of the Juilliard School, where she studied with Sally Thomas, Ann Setzer currently serves a Professorship at Mannes College and holds faculty positions at The Juilliard School Pre-College and the Meadowmount School of Music.

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