I entered my music classroom on a Tuesday morning, after a three day weekend, and stared at a dozen violin cases in the corner. Since the school is always locked on weekends, I could reasonably assume that my students' instruments were not used for at least three days. After looking at the names on the cases, I realized that some students never picked up their instruments from the week before! I was slightly annoyed because it seemed like they didn't care to practice. I was slightly embarrassed because these were MY students who didn't practice. But, I was mostly saddened because I knew my budding violinists were not going to reach their full potential with their current practice habits. Something needed to change.
My predecessor required one hundred fifty minutes of practice five times a week. Every student had to write their times down on a chart inside their book and have a parent sign it at the end of the week. So, when I started teaching at this school nearly a decade ago I expected the same. However, some students lied about the number of minutes practiced each week, and their parents were accomplices by signing the charts. Other students found the demands of the practice routine to be too much to handle and, rather than lie, they quit orchestra. Several of these honest musicians were my best performers!
I decided to break with tradition and not require practice charts at all. Besides, performance was what mattered most, and students who peform well are most likely to be practicing at home. I created an incentive system called Karate Orchestra, similar to Recorder Karate used by many general music teachers across the US. Students earn belts (colored electrical tape) to place on their bows after passing performance tests of increasing difficulty. Motivation for practicing soared as long as there was a belt test to pass, but it was impractical to test weekly on everything that students must learn. I also noticed that many still didn't know how to practice, even for a test. My students need me to teach them how to practice at home.
Music Educators Journal published Hannah Smeltz's article, "Reframing Student Practice to Facilitate Lifelong, Joyful Musicianship," in December 2012. I read this article at the same time that I was searching for ideas to help my students practice at home, and the timing of the publication was just as perfect as the relevant information I obtained from it. Ms. Smeltz said that students who use practice charts focus on time and those who take playing tests focus on grades. She believes that, in order for students to become lifelong musicians, they must practice for practice's sake. She encouraged her readers to show students how enjoyable practicing at home can be by setting goals and using a variety of practice strategies. In addition, students should be free to practice non-lesson material, improvise, compose, and listen to high quailty performers as part of their overall practice regimen.
The day I read this article I became determined to change how my students practice at home. I created a weekly journal to help guide them. The first part of the journal is a place for students to write down their goals for the week. These goals are measureable achievements, usually related to a particular week's lesson. The second part of the journal is the daily practice portion, where students write down what they practiced, practice strategies used, what went well, and what still needs to be improved. My students do need a parent signature, and they do receive a grade for completing their journal, but the emphasis is not on the amount of time spent on practicing, but rather the process of improving a particular skill or piece of music. I spend a considerable amount of time during lessons explaining and demonstrating a variety of practice strategies to use for skills or passages that must be mastered. My students even have a strategy sheet in their music folder that they can refer to when practicing at home. I look through their journals each week and make suggestions where appropriate. I also encourage them to play songs for fun, write their own music, and listen to their favorite orchestra musicians. I should also mention that I have been journaling my own practice routine with my students, who have held me accountable to practice at home too.
As I'm writing this blog post, we are in our third week of journaling. It has already made a big difference. One parent thanked me in person, saying that the strategies sheet has helped her know how to help her son practice at home. My rehearsals are more productive because my students are already learning their orchestra music faster. And most importantly, I don't see a dozen violin cases in the corner anymore.
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