Guest post by Nicole Douglas, Creative Education Specialist with Tonara 

Just when we think we’ve heard all the excuses for not practicing, we hear a new one. Let’s talk about the underlying reasons why students don’t practice.

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist from the early 1900s, developed an order of basic needs that are usually met before a person is able to achieve their full potential. If we look at the root causes of the lack of practice using this hierarchy of needs, some interesting concepts emerge.

The bottom level is physiological needs. Is the student breathing? (Let’s hope so!) Do they have a place to live? Have they eaten today or had water recently? Are they sleep-deprived? While these things are almost always out of our control as music teachers, it is helpful to be aware that these unmet needs can contribute to a lack of practice.

The next level is safety and security needs. Are they feeling okay, health-wise? Do they feel safe in their environment? Is their life relatively stable? This is a category we have some influence in as we create a studio space that feels safe, secure, and stable from week to week. Sometimes, though, when students leave our studios, they can lose this sense of safety in their music life. They may get home and feel like they’ve forgotten how to do something because things feel so different at home. Or maybe through no fault of their own they did not have a way to attend their lesson this week so they are starting to wonder if their teacher might be mad at them.

The third level is love and belonging needs. Once a certain level of safety can be relied on, students want to know that other people like them and want to spend time with them. They want to feel connected to others. Even if students are taking group classes, practicing at home can feel lonely at times. They may wonder if other students have to practice as much as they do, or if anyone else really practices their scales.

We know that as students progress through their music-learning journey, they can experience high levels of self-confidence and reach their inner potential. Once these last two levels of the hierarchy are met, practicing takes on a whole new meaning. Students who experience purpose and meaning, and who feel creative, rarely have to be told to practice.

So how can we get them there? Making a difference in only 30-45 minutes a week can feel daunting. We need a way to engage students not just in the lesson but also wherever they are in between lessons. We also can’t do this alone.

For me, Tonara has been a game-changer. Tonara is an app and a desktop platform that allows music teachers to communicate with students throughout the week, create engaging assignments, and share files with students. It also helps track students’ progress. I had to use it, though, to really see the difference it can make. 

 


At first, I had started using Tonara just to send assignments to my students. I didn’t even tell a couple of my easily-frustrated students that the app can listen to their music practice and award them points. One student burst into my studio for his next lesson exclaiming, “Did you know the app gives you points for practicing? I feel so productive!” This was a student who would shut down when I tried using other music apps to help make practice more engaging. Points for practice is not new — music teachers create incentive programs all the time based on reported practice time. How this differs, though, is the system only awards points for the practice it hears on that student’s assigned instrument (using a phone or tablet microphone), and the system awards more points to those who are consistent practicers.


But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we are truly going to meet students’ needs and reduce the desire to excuse practice time or forget about practice time, we need to think about some of these basic needs we can address. 

Creating a safe and secure studio cannot be limited to just our studio space. In today’s fast-paced world, students can easily become anxious while practicing or before even starting to practice. They might need to know it’s okay to make mistakes and to experiment with music. Maybe they don’t feel like their practice space is safe — maybe their instrument is in the basement and it’s dark down there, or maybe the space is where lots of neighborhood kids run through the house and might make comments about their practice. Tonara doesn’t solve those things by itself, but it does provide a dedicated space to go send pictures, audio messages, and text messages to teachers (and from teachers to students).

It might just take a 10-second message of encouragement and a cute digital sticker to help students get back to remembering their teacher is in their corner. Regular text messaging apps can do some of this, but what I prefer about Tonara is all studio messaging is contained in the one music practice app and not getting mixed up with personal messages. With today’s culture of social media, we may find that students would prefer to not use their normal messaging program as they would either become distracted or be reminded of negative social media interactions. Separating it into a new online space can make it feel safer.

The ability to easily communicate during the week also helps with those times when students just need a quick check on a passage they are struggling with or a marking they aren’t sure of. Wouldn’t it be great if students felt empowered to ask right then, rather than waiting to practice again until their next lesson? One of my brand new 10-year-old students was able to tell me that he forgot what I said about the notes’ names, and I sent him a 15-second message back reminding him about some tricks we used in his lesson. Then he came to his lesson knowing I already knew he was struggling a bit so he wasn’t as anxious about coming back, and I loved it because I knew exactly what to address right away in his next lesson. Parents love it because their children can get help directly from the teacher (and because the student isn’t having to use social media apps to communicate).

What about helping students feel love and belonging, Maslow’s third level? We know we want our students to feel that they belong in our studio, but sometimes they need to feel that from someone their own age. Tonara can create a place for studio peers to share recordings with each other and encourage each other to practice. Students who have a strong need to feel that they are not alone in their music studies can be uplifted by seeing all the students in the studio, and in the whole world, listed on practice leaderboards. I love my friend Lou Ann Pope’s ideas of pairing students together to be assigned to encourage each other, and of creating whole studio assignments where everyone submits their compositions to the group. These composition assignments are then discussed as a group all on Tonara. A shy student who would normally not get past the uncomfortable feeling of creating their own composition might now feel like they can do it since they heard others’ short pieces.

What it comes down to is if we want to influence as many students as we can in this very busy, over-scheduled world our students live in, we need this sense of community to be so strong that students make music study a priority — that it feels so safe and loving that their creativity is unleashed and they reach their potential. And when those highest levels are reached, it will feel so good that students will make sure they practice.


Tonara is an advertising sponsor here on Music Educator Resources. I’ve been using Tonara with my students and we are really enjoying it! I would invite you to check Tonara out. When you sign up and use the code: musiceducatorresources you can get 10% off for a year! Not quite sure yet, try out the free 30-day trial first!