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Practice What’s Hard

I fondly remember practicing the piano when I was a kid. Who am I kidding—I usually dreaded practicing the piano. More accurately, I dreaded practicing the hard songs.
My sister and I started piano lessons when I was in third grade and she was in fifth. Not knowing if we were really going to stick to it, my mom had us walk down to a neighbor’s house to practice on her piano for the first few weeks. When it looked like we might keep on playing, my parents invested in an upright piano that the previous owner had painted avocado green. After a few more years, my parents decided a piano that would make a pretty piece of furniture was in order, so the upright monstrosity was replaced with a new piano that became my mom’s preferred spot for displaying family pictures as well as the nativity scene at Christmas time.
Weekly piano lessons were followed by assigned daily practice time, which began with a light 15 minutes per day for the first few months and topped out at a daunting 90 minutes a day when I was in high school. My mom was the master of keeping track of all sorts of things and piano practice was no exception. The first rule was that Mom was home while we were practicing. Otherwise, we could say we practiced, but there was no way to be sure she and dad were getting their money’s worth out of all those checks written to our teacher. She should have received some sort of medal or at least some fancy earplugs for tolerating all those hours of practice which were frequently less than melodic. The second rule was to set the timer on the oven to keep track of our practice. Those chunks of practice time could seem never-ending, so I was guilty of frequently checking the timer and perhaps moving it just a wee bit closer to the finish time if I could get away with it.
As challenging as piano lessons were, my sister and I loved our teacher Mrs. Maestus. She gave lessons on two grand pianos tucked into an addition at the back of her house. She had lots of beautiful, fluffy hair, a long face with long fingers, and a gentle disposition even when she was fussing at us for having fingernails long enough to click on the keys. She assigned songs to practice in a little blue-and-white booklet and made notes of anything that was especially important. It wasn’t unusual for her to choose a few selected measures in the middle of a difficult piece to be repeatedly practiced, sometimes 20 or 30 times a day.
If I had been in charge of my own practice time, I would have spent the majority of it playing the fun pieces that were not very challenging. That same principle holds true for other parts of my life and I bet it’s the same for you and your students as well. Here are a few of my observations.
Practicing the Hard Stuff is Hard
It’s always more fun to complete tasks that quickly bring satisfaction. The songs that were easy to learn and pleasant to listen to were the songs that got played first. The more modern pieces or those with lots of notes and tricky fingering required intense concentration to master. Those were the pieces that got less practice time.
I’m guessing the skills that come easy to your students are easy to insert into your lesson plans. But if students find it difficult to read for understanding or create and interpret graphs, those activities are easier to put off for another day. Take a cue from my piano teacher, and insist that hard tasks get the attention they deserve.
Practice the Hard Stuff Early and Often
Yes, all of our TEKS are important, but some of them require repeated practice while others come much more easily to students. Not only should we practice the hard stuff, but we should also make it one of the first things we put on the agenda. If an unexpected assembly pops up and plans have to change, we can cut the less difficult concepts to be sure students have time to review that critical content that causes the most confusion.
Practicing the Hard Stuff Pays Off
When it was time for a piano competition or those stressful recitals when I was sitting in front of a room full of people in my borrowed long dress, I was incredibly grateful for the focused practice required by my teacher. My anxious brain allowed my fingers to do the work they had practiced for weeks. The same can be true when students are sitting with a high stakes assessment in front of them. It’s in those moments that focused study on important concepts really pays off.
Piano lessons wouldn’t have been fun if I only practiced the hard, difficult-to-play songs. Your class also won’t be fun if every minute of every day is filled only with the “hard” stuff. So go ahead and insert some fun and satisfying labs and activities into your lesson plans. Just don’t forget to do a little nudging and pushing as well. They may not be playing in a recital, but trust me, your students will thank you for it later.
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