Asking a student who has consistent practice habits is probably redundant. Why ask? Certainly, some students are proud of their efforts and want us to know they practised, but it's likely that those students will just volunteer the information anyway. If not, and you know a student practised well, leave it for the last minute or so of the lesson to ask them how much they practised so you can award them accordingly if you have some kind of reward system, praise their effort, and encourage them to step it up with extra or longer practice sessions for the following week because we want to continually beat our personal best. You know the student practised based on their performance or because they told you as soon as they saw you; we're asking how much, not if.
Asking a student who has inconsistent practice habits if they practised starts the lesson on a negative note and the last thing we want is for the student to develop a negative association with their learning. Asking the student why they didn't practise only makes matters worse and lecturing a student about the need to practise won't motivate them - it only puts a nail in the coffin of that lesson. Maybe you'd ask why a student didn't practice because you want to build a strategy with them, but our students' personal schedules are none of our business and asking may even unintentionally elicit private or sensitive information (e.g. medical appointments, family breakdowns, etc.). We need to set goals and expectations without getting into details about students' personal schedules. So, how should we start a lesson?
"let's see what our learning goals were this week"
Pick one from wherever you record the student's weekly learning goals and ask the student: "show me how much progress you made toward this" or "show me how you practised this." Then we get the confession: "I didn't practise."
Don't ask why, don't say "it's ok"!
It is very easy to say: "That's okay, let's do it now", but it's not ok and we don't want the student to think it is and develop lazy habits. Instead, just say: "Let's see if we can achieve this today." I want to add here that I often hear teachers say they tell their students, "Let's practise now" like it's punishment and what they do in the lesson is quite literally supervised practice. This approach is not helpful and it only reinforces archaic and tyrannical master-apprentice models of instrumental music education in which the teacher is at the centre, not student learning. Worst still, I've even heard teachers confess to making a cup of tea, putting their feet up and getting on with other work on their laptop, occasionally, calling out an instruction. At the risk of ruffling a few feathers, let's just say, in addition to my previous point, it is utterly unprofessional and there isn't a qualified educator worth their salt who, in the twenty-first century, would ever advocate such an approach. I can't stress enough how urgently and dramatically that needs to change—but that requires a change of attitude.
Students often explain that they have various other commitments, usually sport, that limit their practice time. We know this is a load of rubbish, they can find 10 minutes daily, but why argue? I like to interrupt the student mid-excuse and say (in a light tone of voice, of course): "I didn't ask! I'm not concerned about your other commitments; all I am concerned about is your learning and achievement of the weekly goals we set together."
As a brief aside: at Advantage Music Academy, we refer to learning goals as learning "intentions" because the former has a sense of finality but we want to emphasise the process and that learning is continuous; so from here on I'll use the term "learning intentions."
If students are not making progress towards the learning intention, you can adjust the success criteria to be achievable with very minimal practice and build from there. If they fail to achieve the learning intention with adjusted success criteria, you could say something to the effect of: "It will only take 10 minutes on most days of the week to achieve this intention. Consider the following:
Learning intention: I am learning all major key signatures.
I play every major scale over two octaves, hands together.
I play all the right keys and fingering.
I play with a nice and consistent sound.
I play every major scale over two octaves, hands separately.
I play all the right keys.
You might be horrified at the thought of ignoring some important aspects of learning the piano in the adjusted criteria, i.e. the coordination, fingering and sound. However, the learning intention is specifically about knowledge of key signatures and so all the usual concerns such as coordination, fingering, and sound, are secondary concerns at best. If the learning intention was, for example, "I am learning to navigate the keyboard with ease", then of course, coordination and fingering are indispensable.
I'm not saying we should never talk about practice; I'm saying it should be self-evident that practice is required because learning intentions cannot be achieved without action. The takeaway message is to keep the focus on learning, not practice. Dissecting schedules and hearing excuses—valid or not—is unproductive and shifts the focus away from learning and invites negative associations with learning.
You could choose to start a lesson by diving straight into new repertoire or concept, or with some retrieval practice; this is a really great way to get kids mentally prepared for the core part of a lesson. But when it comes to working on current repertoire—at whatever point in the lesson that may be—the approach outlined here keeps the focus on student learning, not your own expectations of what adequate practice might be. It's not about you and me—it's about the student.
Make everything about learning, not practice. Indeed, lessons must be fun because it helps engage students with their learning, but you won't achieve much with fun alone, for example, if you played musical games without a specific pedagogical purpose that furthers progress towards an explicit learning intention. However, for some families, progress is in fact of little concern and fun is indeed the most important thing to them. This, however, is the exception, not the norm. Moreover, when teaching is done well, learning is inherently fun...and a little personality goes a long way.
Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with postgraduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is the founder and director of Advantage Music Academy—a music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.