Q&A: How Do I Get A 12-Year Old To Practise Slowly?

A reader sent me in the following question, which feels more like a plea!

I have been teaching a 12-year old boy for a couple of years now. He has a flair for piano and is quite talented but his playing is always so messy and out of control. I’ve told him he needs to practise slowly and I can get him to do it in the lesson (sort of) but he lacks the discipline at home. I get the feeling he would rather be out playing football. Any suggestions?

Thank you so much for this question. There is no doubt that slow, mindful practice is an essential ingredient in our practising, no matter how old we are or what level we’re at. The first step is to get your pupil to appreciate this. You can philosophise, demonstrate and remonstrate all you like but unless he sees the value in practising slowly, he’s not going to do it. Simple! Help him to realise that there are even greater rewards to be had from delaying gratification – remember the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? – and that even great pianists practise slowly!

Seeing as he is into sports, you might want to help him summon up his inner coach by imagining his ten fingers (and his right foot!) are the players in the football team he is managing. He is in charge of every movement they make, every position they need to adopt. He calls the shots, and without his leadership he doesn’t have a team.

My best suggestion would be to give him something concrete to do regarding slow practice. If it is a fast piece, you can decide together on the eventual performance tempo and give him a series of goals that would help him build up to this. It is important that he first has a sense of how the piece will sound – eventually. Let’s say you arrive at a tempo of crotchet = 100, have him first do it at exactly half that speed (thus quaver = 100). Assign a section of the piece for the next lesson, which you will hear at that slow tempo. I have been known to hear only the LH, and that is an option open to you too.  I also advocate quarter speed practising, but this takes considerable willpower! He can use the metronome or not. I personally hardly ever use the metronome, but I realise that it can provide a structure to practising, and practising with the metronome is better than not practising at all!

Thereafter, you can increase the tempo gradually week by week making sure to reinforce what you expect him to do in his practising by hearing and checking it in the lesson. You might ask to hear hands separately at the faster speed a week before expecting him to manage it with both hands. Remember we are not always hearing performances in lessons, and it is extremely constructive to hear the practising.