By Nick Burdick
If a good music education teaches students how to think like musicians, then our rehearsals should teach our students how to practice like musicians. Good practice habits can be used in any context, even outside of music, so it pays off to teach them explicitly. It can also make our rehearsals more efficient and less boring for students: when they understand the reason for all those repetitions, effort and concentration will follow naturally.
Here are some tips to help you teach your students good practice skills.
Start each rehearsal with a clear, explicitly stated goal. At first, you should model good goal statements for them.
“We’re going to tune the climax at bar 42.”
“Let’s clarify the diction in this phrase.”
As rehearsals progress, bring the students into the process. Ask them to set goals for themselves or for the ensemble.
“Julie, what do you think we could do to make this piece sound better today?”
“Everyone choose one thing to improve on this next section. [Pause] Mike, what are you going to improve?”
At first, students will choose vague goals like “sing the right notes.” Use this goal-setting process to give students feedback about their goals. Are they specific enough? Are they achievable? How will they know if they’ve reached their goal?
Often, we know what strategy we are using in rehearsal, and why it’s effective, but our students don’t. That leads to apathy and frustration: “Why are we singing the same phrase 20 times in a row?” “The music doesn’t go this slow, why are we singing it so slow?” When we teach our students the reason behind each strategy, they start to understand and take ownership for the results.
Among the strategies and concepts we should teach them:
- Chunking down (to isolate a problem)
- Chaining (to put together difficult technical sections)
- Whole-Part-Whole (to fix a problem section and put it into context)
- Repetition (for permanence)
- Slow it down (for accuracy)
- Variations (for adaptability)
You can (and should!) even teach about myelin pathways in the brain. It’s endlessly fascinating to students (I always have to cut off the questions at a certain point), and it will help them with their study skills in other classes, especially when you draw examples from other subjects. Students appreciate a few examples from video games and sports, too.
I like to end classes with a quick self-evaluation, so students are getting regular feedback on their efforts. A simple binary question like “Did we reach [goal #1]?” or “Did the practice strategy we used for [goal #2] work?” can keep students focused on results and evaluating whether we are choosing the right practice strategy. Again, this applies to their study habits as well. Students studying for classes often use the same faulty strategies for years: let’s train them to think in terms of “is the strategy working?”
Choose one or two simple metrics to track every day. I like to keep a running list of what goals we’ve reached each rehearsal, as well as a self-evaluation of the rehearsal’s overall focus (on a 1-5 scale). In each case, I also keep track of a weekly score (a 5-day total of goals reached and a 5-day average of rehearsal focus).
Whatever metrics you choose, the power of this strategy comes from including the students in the process. Post the ensemble’s progress in an easily visible place, such as in the entryway to your rehearsal room or on the classroom wall. Refer to it regularly, so students realize that you care about the metric.
Teach practice skills and give your students regular feedback about the practice process, and they will internalize it. You might even be surprised at the way they apply it to other parts of their life.
Nick Burdick is the author of The Practice Habit, a science-based practice journal and blog for musicians. For more practice tips and worksheets that you can use to improve your own practice habits, visit thepracticehabit.com.