Do you ask your students how many days they practiced during the week? Maybe you look in their assignment sheets to see how many days they’ve practiced? Yep, I do too. But I know that the amount of time they practice does not always correlate to the progress that they make. I’ve tried all kinds of things to help this, some work, some don’t.

But what if teaching piano was a team coaching effort and there were someone on YOUR teaching team that could help your students during the week? Well a few years ago, I found someone who was just that person, Erica Sipes, a pianist, cellist, accompanist and teacher. And though I’ve haven’t hired her (yet) to help my students, I have learned a lot from her because she has a passion for helping people practice better.

Inspired Practice – Better Ways to Teach Practicing

Inspired Practice by Erica SipesThis year, Erica came out with a beautiful coffee table book on practicing, called Inspired Practice, that you might want for your studio this Christmas! So, we’re doing a giveaway of her new book! And she’s also having a serious sale on the book as well. She’s graciously answered some questions I asked about practicing and how we can teach our students to practice better.

NOTE: Giveaway has expired.

What do you think is wrong with the way that we practice today?

Practicing today is for the most part made up of mindless repetition, is boring, and is more often than not discouraging.  Practice sessions begin with a pained glance at the clock and they end without a sense that anything has been accomplished.  Students also rarely feel as if they’ve made any music unless they’ve been working on the piece for weeks or months, and they feel fully reliant on their teachers for just about everything.  They wait for an entire week before they see their teacher again to feel like they can make any progress.

The worst part of all of this to me is that I see so much negative self evaluation in the practice room – people can be so cruel to themselves even though more often than not their lack of progress has little or nothing to do with themselves or their abilities.  With guidance, however, they can learn how to ask their own questions, solve their own problems, and to explore different options and with that comes a great sense of empowerment that can motivate students to continue on in music.

Can you give us one practical tip on practicing that we can use immediately or with our students?

If I can only pick one it’s this…

Instead of asking your students how many minutes or hours they practiced every day, ask for a list of specific, small goals that were accomplished throughout the week.  When given an amount of time to practice, students spend most of that time simply staring at the clock with their brain tuned out until the timer beeps at the end.

When goals are the focus, brains and ears are kicked into action – they need to be in order to ascertain whether or not goals are being met.  It’s always best to have brains involved with practicing.  For beginning students, teachers can set tiny, do-able goals.  Bringing back a completed list will boost everyone’s confidence and mood!  As students get the hang of it, teachers can then transition the students into coming up with their own goals.

Beyond Practicing 2Why did you write this book on Inspired Practice? Who do you think will benefit from it?

I wrote the book as an extension of my blog, my Facebook page dedicated to practicing, and my teaching.  I found myself saying the same things over and over again, always with an enthusiastic response so I thought I might as well compile them all in one place.  I also thought a book like this, full of inspiring quotes and stunning full-page color pictures, could serve as a music studio or a practice room’s version of a coffee-table book.  In my mind the book is for musicians of all ages and at all stages.  From beginning student to professional I have found that there is something in there for everyone, even people who just like to look at pretty pictures.

You mention on your blog that you are against performing being all about perfection and virtuosity.     What harm do you think that mentality does and what would you propose instead?

I believe this mentality sets up the majority of people for failure, and I think that is a shame.  It is my opinion that music should be an open door for anyone that wishes to learn how to express themselves using this medium.  I fear that a lot of people give up studying music because they feel they can’t play perfectly or fast enough.  I do not consider myself a virtuosic performer myself – I tend to avoid flashier music because I don’t feel I do it as well as I’d like to, nor do I care for it.  Yet I still feel that I am a successful musician because I understand what aspects of music I am good at.  Music played well and from the heart, regardless of difficulty and level of perfection, always possesses the power to move others.  That is a gift that should be shared, not just by the cream of the crop.

Does this mean that I don’t think musicians should have to be challenged to learn the more technical pieces and to aspire to play them at the highest level they are capable of?  No, I think challenges are crucial to our growth as people and as musicians – so often we realize in undertaking such challenges that we are capable of so much more than we ever knew, and there is great value in this lesson.  But my wish is that more people could feel like music, as with all the arts, presents us with the chance to express ourselves in a very personal way that nothing else matches.

Beyond Practicing 1The concept of practice coaching seems rather new.   Can you tell us what you do in practice coaching and in what areas you can help musicians improve?

As far as I know it is new!  I started researching this possibility several years ago but failed to find anyone offering their services in the same way that I do.  There are so many incredible books on practicing and performing out there and just as many blogs, but as for musicians helping other musicians hands on, it doesn’t appear to be a trend…at least not yet!

I see myself as a helpmate not only to musicians but also to their teachers.  Students typically meet with their teacher for an hour a week but they can spend up to 24 or more hours on their own in the practice room.  Most, if not all, of what goes on in these hours is a mystery, except to the student.  Based on my experiences, practice is full of redundant, mindless, mistake-ridden work.  In the end we get frustrated, bored, and uninspired musicians that see practicing as torture.  That kills me because I truly don’t think it has to be this way!   Practicing, when done effectively, can be just as addictive as a video game! A practice coach can be right there by a musician’s side while they practice, either in person, or via skype or other video and can help point out different ways to make practicing creative, engaging, musical, and productive.

Beyond Practicing 3Having another teacher giving input to our own students might seem a little scary and threatening to some of us teachers.  Tell us how you approach working with another teacher’s students.

 Understandably I think there is some hesitation from teachers about the services that I offer.  It can very easily be misunderstood as me poking my nose where it’s not welcome.  I want teachers to know that I want to work side-by-side with them to help their students in the practice room.  I want to be their eyes and ears for those many hours when they can’t be there to guide their problem solving.  I also work hard to understand each teacher and student so that I am complimenting the learning process, not contradicting or challenging it in any way.

For students that are pre-college I require approval from their teachers before agreeing to work with them.  For all other students I encourage consultation with their teachers and will welcome any input and background information that teachers think might be helpful.  I also make it a point to never intrude into areas of technique during practice coachings.

Giveaway and Sale!

We’ll be having a giveaway (same kind as last time…you get extra entries when you tell other piano and music teachers and they enter) and the drawing will be November 15th. So hurry and enter here:

Get the sale and see more of the book here.


Erica Sipes Erica Ann Sipes received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music. Currently living in Blacksburg, Virginia with her husband and little girl, she spends much of her time practicing, playing music with others, presenting workshops, and working as a practice coach. She is also a prominent blogger, frequently writing about her views on performing, learning music, and the classical music world in general. Visit her “Beyond the Notes” blog.