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What If We Gave Students Permission NOT to Practice? The Play Week Proposal

Download and save the 6 Tips for "Play Week" to implement in your music studio!

What if we allowed our weekly music students to plan one week of NOT PRACTICING? 

"Okay, Harley. You've practiced consistently for 6 weeks straight and I'm proud of you. This week, your assignment is to NOT practice. That's right. I'm still going to write down everything I would normally write in your assignment book, but your job is to play music only for fun. Do whatever you want! See you next week."

Umm..if my piano teacher said this to me when I was taking lessons, I wouldn't believe it. But boy, this would have been a fun week! Of course I would still practice piano (I was THAT kind of kid), but psychologically, I would feel like I was still making progress and not losing a week from not practicing.

Introducing, the "Play Week." A "Play Week" is one week off from structured practice. Students still must play their instruments, but they can choose what songs and pieces to play for fun. The "Play Week" is in contradistinction from the typical "Practice Week" where students practice, usually daily, all of the technique, theory, musicianship, and repertoire prescribed from the lesson.

If you're a music teacher who has never implemented a "Play Week," I'm hoping you're intrigued by the idea, and that my arguments for a "Play Week" will be persuasive because I really believe this can make the music learning process a lot more fun. But feel free to push back in the comments with any downsides I haven't considered.

There was a time in my piano studio of over two dozen students and a 2-page long waiting list, that I would drop students who were consistently unprepared. There is really nothing more frustrating to a music teacher than having to reteach the same lesson week after week. It feels like our time is being disrespected. Our musical skillset that took us decades of consistent, dedicated practice, is being unappreciated by students who seem not to care. I felt it was a privilege to study with me, and quite frankly, I still do. 

Whether or not to consider dropping a student from your studio is for another blog post, for now, here are the parameters and considerations for implementing a "Play Week:"

Download and save the 6 Tips for "Play Week" to implement in your music studio!

6 Tips on the "Play Week"

Housekeeping: The Play Week must be communicated and implemented with consent from parent/guardian because, during and after this week, they will need to deliver some data to you. The student must understand the distinctions between a "practice week" and "play week." Teachers can modify the "play week" to accommodate their studio policies and teaching style. 

1. How to communicate the "play week" to parents and what to teach.

The "play week" is an opportunity to give a lesson on another musical skill. In most music lessons, there is not ample time to cover all skills thoroughly; such as: musicianship and ear training, composition, improvisation, (music tech) using a DAW, recording, using a music notation program, and theory (written exercises). Use the "play week" to teach a planned lesson on other musical skills. See my post, "10 Lesson Ideas When Students Haven't Practiced," to help plan out "play weeks."

The "play week" is not a "week off" for the teacher and should not be a reason for cancelling a lesson or losing income in any way. It allows the teacher to fill in other music-related skills while giving the student a breather in an otherwise endless cadence of weekly lessons. 

 2. Data from parents.

Ask the parents to take note of the songs and pieces the student played for fun during "play week." Try to get an estimate of the time spent, as well as the overall emotional well being of the student, in comparison to a "practice week." I mean, it's obvious that the attitude of the student is likely to be more positive during the "play week" vs. the "practice week," but it helps to discuss what lit them up.

3. Students take ownership of their musical journey. 

I admit there may be a bit of reverse psychology going on here. Will the student "rebel" against the "play week" by actually practicing?? One can hope, lol. The truth is, just like you need take a day off from lifting weights so that the muscles can recover, the same can be said about the artistic process. Everybody who plays a musical instrument at an advanced level knows that we hit a weird plateau with endless practicing (usually in preparation for performance). Our pieces actually become WORSE. Zero progress is happening, only frustration.

The reason is fatigue. Mental fatigue.

The solution is to simply take a break. Step away, change focus, switch gears, take time to recalibrate. A "play week" gives the student a chance to just be musical exactly where they're at in this moment, without the pressure to progress.

4. The "play week" could help prevent burnout and quitting.

We know that overwatering a plant can actually be bad. Sometimes to cultivate a growing being, we just need to leave it alone. Part of the music learning journey is to experiment and play. Trust me when I say, that after just a few months of lessons, a student knows enough to play around and experiment and as teachers, we need to provide that space of "play" for them. 

One of the biggest complaints about classical training is the lack of improvisational skills. And I'm one of the biggest complainers as one who comes from this traditional training. I might not have the strongest improvisational skills, but I can read music like a book. There is always a trade off. For me, my lessons focused on repertoire and reading music. I am grateful for these skills, and I have worked on other musical skills on my own to fill my deficiencies. 

It is up to the music teacher to decide in what proportions certain skills are developed. But, we shouldn't ignore any skills completely, because all musical skills are needed, music is a holistic practice.

Remember, "play" IS a musical skill.

5. How to implement a "play week."

Teachers should decide if a "play week" is earned after a set amount of weeks of consist practicing, or, if a "play week" is a studio event for all students. I recommend implementing a "play week" after 6 weeks of consistent lesson practicing and preparedness, but that could be shortened or lengthened. For me, 6 weeks is the sweet spot.

The "play week" isn't meant to be a spur-of-the-moment idea when a student comes unprepared. Plan how you will deliver this to the student, but do communicate the plan with parents because a "play week" is a bit out-of-the box in traditional classical training. I imagine that some cons to implementing it as an earned reward could be that the idea of "practicing" is further perpetuated as a "chore" and "not fun" as opposed to "free form play."

The "play week" may be slightly built into the 14-week semester by taking a week off before midterms and finals. Generally, students enrolled in music lessons have to prepare for studio classes (masterclasses), juries, and recitals. A "play week" is likely better suited to K-12, adult beginners/intermediate students, and advanced students in a private music studio. Music majors studying a rigorous music curriculum with severe deadlines may or may not benefit. Consider the needs of each student on a case by case basis.

Make expectations clear. Teachers can decide if they want the student to play anything after a "play week." In some cases, it might be great to just talk about it and if the student is excited to show you something, by all means! A student sharing their "play" is actually the goal of "play week." 

6. I admit it. The truth about the "play week."

The truth is, "play week" IS a practice week (shhh....students aren't supposed to know this, that's why it's at the bottom, haha).

Essentially, the "play week" is a rebranding of "practice." Often, reframing an idea is the best way to change mindset. Practicing doesn't have to be dull, monotonous, and lifeless.

Practicing IS play. And the "play week" is a chance for students to discover this for themselves.

Download and save the 6 Tips for "Play Week" to implement in your music studio!

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Have you implemented a "play week" or something similar? Let's discuss. ūüĎᬆ


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