“Mom, can I practice Puh-LEEEEZE!”
How often do you hear that from your child? I never heard it from my older daughter, now a sophomore at Juilliard; nor from my adult son, a jazz musician. But recently, I’ve been hearing it from my 10-year-old daughter Jenna, a cellist – ever since we launched our practice club.
The idea came about because of Jenna. She was born into and grew up in my music school. She’s naturally musical, but it took an unnatural amount of effort to get her to sit down and practice. My usual tactics – prizes, bribes, and badgering - weren’t working.
What had worked in the past was rewarding her with something that meant a lot to her. When she was younger, it was all about stuffed animals. Now, it’s all about her friends. Her closest friends all play in my orchestra with her.
So I thought having a practice club on Sunday, my one day off, might be worth it.
Of course, parents immediately jumped on the idea – they were happy to drop their children off with me for the afternoon, especially when they heard it was to practice!
The first two Sundays were utterly exhausting . As soon as the six young musicians were dropped off at 12:30 p.m., they scattered like mice, running wild on the property. It was a challenge to keep them engaged for three hours
But by the third attempt I had an improved plan. I visited the 99 cent store and bought fuzzy slippers, small candies and assorted prizes. On Sunday, the kids arrived and I immediately pulled out a basket of slippers, informing them that, to be a club member, they had to wear them. That engaged them right away (with just a little bickering over who got which color).
Next, they were handed a clipboard, a mini-pencil, and a blank practice log. They were instructed to write down everything they intended to practice for the next two hours. The log I designed has columns that show how much time they planned to spend on each piece or exercise, and then the actual time that they spent.
They were each led into their own practice room; I strategically placed the closest friends furthest apart!
For the third hour, the kids played in groups, which of course, they love. Some played duets, others worked on their orchestra music together.
I’m still practicing practice club, and it keeps getting better. Here are some of my most successful strategies.
1. Fifty is fabulous – Fifty minute intervals, followed by a 10 minute break, seems to work best.
2. Pop-ins are popular - Frequent interruptions in the beginning of their practice session sets them up for the afternoon – they know I’m listening.
3. Reward them often - While making the rounds, bring an arsenal of stickers and throw one on their practice log to reward their efforts. They also perk up with an M&M or two. (Cheerios work too.)
4. Have snacks, will practice – For some reason, practicing makes kids hungry. Each ten minute or longer break should come with a healthy snack or beverage.
5. Leave the door open - For your most challenging practicers, pass by often , calling out “Do it again! “ or “That was out of tune!” or “You’re doing great!” The surprise coaching keeps them on their toes.
6. Extend the fun - After club time, ask a parent to take the kids out for frozen yogurt, miniature golf, or a movie.
7. Try a weekday club - On Thursday nights, parents in my program have picked up the ball and begun offering a mini-practice club. The kids do their homework, practice, and eat dinner. By the time Jenna gets home, all that’s left for me to bark is, “Brush your teeth and go to bed!”
8. Encourage teachers to join the club - One of our cello teachers, Tao Ni, the associate principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has occasionally joined the club. So has our viola teacher, Zach Dellinger, who is preparing for an important competition. Hearing them practice makes a huge impression on our budding musicians. It teaches them that practice really does make perfect!
9. Acknowledge accomplishments - We have a binder in which kids put their completed practice logs . At the end of each month, we add up everyone’s hours, and post them on the school bulletin board. Kids feel proud and it inspires other children to join a practice club!
Some people think I’m crazy to do this on my Sunday afternoon. But it’s worth it, to to hear my daughter and her friends begging to practice, and to hear the improvement in their playing. My household is a lot more peaceful these days, with less nagging and more cello!
Snap your strings! Stomp your feet! Play on the bridge!
That may not sound like traditional advice for a conductor to give her
string orchestra, but during Halloween season, it can mean improved
skills and vastly increased enthusiasm for your young musicians as well as for you!
At least that’s what we’ve discovered in our strings program, now
celebrating its 11th year.
Doing Halloween up big started about eight years ago, with monthly
recitals for our strings students. We asked each performer to wear their Halloween costumes. This was a huge hit with both parents and the children – it’s harder to be nervous when you’re dressed like a superhero!
Then we decided the entire orchestra should perform in costume. Our 60 orchestra members are ages 5 – 12. For that concert, I couldn’t resist getting into the act. –I dressed up as Cruella de Ville. The kids and parents at first did not recognize me. It came as a hilarious shock. There were lots of laughs as I ran the recital in character, as a meanie!
The following year, our orchestras were invited to perform at
a children’s museum’s ‘Pumpkin Festival.’ We were to be prominently showcased on an outdoor stage. I decided to rent a Marie Antoinette costume. The hooped skirt was so wide and my wig so tall we had to borrow a bigger vehicle to transport me. Even then, it took a team of parents to pry me out of the van!
After overcoming that obstacle, we were quite a hit! The kids had a blast and so did I. So now, a Halloween concert is an annual ritual.
Here are seven reasons why Halloween can be the best time of year for you and your music students:
#1. It’s a great way to dive into the fall semester, and get your students
excited about being in orchestra, With Halloween just 8 weeks away kids work hard to get ready.
# 2. Halloween can be a technical smorgasbord. There is a lot of
great spooky music out there that inspires kids and teaches unusual
techniques that will be useful in the long run. Things like shifting
up and down the fingerboard; playing harmonics; using different parts of the bow; and playing extreme dynamics. Some of my favorite pieces:
- Creepy Crawl, by David Shaffer and Jason Barrera
- Ghost of John, arranged by Susan Brown.
- The Curse of the Rosin Eating Zombies from Outer Space, by Richard Meyer
- Creepy Classics, arranged by Roy Phillippe,
#3. You can develop creative rituals and traditions. For example, ‘Rosin Eating Zombies’ calls for a solo scream. We hold an open audition during rehearsal. There is tons of hysterical laughter as the kids vote for a winner. We make it even scarier by turning off the lights during the performance so we’re in a completely black room (I wave a light-up baton, and the kids play from memory.)
Another ritual: Long before the concert, we create ‘guess what the conductor will be wearing!’ game. It’s top secret, revealed at the time of the concert. It’s a fun shock for all.
#4. It’s a bonding experience. My goal is to keep kids playing their instruments as long as possible, especially through the difficult teen years. Events like these create lasting friendships, which leads to children staying in music.
#5. The media loves it. A costumed children’s orchestra dressed playing spooky and classical music– it’s eye candy, as well as ‘ear candy’!
#6. It’s a fundraising opportunity. As long as you’re generating
publicity and drawing a crowd, you might as well raise some money. We
sell orchestra totes at the concert, to help raise money for our upcoming trip to perform at Carnegie Hall
#7. It’s an outreach opportunity. We advertise the Halloween concert as
the perfect first orchestra experience for tots and older. Audience parents have told us that the concert inspired their children to take up a stringed instrument.
So what will I wear this Halloween? Shhhh, I’m not saying! You’ll find out soon enough! (One clue: we’ll need an even bigger van than last year!)
The Los Angeles Children’s Orchestra’s performance at the Kidspace Museum Pumpkin Festival in Pasadena, CA will take place on October 28, 2012, at noon. For more information go to www.kidspacemuseum.org.
More entries: June 2012
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