New Piece Of Music! When Is It Time

We as teachers give short and long term assignments to our students, but when is the appropriate time to mark the piece as complete and move on to a new piece of music?

Learn a new piece of music?
Bach Invention #3

It’s a challenge we as teachers face, and knowing when the right time to move on from a piece of music is important for a number of reasons.  As an overall goal for teachers, we want to see our students progress and master particular techniques along the way during their course of study, but maintaining a good pace and variation in pieces and exercises of study can directly affect the overall feeling a student has about their lessons.  The overall goal here is for the student to feel that each lesson is a fresh experience and end each lesson with a sense of accomplishment.
For example, a student may be working on a piece during their lessons for several weeks, yet during lessons, the teacher may not feel that every detail of the piece has been mastered, though the student may feel discouraged and bored with the material after practicing it for an extended period of time.  A teacher must then use their best discretion to decide when to move on and use their intuition to see how the student is feeling about their progress.

Consider the Level of the Pieces and Exercises Being Assigned

The first step for a teacher to consider before giving an assignment is whether or not the piece or exercise is something the student can achieve in a reasonable amount of time.  Students are often discouraged when a piece is too far of a reach in technique or reading ability at their given level, so a teacher must plan accordingly.  Overall, students like to simply have songs that they can play well, and the greatest sense of achievement comes from being able to do so confidently.  If the student is working towards a goal of playing a piece that is outside of the realm of current ability, that doesn’t mean it can’t be achieved, but maybe that there are other small assignments that can be completed on the way towards this goal, like technique exercises that can prepare them for the upcoming challenge, or more simplified pieces entwined that work toward the goal, thus giving them the background knowledge they will need along the way.

Balancing Long-Term and Short-Term Assignments

Some pieces require more time to master, such as performance pieces that may require memorization or extensive sectional practice.  These are great assignments to have running for a longer period of time during lessons, but ensuring that there is still repertoire variation every week is also important.  A common mistake amongst music teachers is to assign one difficult piece and only work on that for months during lessons.  Appropriately, the student will get bored if this is the only thing done every week, and often, practice will become a chore.  Also, if only one long-term assignment is being worked on, overall improvement can be stifled, as teachers will start to see the same habits, a possibly mistakes, continue week to week.  We as musicians, and this includes beginning musicians, need a sense of freshness to continue improvement and maintain excitement about their study.
Therefore, balancing small pieces and exercises at any level will keep the pace of the lessons running, and each week, the student will feel that they are progressing and have something new and exciting to practice each week.  Short-term assignments that correlate to long term assignments are even better!  Say a student has reached a challenge in a long-term piece that is difficult to master.  There is always going to be a technique exercise or a short piece they can work on for a couple of weeks that can help outside of the context of the long-term piece.

Establishing the Goal and Purpose of Learning a Piece

If a clear goal is outlined in the beginning process of working on a new piece, the accomplishment of the goal will dictate when it is time to put the piece to rest.  The goal may anything from preparing for a certain performance, or even just reaching a tempo marking outlined by the teacher with good continuity.  It doesn’t have to be playing a piece at a professional and “perfect” level.  Once the goal is achieved, it’s time to move on.

In Conclusion

Keep your students from becoming bored in lessons by making sure there is variation in the assignments they see each week.  Some pieces definitely require more time to prepare than others, but it is in the best interest of the student and teacher to never spend all of the lesson time for several consecutive weeks working on only one thing.  Making sure that students have plenty of achievable songs and exercises to be learned on a short-term basis makes learning an instrument fun, and in doing so, long-term goals are more easily achieved.

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