How to Cure The Practice Problem Part I | Ep 126

A Cure to the Practice Problem

It’s a problem when students don’t practice. But the practice problem goes even deeper than that. It creates a problem in your business when you have expectations that aren’t being met.


Rewards, incentives, and prizes for practice only go so far. For some kids (perhaps many) practice is not a priority. (And for some parents). Is it even possible to cure the practice problem?


The Battle Over Practice

Parents anticipate a battle over practice and possibly opt out of music lessons altogether and choose another activity that doesn’t require consistent at-home practice.


Why is that music lessons even have a practice expectation? Most after-school activities simply require you to show up. The 8-year-old starting in dance is required to practice at home. The 8-year old piano student is.


In episode 1 of this 3 part series, I discuss the source of the practice and lay the groundwork for an actual cure and practical applications in episodes 2 and 3.

Practice problem 1


– – Show Transcript – – 

The Practice Problem

I want to point out when I talk about curing the practice problem, I want you to note that I’ll never say kids should not practice. Practice, of course, is essential to becoming good on an instrument, and becoming good on an instrument is not easy to do. It requires hard work. Being able to play and enjoy an instrument isn’t necessarily hard to do. It doesn’t necessarily require a lot of hard work. It’s just like any artistic discipline. Any nine-year-old kid can sign up for a hip-hop class and have fun dancing. But if that same nine-year-old wants to get really good at dance, they’re going to have to practice and work hard at it.


But First a Story

But before I jump into this topic, I want to share with you a little passage that Seth Godin wrote in his book called This Is Marketing, and it jumped out of the pages when I read this because he was literally directly talking about our industry. So, if you have the book, This Is Marketing by Seth Godin, turn to page 58 at the bottom. And if you don’t have the book, I really recommend it. It’s a great book.


Seth Godin has this to say. (some edits from book text)

The local music teacher, for example, needs to begin, not merely by saying, ‘I’m local,’ because, as we all know, there are other good teachers just as local. Moreover, I’m pretty good at teaching and I won’t yell at your kid are hardly attributes we’re talking about. On the other hand, if he chooses I’m serious, my students are serious and this is about rigor or my students win competitions, suddenly, you have a teacher worth driving to, a teacher worth paying extra for.


Is this the teacher I wish I had growing up? Absolutely not. It’s not for me. But for the parent, who views the practice room as a form of character-building and for the student who sees music as a competition, this is precisely what they wanted. And now the teacher has his work cut out for him because he does, in fact, have to be more rigorous and professional than other teachers. He does have to make the difficult decision of expelling students who aren’t serious enough. And he has to preserve enough with his corps of students that they actually do win competitions. A few blocks away, a different teacher can take a totally different spot on the map. She can work with the whole student, focusing on the experience, not the notes. She can refuse to enter competitions, but instead, build a practice based on connection and generosity.


What Type of Music Teacher Are You?

I really can relate to this because I was both of these teachers. I initially started my business as the first teacher because I based my teaching business on my music teacher who said to me at my first lesson, “If you’re not practicing, I’m going to fire you as a student.” He probably didn’t say it quite like that, but it was clear to me that it was an honor to be studying with him. He was the principal bassist of the St. Louis Symphony. He only taught the top players in town. I was thrilled that he accepted me, and I didn’t worry about practicing because I was already practicing nonstop by the time I reached out to him as a teacher. But he was serious about it, and that’s how I originally started my teaching business. I really was serious about students practicing. I was very clear about my practice expectations.


Customers Care Less About the Notes and More About the Experience

My music studio was a rock school. It was called Dave Simon’s Rock School, but I really wanted it to have the discipline that I had learned and experienced through classical music, with the free form expression that comes with playing jazz and rock music. But over the years, my approach to teaching changed, and I became more like the latter teacher in this Seth Godin story. I began to focus more on the experience and less on the notes. 


The notes were important, of course, but I realized my customers cared more about the experience. My studio shifted away from rigor and moved towards an environment that focused more on connection, generosity, community, and culture. Now, I had plenty of ambitious and motivated students that did practice, but my marketing message was no longer built around the rigors of practice and making a serious commitment to being a musician.


What is the Practice Problem?

So, what is the practice problem? Well, I think there are two levels to it. On the surface level, there’s the problem of kids that don’t practice. They aren’t responding to their teachers’ weekly practice assignments. They aren’t even doing it at all. Or maybe you have to lower your expectations and say, “Kid, let’s just commit to doing one to two days a week for 10 minutes, something.” Parents expect their child’s going to practice. They assume their practice is a part of the deal. You have to practice if you want to get good at this instrument. But then there’s another layer to the practice problem, the fact that parents assume practice is an expectation and that it’s a part of the lesson experience, the fact that music schools also partner with parents on this idea of practice, that it creates a barrier for customers.


practice problem 2

Why Do We Pressure Kids to Practice?

No other after-school activity has a practice expectation. The nine-year-old girl who goes into her hip-hop class isn’t expected to practice at home during the week. I mean, great if she does, but the teacher isn’t talking about it. The teacher isn’t posing that expectation, nor do parents even expect it. The 12-year-old boy who signs up for baseball isn’t expected to practice outside of practice. Perhaps the coach encourages them over the week to play catch in the backyard with mom or dad or a sibling, but it’s just a suggestion. Music lessons is the only afterschool activity that I could think of, and perhaps I’m wrong, maybe there’s another activity, but music lessons are the only activity where practice is assumed, that it’s going to be introduced pretty much at the first lesson. A parent might be a little taken aback if the child comes into their first lesson and you don’t give them a practice assignment.


Practice Isn’t The Only Metric For Success

My views on practice changed when I began to interview parents in my music studio. We interviewed about 20 of them, and what I found was that all these parents really believed in the possibilities of music. They all believed in the impact that music could potentially have on their child’s life. None of them themselves were musicians or had strong opinions about music, but they bought into this cultural narrative that music provides children an opportunity for personal growth that they just can’t get in school. School doesn’t quite take it to the level that music does. 


They have a music class in school. That’s nice, but the private music lesson is really going to help the child grow in a unique way. A lot of parents believe that music has unique qualities to it in terms of child development, which even some of these other after-school activities I mentioned don’t have. But every parent I interviewed used practice as a metric for gauging success and progress, and that’s something I’m going to talk more about in this series.


Parents View Practice as a Source of Tension in Family Life

One mom said something that really stuck with me. She had one child enrolled in lessons, but a younger child she was considering enrolling, but she said she wasn’t quite ready yet to have the battle over practice. She was anticipating there being a battle. She had even talked to her daughter about it. 


I wonder how many parents feel that way? How many parents as they’re contemplating should they do music lessons or not for their child, how often does the thought or the discussion around the dinner table with their spouse come up regarding the anticipated arguments around practice? They’re already stressed out enough about having to manage their child doing their homework and reminding them do their own homework. Do they want to add practice to that? It’s additional stress for the child and additional stress for the parents as well. It’s an additional responsibility for the parent. Parents are tired at the end of the day.


Does The Burden of Practice Scare Off Customers?

One thing none of us know is how many people consider going to your music studio, but decide not to reach out to you because they just don’t want to have that battle with their child regarding practice. They’ll sign up for gymnastics instead. That’s much easier. It’s just a once-a-week commitment. They can take the kid there, run some errands while they’re in their gymnastics class, and pick them up an hour later. Music lessons, it’s not only a greater financial commitment, but it’s also a greater time commitment in terms of what the parent is expected to do.


Art VS Business

The third tier to this practice problem is the internal problem that the studio owner has. It’s an issue of art versus business. The artist in all of us wants our students to be set up to be good musicians, or at least for us to show them the way, show them the path towards being a good musician because we’re good musicians, and we want to share that with our students, and we understand that practice is essential to achieving that goal.


Parents Don’t Care About Music Lessons

Some recent comments I wanted to share with you that I saw on Facebook that really exemplified the artistic struggle that music teachers struggle with is one person said that people don’t value music lessons, or I think they said something like, “Well, people in my community don’t value music lessons.” And you know what? They’re right. People do not value music lessons. They could care less about music lessons. They care about what music lessons is going to do for their child. They don’t care if their kid’s going to be a good musician or not. Ask some of your own customers why they signed up for music lessons, what their hopes are for their child when it comes to music lessons. Not one of them will say that they want their child to be a musician.


Are Music Lessons a Dying Industry? 

Another person on Facebook said, “We’re a dying industry. The music lesson industry is a dying industry and people are dumbing it down.” That was a direct comment to something I had said about the practice problem. Now, music lessons are not a dying industry. Playing music is a human need. Find me a culture that doesn’t have music as one of its primary artistic expressions. 


Maybe music the way this person views music is dying. Aspects of music die because a new component, a new aspect is being introduced. I am certain that when the player piano was introduced to the world in the early 1900s, people were up in arms, or musicians and music teachers were up in arms about this. This isn’t even a real piano. It was a computer, 1905 style computer playing the piano. The music education industry is doing just fine. So, that’s the artistic struggle that we come up with.


Feeling the Pressure to Grow Your Teaching Business

My bass teacher, he was the principal bassist for the St. Louis Symphony so teaching was a supplemental income for him. He could afford to say, “I’m only going to take serious musicians that are willing to put in the hard work.” He was able to allow his artistic vision to drive his business. I think the challenge that a lot of us have is that when we introduce a business component into our music teaching business, it creates tension for us. 


We want to be true to artistic integrity, but there’s also a need to make more money. And if there’s pressure to grow or to scale your business, perhaps 60 students just isn’t enough to maintain or sustain your lifestyle. You really need to get it up to 150 or 200 students. You might have to rethink the role practice plays in your business. The more where you want to scale, the better you have to understand what your customer wants.


What Do Parents Want VS What Do Kids Need

When you’re operating a small teaching studio and it’s just you, then 20 to 30 students really is about all you can handle. It’s pretty easy to find 20 to 30 families that will share your worldview on music, and practice, and hard work, and commitment to becoming a better musician. The moment you want to scale, you then have to ask yourself what is it that most parents really want when it comes to music lessons. Let me focus on that, on what they want. And through my marketing, I’ll express what it is that they want, but I’ll also teach their child what they need.


Pressure or Pleasure

In this episode, I’m not really going to layout a cure to the practice problem. I’ll do that in the next episode or two. Not only will I lay out a cure, I’m also going to lay out some very practical and specific things you can do to help kids better connect with music, and ultimately, practice. 


That is the ultimate goal is to get kids to practice. Because when kids start practicing, what they’re telling you is that they’re really enjoying their lesson. Kids either practice because parents are pressuring them to or they really love it. I’m sure we all would rather have our students practice because they love it.


Losing Students That Don’t Practice

Have you ever lost a student because they weren’t practicing? I used to tell my parents in my studio that they were wasting their money, that the lesson was an expensive practice session because the kid wasn’t practicing at home. I was serious about it. My business was small as a result. I supported parents when they said, “My child’s not practicing. We’re pulling them.” “I think that’s a good decision,” I used to say. But really, when kids are pulled out of music lessons because they’re not practicing, really what you’re saying is that I’m going to deny this child the pleasure and the opportunities for growth because they aren’t doing this one thing, this thing called practice.


Is the Music Lesson Enough?

The question that I encourage you to ask yourself is, is it possible for the child to experience that personal growth in the lesson alone? Everybody’s okay with the kids doing dance once a week and not practicing. Everyone’s okay with their child being on the softball team and not practicing outside of the games or team practice. But not in music. We’re not okay with that, and parents aren’t okay with that. As I said earlier, parents use practice as a metric to measure progress, but there are other metrics that parents need to consider and you can help them understand those metrics.


Parents Care More About Progress Than Practice

What parents are looking for is progress, a sign of progress. Practice to them equals progress. If they hear their child practicing every day, they assume oh, they’re progressing. They’re living up to their end of the bargain. And there’s a deal. A lot of the parents in your studio make a deal with their children. All right, we’re going to do a music lessons, but the expectation is that you live up to the practice expectations that your teacher imposes on you. Or perhaps the parent just says, “We expect you to practice at least three times a week for 15 minutes.”


The First Step in Curing the Practice Problem

The way you cure the practice problem is you have to tear down the story that parents tell themselves about practice, and you have to tell them a new story that makes sense to them, which also means you might have to tear down the story that you tell yourself about practice, and you have to tell yourself a new story about practice, and you have to believe it. I got a question for those of you that run a multi-teacher studio because the answer will be different for those of you that are just solo teachers. But for those of you that run a multi-teacher studio, what percentage of your students practice three to five times a week for 15 to 30 minutes? What percentage of your students practice to the level that you would hope that they would? Perhaps you don’t want to know the answer to that question.


practice problem 3

Practice is The Elephant in the Room

For me, the practice problem was always the elephant in the room. I would just keep assigning my students practice assignments each week and I would show the parent here’s what I want your child to practice. And I was dreading that conversation where a parent would say, “They’re just not really practicing. We just don’t know what to do.” And I would try to come up with different solutions. I tried every trick in the book, incentives, games, stickers, candy, awards, martial arts style belts. If you practice this much, you’re now at this level, you have this new title. None of it worked. It was a bandaid on the problem, really. We’d get kids maybe motivated for a few weeks, but at the end of the day, if they didn’t love the lesson, they weren’t going to practice.


Good Parents Pressure Kids to Practice…RIght?

If you can tear down the story that parents tell themselves about practice and provide them with a new story, it allows them to view practice in a whole new light. You’re the expert. The parent isn’t. They’re looking to you to understand how practice fits into this whole equation. They feel like, “Well, good parents make their kids practice. My mom made me practice when I was a kid. I hated it. I hated it. But my mom was a good mom, and she insisted I practice and pulled me out of lessons when I didn’t practice.” By saying to them, “Here’s our approach to practice, here’s what our hopes are for your child, here’s how we’re going to get there, and this is where practice is going to fit into the equation,” you’ll be shocked at how open and receptive parents are to you when you try to reframe practice.


What if You Tell Parents a Different Story About Practice?

Remember that story I shared just a few minutes ago about the mom who didn’t want to sign her child up for music lessons because she wasn’t ready to have that battle with her daughter? I said to her, “How would you feel if I told you that practice is not a requirement, that practice is something your child could work up towards, that it could be a goal, that your child can come to the weekly lesson, and through that experience alone, achieve those benefits that you just told me you want? You just told me you want your daughter to be a happier and better person. What if I told you that your child can get that from the weekly lesson alone and that practicing something that she’s going to do later on? Would you sign up for music lessons at my school?” And she said, “I’d be so relieved if that was the case.”


Is Practice Work or Pleasure?

Now, a parent’s only going to say that if they like you, and they trust you, and they view you as an authority, and an expert, and that’s where marketing comes into play. I think you’re going to run Facebook ads with that message. That’s going to be a message that you can convey on the phone with new customers when you’re onboarding a new customer. In the second and third episodes, that’s what I’m going to get a little bit more into.


One of the biggest problems with practice is that kids categorize and parents categorize practice as homework. Remember, Johnny, do your homework, and don’t forget to practice. As long as practice falls under the category of homework in the parent’s mind and in the student’s mind, you got yourself a problem. The moment you tell a parent, “Look, we want practice to be something that your child turns to as a source of relaxation. We want it to be therapeutic. It shouldn’t be stressful. We want your child after a long day of school to unwind on the piano because if your daughter develops that habit now, it’s something she can have for the rest of her life.” We got to get practice out of the homework category and into the category of relaxation.


The Origins of the Practice Problem

You tell a parent that your goal is to help their child fall in love with music, enjoy it so much that they’d rather play their guitar than be on their phone on social media, or that before they pick up their phone to hop on social media, they really enjoy a few minutes unwinding playing the violin. Parents will love that. I’m making that an actuality. That’s another challenge, and again, we’ll get into that later.


So, where did the practice problem come from? Why do we have this issue in our industry? How come the dance world doesn’t? How come these other artistic disciplines don’t have that? If you sign up for an afterschool art program, you go to the class, you work on the painting, and you come back next week, and you do it again. There’s no expectation to practice that discipline at home. It’s certainly not for the beginner, not for the novice who’s just kind of getting started out.


Music for The Masses

I believe the practice problem stems from the fact that a hundred-plus years ago, only the wealthy could afford a piano. A beautiful baby grand. The only way to communicate music a hundred-plus years ago was through sheet music, and the kind of music that you were going to learn was classical music. 


Classical music is high art. It’s sophisticated and arguably one of the most complex and intricate forms of music. You really need sheet music to access it. You also need the ability to read that sheet music well to access that music. And that’s going to require a lot of hard work and practice. But if you look at other instruments like the guitar, not so expensive. You didn’t have to be wealthy in 1890 to own a guitar. It was the common man’s instrument.  Blues, folk music – it was an oral tradition. Somebody would show you how to play these chords. You didn’t need sheet music to play the guitar so you could strum a bluegrass song. 


Dual Music Traditions

There’s always been this dual tradition. With the classical tradition, for the wealthy, they could afford a nice, beautiful piano. They could afford a teacher. And then there was the folk tradition, music from the people being taught to each other. Here, here’s how you play the first chord for the song. Put this finger here, this finger here, this finger there, now strum it. There it is. That’s how it was taught. But when the spinet piano was introduced, that changed everything. It was an affordable instrument now. Now the middle-class could afford to have a piano, and now these two traditions merge a little bit closer now. But you have these two different philosophical approaches to education.


The practice problem does not exist, or it’s not as strong in the world of guitar and drums. What I have noticed with my teaching staff, is that they’re much more adaptable to different ways of teaching. Nost guitarists started out with their buddy teaching them how to play. Not the case with the piano teacher. The piano teacher typically comes from a rich tradition of classical music and an emphasis on being a good sight-reader. But the world has changed. The culture has changed. Technology has helped contribute to that change. You don’t need sheet music anymore to play some kinds of music. It’s easier sometimes to look something up on YouTube. It’s easier sometimes just to use your ear.


Music Has Evolved. Have Music Lessons?

The practice problem became more pronounced in the later part of the 20th century. I’ve talked to my mom about this when she was growing up in the mid-20th century, 1950s. Classical music was the only way to learn an instrument. She had a piano at home and it was going to be classical music. She had to practice, and she hated it. Rock and roll hadn’t really taken over. Broadway show tunes and jazz, that was a big thing, and you still had to be a good reader to be able to access that music. And besides, classical music provided someone with a greater sense of status and was more prestigious.


The role of classical music has changed in our culture. Just look at the professional symphonies around our country. They’re struggling. Even pre-COVID, they were struggling. Younger people have a different attitude about music. Rock music, folk music used to be considered low art, was counterculture. It was for kids. My mom always complains to me that whenever she goes to the symphony, everyone there is so old, that no one from my generation goes. Look, our generation’s different. We’re post-Beatles. 


High Art vs Low Art

The Beatles made rock and roll high art. My grandparents would have been so opposed if my mother said that she wanted to learn how to play folk music and blues on the piano in 1953. They would have been outraged. No, you’re going to play classical music. Today’s 38-year-old mom has a very different worldview, and I think it’s important that we understand that worldview.

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