What the Pandemic Teaches us About Practice

what the pandemic taught us

By Leila Viss

In March, 2020, we were unexpectedly handed a new script with a redefined reality.

As music teachers, we’ve suffered the loss of most everything held dear:

  • Interacting with students in the same room.
  • Playing on or listening to quality instruments with genuine acoustic sound.
  • Singing or playing shoulder to shoulder with a fellow musician.
  • Sharing hard copies of sheet music.
  • Grabbing a pencil to mark a score.
  • Using tactile tools or manipulatives to experience concepts.
  • Enjoying animated conversation without the fear of lag. 
  • Celebrating achievements in a hall in front of a live audience.

Covid-19 stripped away our well-worn approach to teaching and rocked the foundation of our profession. Collectively we grieved, found solutions, and adapted to a remodeled “normal.”

To reach beyond the darkness of the pandemic, I claimed a three-part mantra:

Reinvent within restrictions.

Learn within limitations.

Blossom within boundaries.

From what I’ve witnessed in social media, teacher groups and webinars, there’s a tight, world-wide community where members support each other and take on the challenge of all three mantras.

It didn’t take long for us to reinvent lessons to an online format. Because time was restricted to a screen, even those who didn’t consider themselves tech-savvy, became fluent in Zoom. We tolerated undesirable sound quality due to bandwidth limitations. 

Our students learned how to find Middle C and how to finger a passage in Beethoven despite lessons fraught with frozen images and frequent static. 

Coping within the boundaries of the camera frame and our students’ out-of-tune home instruments, we discovered ways to play games with a shared screen and annotation, explored ways to improvise and teach in groups and tightened up our communication skills. 

In lieu of pointing or showing, we upgraded the clarity of our instructions and heightened our ear skills. And since our hands were tied behind a screen, students seemed to listen more actively and become better at scanning the sheet music and marking their own scores.

With a potential loss of income, the pandemic forced us to reinvent how we do things.  Through discovery and daily practice with online tools, we established new ways to teach and found success. 

Mmm...this scenario seems to echo what our students experience when they sign up for music lessons. Students must add a new agenda item—practice—into their routine and make it a habit in order to be successful.

James Clear outlines the process for establishing habits in his book Atomic Habits. The premise is that a new habit is a result of a changed behavior. And the four laws of behavior change are:

  1. Make it obvious.
  2. Make it attractive.
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying.

The social distancing restrictions made it obvious that we needed to switch to online lessons or close our studios. Technological tools like Zoom provided attractive solutions that could keep us in business and are relatively easy to use. Our behavior changed and teaching online became a habit and satisfied our needs.

According to Clear, the most effective form of motivation is progress. Even though we may have doubted the impact of the virtual format at first, most teachers admit that progress can occur between lessons for students at any age. Once I saw that Zoom instruction could be effective, I was motivated to be a better online piano teacher with help from the best possible tools available.

We’re thriving now because we developed a new skill with practice and shifted our teaching paradigm. Establishing our new habits involved the four laws of behavior and relates to how we teach our students. 

We must: 

  • Offer obvious reasons for learning a concept
  • Make our instruction attractive with engaging lesson plans
  • Break up concepts so they are easy to master
  • Develop players who are satisfied with their skills.

Around the same time that I encountered Atomic Habits, I watched a TED talk by Tali Sharot called “How to Motivate Yourself to Change Your Behavior” in which she explains three principles that drive the mind and behavior: immediate rewards, social incentives, and positive progress monitoring.

Leila Viss webinar

#1 Immediate Rewards

"Reward people now for actions that are good for them in the future."

We all like rewards that are tangible, something guaranteed now rather than something probable that may come in the future. Sharot asks: “What will happen if you reward people now for actions that are good for them in the future?”

Studies show that warnings on cigarette packages about future health risks from smoking don’t work. The research showed that giving people immediate rewards in the present will make them more likely to quit smoking in the future. That’s why a smoker may try to quit by sucking a lollipop. The immediate reward eventually turns an activity into a habit that leads to a more beneficial lifestyle—the end reward.

The opportunity to teach online has been available to us for years. It wasn’t until the pandemic that most of us saw the immediate rewards of online teaching. A virtual platform maintained the weekly contact required to keep our students moving forward and promised stable income. 

The new habit of teaching online transformed our approach and now we have the luxury of offering choices in lesson formats to our present and potential students. Our adaptivity to meet our immediate needs may possibly grow our studios in the future—the end reward.

#2 Social Incentives

“The response to the opinion of others that leads to change.”

We are social beings and curious about what others do. When peers succeed, it’s an incentive to do the same. When a country flattened the curve of Covid-19 by wearing masks, sheltering in place and social distancing others complied and followed suit. 

An enormous surge in Facebook groups, free webinars, and local association Zoom meetings popped up to address issues and suggest solutions for music teachers. As those with more experience shared their expertise, others followed instructions and took action. Our community learned and grew together by inspiring each other.

#3 Progress Monitoring

“The average brain is better at coding positive information about the future.”

As mentioned earlier, warnings have limited impact on changing a behavior. Humans seek out and focus on positive information. Most look at how their stocks are doing when the market is strong, not when it’s down. Children and teens in particular remember positive information and have the ability to learn from good news much more than from threats. Studies show that kids are the worst at learning from negative feedback like bad grades.

Good news:

“If you practice, you will be able to play that favorite piece you heard on Spotify."

Threat:

"If you don't practice, you won't get any better at piano and I'll have to stop giving you lessons."

So it was for teachers with the onset of the pandemic. We clung to positive information about how platforms like Zoom could help us teach. There were complaints about poor sound quality and warnings about security; yet, we all craved good news about what worked to keep our businesses open. We reprogrammed our approach with wise choices and took pride in our progress.

Sharot’s three principles are applicable for building strong home practice habits in our students as well. These principles can be woven into our lessons, and I discovered that they can also be implemented between lessons with Tonara. With the uncertainties of Wi-Fi and sound quality during online lessons, I wanted a platform that would allow students to submit weekly audio recordings of their pieces to me. 

For months, I thought Tonara was not necessary, but hearing how other teachers were using the app—I was socially incentivized!—it seemed like a good fit for interacting with students. It’s because the app allows teachers and students to exchange texts, audio and video files and design media-rich lesson assignments among other options. After students sent me recordings via Tonara, I followed up with feedback. This system worked better than I anticipated and my students and I were hooked.

The three principles evident in our changed behavior as teachers can also be applied to driving behavior in our students. The following paragraphs explain how immediate rewards, social incentives and progress monitoring can be integrated in lessons as well as between lessons with Tonara.

Immediate Rewards

In Lessons: Offer music money, a sticker or on-screen thumbs up when a student accomplishes a small required task like correctly identifying note values. Continue to reward until note values are mastered and played accurately.

In Tonara: The app provides a platform to design lesson assignments and enter the number of points students can earn for finishing them. Every time an assignment is completed at home, students check it off their list and they accumulate points.

Social Incentives

In Lessons: Incentives don’t need to be a major competition or complicated in order to inspire students. Initiate a studio-wide incentive plan that shows the progress of others like a 40-Piece Challenge Wall Chart. Let students see where they stand among their peers with group lesson performances, theory games, and apps that drill. Let them rise to the challenge of doing better by highlighting the progress of others at recitals or festivals.

In Tonara: The app listens to, tracks, and records students’ practice. The more practice, the more points awarded. The points are tallied and updated daily on a leader board that can be viewed by all students. 

I did not suggest using the practice tracker or checking the leader board to any of my students; however, soon after they logged into the app, many discovered these features and began using them. It turns out that some of the students vying for the top practicer are my adult students! 

It’s evident that highlighting the point total of the top practicer drives others who enjoy competition to practice more. I don’t need to offer any incentive for holding the top spot on the leaderboard as it’s clearly a crowd-sourced incentive. 

Progress Monitoring

In Lessons: Sharot’s research shows that the brain seeks ways to control its environment towards positive information which then leads to motivation. So, allow students to choose the repertoire they like and show them practice strategies that lead to progress. If they like the piece, they’ll practice, which results in progress. Their brains will be pleased with the positive outcome and drive future behavior in a similar direction.  

Next, it’s important to show students the payoff of their progress. Encourage concert attendance and watching videos of professional musicians. I do this by assigning students to watch my Get Inspired! Episodes that feature YouTube videos of sensational and professional performances from all genres.

In Tonara: Teachers can ask students to complete a comparative assignment that helps them see an end goal. After the teacher records a piece or part of it in the app, students are assigned to listen to the recording and must aim to make their playing as close to the teacher’s as possible. 

Tonara’s clever technology hears the students and scores their accuracy in fluency, pitch, rhythm, and tempo. Students practice to earn higher grades in each category. They keep practicing because they like seeing their progress. 

Out of curiosity, I asked students to explore this assignment option. I thought it might be frustrating but instead, I received the opposite feedback. One student claimed it took her “forever” to match my playing so she kept practicing until she scored all As!

Covid-19 reframed our reality. The pandemic forced us to pivot, to change our behavior. It’s taught us the power or practice, we’ve risen to the challenge and adapted with resilience.

Watch my free webinar!

All the best as you:

Take full advantage of the tools that helped you reinvent within the restrictions.

Take note of how you learned to adapt within limitations and encourage your students to do the same.

Take pride in the fact that you blossomed within unprecedented boundaries.

Take courage as you expand your expertise as a music teacher on- or off-line


Leila Viss

Is the coordinator of the Piano Preparatory Program and alumna of the University of Denver, owns a creative-based, tech-savvy independent piano studio in Centennial. With Bradley Sowash, she is co-founder of 88 Creative Keys, a teacher workshop promoting creativity at the keys.

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