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10 Lesson Ideas When Music Students Haven't Practiced 🎵

If you're a music teacher, you know that students coming unprepared is inevitable. This article is to help us music teachers not lose our minds when this happens 😫 because we're armed with a preplanned lesson that is ready to go.

When students are unprepared for their music lesson, use this as an opportunity to teach a lesson on a musical skill that fulfills student deficiencies due to the overall lack of time in music lessons. After reading this article, you may actually look forward to the days when students are unprepared!

In this article, I'm going to (1) provide 10 topic suggestions (which could also be used for a "play week" lesson); (2) suggest what to say and how to react to the unprepared students; (3) how to communicate effectively with the parent so that we all avoid shaming unprepared students, which is one of the main reasons for quitting music.


"Sad pianist" from Peter Ibbetson, Etc published by J.R. Osgood & Co. (1892). Original from the British Library.

First, let's agree not to teach the same lesson. Unless there is a specific element from the assignment that a student does not understand, do not go over the entire assignment again. I've taught the exact same material again with unprepared students, and realize now, that it is a BIG mistake to do this. In the moment, I felt as though I needed to "keep us on track." But as a result, I was left completely frustrated, even resentful, because it felt like my time was wasted.  

Instead we can say, "I understand this was not your regular practice week. It's okay. You have a one-week extension to complete this assignment and I'm excited to hear you play it for me next week. Today, we're going to...

There must be an understanding between you and the student in regards to work completed. Every lesson should begin with something like this: "How did your music practice go this week? What was your favorite part? What was the most challenging part?" At this time, the student must be honest about what they accomplished and did not accomplish. It's possible that some items were completed, and some were not. The opening chat in a lesson must function as a student self-assessment so that the teacher can address any particular pain points from the assignment in that lesson.

If students are punished in any way when they are unprepared, they will learn not to be honest about their work during the student self-assessment.

Parents may be the first to blurt out,"Johnny didn't practice one minute!" This might be continued by some sort of shaming and disappointment. I believe that parents who guilt students do so because they know that our time as teachers is valuable. It might be coming from a place of respect, but in my experience, it only pushes students away. The result is that students start to lose joy in studying music, or worse, they begin to fear it.

I propose an alternative response. First, let the parents know that in case the student hasn't practiced, you have 10+ preplanned lessons ready to go. Non-musicians often don't understand that there are multiple skills to build in music, it's not just about playing an instrument. Assure them that this is not lost or wasted time, rather, "These bonus lessons provide an opportunity work on their musical training on an even deeper level. There is ALWAYS something to learn!

Next, we should frame any incomplete work to the student as, "I understand. You have a one-week extension to complete X." This gives the student a chance to redeem themselves. Finally, spend 1-2 minutes helping them schedule out their practice plan, and make sure they commit to the plan. 

10 Spur-of-the-Moment Lesson Ideas

1. Teach a lesson on improvisation and composition. If a student is learning scales, have them take the first tetrachord of that scale, and make up a melody (improvisation). Alternatively, you can sing a simple melody and have them try to "find the notes" (transcription). Once a student lands on a melody they like, notate it for them. You can then ask them to copy exactly what you wrote. This is a really important step in learning music notation, and even if there are note values and symbols that your student hasn't yet learned, the exercise is valuable because it triggers curiosity.

2. Teach Mixolydian and Lydian modes. Unless you're a jazz musician, modes often are neglected in traditional classical training. Since most students begin with the major scale, start with any major scale and then teach mixolydian as major with a flat-7. Next, teach lydian as major with a sharp-4. For most young and beginner students, I have found that an entire lesson on the derivation of ALL of the modes is too much. I would focus on just mixolydian, lydian, and major, and talk about the differences in sound. Which one do they like best? Can you come up with a melody for each?  

3. Teach Dorian, Phrygian, and Locrian modes. Like mixolydian and lydian, teach one mode at a time using the natural minor scale as the base scale. If a student fully understands the natural minor scale, adding a sharp-6 makes it "dorian." Adding a flat-2 makes it "phrygian." And adding a flat-2 AND flat-5 makes it "locrian." Again, teaching the complete derivation of all of the modes might be useful at this time. 

Modes are taught in this way in my book, Visualize Keyboard Scales & Modes.

4. Do an "error detection" exercise. Switch seats with the student so that THEY are the teacher. Take their current songs and pieces, and play them making intentional errors. Have the student spot the errors and explain what "you did wrong." I cannot tell you how much students LOVE this engaging exercise! You can really have fun, and the more absurd the "mistakes," the funnier it is. 

5. Teach solfège hand symbols. This is really fun. Teach the solfège hand symbols for the major scale and sing! Find a simple, major-mode melody in your student's repertoire, and try to solfège that melody. It's always best to integrate new skills with your student's existing songs and pieces.

6. Teach conducting patterns. Take time to listen to music, and maybe watch a YouTube video of your favorite conductor. Talk about the role of the conductor. Show basic conducting patterns in 2, 3, and 4 (or maybe just in 4). In a listening exercise, can the student identify the conducting pattern (meter)?

7. Teach a lesson on how to use a DAW or other music technology. If teaching from your home and your DAW (digital audio workstation) is accessible, teach the basics on setting up a new session and producing music. This could be a lesson on recording, or, other applications that produce music. 

We spend so much time on mastering the instrument, reading, and repertoire, that music technology often gets neglected. The truth is, music production is an art form in itself and like music theory and musicianship, deserves intensive study as its own skill. Since this isn't realistic for a lot of music students, it's beneficial to set aside lesson time to explore music technology. 

8. Teach a lesson on how to use a music notation program. Again, this requires access to your personal notation set up, but this is an impactful lesson and gets students curious about writing music. 

9. Teach a lesson on music history. There are so many ways to go about this, but one to consider is always to connect history to current repertoire. I didn't always have time to go into a detailed history lesson when starting a new piece of music, but when I did, the history helped to make the composer and musicians behind the sheet music, come alive. 

10. Involve them in your current music work. If you play with an ensemble, direct, or teach at an institution, share your work! You might happen to have scores, assignments, or recordings on hand. Talk about your professional work and demonstrate what a fulfilling music career looks like. I guarantee they will have a lot of questions!

Bonus Ideas! 


Analyze their music. 

Play flash cards and other music learning games.

Listen to their favorite song and then try to play it (transcription). 

Play for them and ask musical questions at their level.

Get ahead in their theory workbook.

Play duets.

Record music they already know.

Go to "the HARDEST" song in the book and try it out!


For the students that are habitually unprepared, there is likely a deeper problem occurring that is preventing work to get done, and that topic will be addressed in a later blog post.

For now, what would YOU add to this list? Join the conversation below. 👇


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