Monday, May 2, 2016

Teaching Students To Practice

The bell is about to ring, and it's time for the students to put away their instruments. You look around the room and observe the various routines of individual students. One has already begun taking her instrument apart, another is playing through one of the songs from earlier in the year. Most of these instruments will be shut in their cases and will not see the light of day until the next rehearsal. Some students are taking their instruments home, but you wonder what exactly they plan on doing with them. Maybe they have a great time squawking on their mouthpiece to annoy a sibling, or perhaps they are trying to learn a song that they heard on the radio. How many of these students are actually going to sit down in a quiet room with a mirror, care for their instrument, take at least fifteen minutes to warm up, and spend time working on the repertoire that they are learning in class? You sigh as you admit to yourself, probably none of them.

Most band students do not have good practicing habits, and that is a fact. Most of the time, I am just happy to hear a student say that they are taking their instrument home this weekend. In a perfect world, all of my students would understand the need for dedication, the time committment that is required to be a part of the band. They would all know how important it is to practice the basics, and to practice every day for at least thirty minutes. At the very least, they would take their instruments home to learn their band music. So how do we get there from here? Without a private teacher for every student, it is difficult - but not impossible.

One misconception that I had as a beginning teacher was that my band students would figure out how to practice all on their own. I covered the basics during the first few weeks, things like "take your instrument home," and "play long tones first," and "slow down difficult passages." Now, I think that practice techniques should be taught all year long. As a beginning teacher, I also underestimated the amount of time and effort that it takes to create specific practice assignments on a regular basis. Not only are the students at different ability levels, but they also play different instruments and different music! To put it simply, teaching students how to practice is difficult!

So here are my ideas on making it a little more manageable:

1) Learn to play all of the instruments. This is beneficial in so many ways. Learn the All-State audition pieces for each instrument. It lets you discover the intricacy of each instrument. You will understand the differences in each instrument and how they should be practiced.

2) Teach practice techniques regularly. Use them during rehearsal. Have the students speak the rhythms, use fingers only, use an air stream, slur everything, tongue everything, play only the dynamics, isolate tricky spots, and all of the other techniques that professional musicians use on a regular basis.

3) Teach the fundamentals of playing as part of the warm-up, and don't skip the boring ones. Practice breathing, practice on the mouthpiece, practice articulations and releases, practice range, practice dynamics, practice scales. Emphasize the importance of spending time on these things, and separate them from learning the repertoire. Make them understand, "This is the warm-up. This is where you learn your fundamentals."

4) Require the students to practice. Whether you use a check list, individual assignments, or even a set amount of time each week, the students need to know that they have a responsibility to practice outside of the classroom.

5) Identify both long term and immediate goals. The goal of practicing is never just to make it to the end of the song. The goal of practicing is to make the music sound like what you think it should sound like. Identify immediate goals such as learning a new fingering or a new rhythm, playing with specific articulations and dynamics, or learning to play a specific passage without errors.

This coming year, I want my students to practice better. Maybe I will use a practice journal, where they will write down their goals at the beginning of the week with my help. Maybe I will have individual students come in after school for temporary private lessons. I know that I will focus more on the warm up period, where all of the fundamentals are honed in. One thing is certain: learning to play an instrument takes time, and time is a valuable resource. Learning to practice means making practice time more efficient.