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Thomas J. West Music

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The Evolution of the Practice Chart

Posted on December 31, 2009 at 8:59 PM
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If you started learning how to play a band or orchestra instrument in an American elementary school, you probably had the experience of having to fill out a practice chart. You know the one - you have a grid with 7 blocks for each day of the week and a spot for your parents to sign. You are supposed to write down how many minutes you practiced each day (30, right?) and then have your parents sign it for submission to your music teacher each lesson.

What did this activity teach me as a fourth grader? Traditional charts accomplish little except teaching students how to fudge numbers and forge their parents' signature. Even honest little kids like me were forced to fake the signature when my parents lapsed and forgot to sign the chart. Practicing at home is essential, especially in the early stages of skill development on an instrumnet. Most American public school elementary music programs have little room in the schedule for instructional time, so home practice is essential.

Practice is Essential, But Not Common

After that formative stage of skill building in elementary school, the average instrumental student resorts to as little, if any, home practicing. Depending on the demands of the school's music program and the community that supports it, students home practice can range from doing none to having private teachers and practicing several hours a week. Unless your child is part of a program like Carmel Indiana, where the top orchestra (out of five!) is by audition and every single student studies privately, the majority of school programs in the country are in the former category. Even in the one high-achieving band program I've worked for, students as a general rule did very little practicing at home.

How is it that it is common practice to not practice? Quite simply, because most music programs are thought of as "the extra stuff" or "the fun stuff" rather than as an important part of a child's education. For students with high aptitude, they don't need to practice to play the level of literature their program is working on. For students with average musical aptitude, the amount of rehearsal during the school day is sufficient to get them to become proficient by concert time. And for those with low musical aptitude, they often just hang out in the bottom of their section, play the "easy parts", and lay out of the more difficult technical passages. In most programs, students are graded on participation, which is simply being present for all classes, out of school rehearsals, and performances. There are additional portions of their grade for playing tests or seating challenges, but most teachers design their grades so that a person can just show up, be a good participant, and they'll get a C or better.

So, how does a music teacher motivate their students to practice? How do we push the envelope of what the band or orchestra is capable of? Let me share the evolution I have been experimenting with so far.

Step One: The Practice Journal

I teach at a rather unique School for the Performing and Fine Arts. At the school, we have the challenges and benefits of small class sizes. I average about six students per class, and I combine classes to form a 20-30 person chamber orchestra for concerts. The expectation is that they every student is going to maximize their aptitude and become proficient on their chosen instrument. By proficient, I mean capable of playing major and minor scales and arpeggios, play the full range of their instrument, play expressively with proper tone, and be able to sight read and improvise. Depending upon their aptitude, lower achieving students may not be capable of all of these things, but they are capable of some of them. For the average student, all of these are possible with proper practicing and study.

I select repetoire that pushes the envelope in one way or another for every concert they are working towards.Even the advanced players have work to do, because if the ensemble literature doesn't challenge them, they have solo and duet literature assigned to them that will. Because of this, every student is expected to play their instrument five times a week (twice at school, three times at home) and are required to fill out and submit a practice journal entry once a week. During the 2008-09 school year, the practice journal was designed to teach the students how to create an effective practice session.

There were three main sections they had to fill out - one for warm-up and scales, one for repertoire, and one for what I called "fun time", which could consist of sight reading, improvising, or playing a tune out of their method book they already mastered and enjoyed playing.

Initially, as with any change, they were slow to respond. I had to chase them down often. After a while, they got used to just jotting down some specifics like approximate time spent on each phase and the specifics of what they worked on. There was also a section of the page to write comments on each thing. The form enabled me to see what they were actually working on, how long they spent on it, and even give them feedback on the comments they made about their practicing.

Step Two: From Journal to Self-Analysis Rubric

At the end of the first year, it became apparent that I was not going to need to continue to reinforce the concepts the students learned about how to practice effectively. I needed to give them a way to evaluate their own performance as part of the journal. Stealing a page from my work as a marching band adjudicator, I created the following:

Music Preparation Scale

The newly designed practice journal page did not have a slot for estimated time. The focus was on student self-analysis, so the amount of time it took to get the results they wanted varied. The new journal page had a section for scales and arpeggios, a section for method or etude book assignments, and a section for repertoire. Each section had a blank for the student to score themselves using the rubric (a final total for the week on that item), how many octaves (for scales and arpeggios), and a "problem spots" blank for them to identify problematic techniques or measure numbers.

It took a while for student to figure out how to use a rubric (many of them just wrote a 1, 2, 3, or 4 for the levels rather than using the 100 point scale), but here at the half-way mark of the 2009-2010 school year, they are becoming quite good at using the rubric to evaluate their progress towards performance readiness.

No System is Perfect

Now I know what you're thinking: "They can still lie to you." Of course, and I have no way of holding them accountable for the accuracy or veracity of the data they submit. However, it is fairly apparent from their in-class performance (which they also receive weekly points for) and the lack of progress over time. In most cases, the students are very astute about their own performance and rate themselves quite accurately (or even too harshly) using the rubric.

The evolution of this concept for next year will include some method for them to track their ratings from week to week and see if they are consistently rating themselves and approving each item they practice.

If any music teachers out there use a practice record system similar to this or any system at all, please post a comment or send me your thoughts.




This article (c) 2009 Thomas J. West. If you wish to reprint this article on another website or offline, please contact the copyright holder before using.

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Categories: Teacher Tips, Music Education, Practice Tips

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1 Comment

Reply Studio Manager
7:35 PM on January 31, 2010 
Thanks for sharing this. I always believe in the power and advantage of practice. It has been very essential and common practice in my studio - it is a must that we practice for excellence and perfection. Please post more inputs on studio management that we can use today. Thanks again and God bless. Til your next posts!