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Thomas J. West Music

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How Model Recordings Can Transform Your Students' Performance

Posted on November 21, 2010 at 12:25 PM

This school year, one of my personal development goals (ala Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching model) is to build an instrumental music curriculum that incorporates blended learning with hybrid lessons.

In the first marking period, I created graduated assessments in tonal literacy using Smart Music, as I explained in this article. I am also using a combination of Finale, Smart Music, and Moodle to create customized practice recordings for students to work with at home.

How Model Practice Recordings Help

I create practice recordings that students can access either as a Smart Music accompaniment or as an mp3 embedded on their class web page in our school's Moodle platform. They can use their own home Smart Music subscription to practice the piece at their choice of tempo. For those who do not have Smart Music at home, they can use the mp3, which is recorded at the target tempo for concert time. Basically, if they are able to play their part accurately along with the recording at the tempo it is recorded, they have done the adequate amount of preparation for the winter concert.

In addition to an mp3 of the entire ensemble performance of the piece, I produce an mp3 of each instrument part so that they can hear their part individually. For Smart Music users, this is all a part of the same accompaniment - they simply choose their instrument's part from the list and can then play it back on a piano patch while playing along with the ensemble (or turning the ensemble off).

Model practice recordings provide the following benefits:

  1. Students hear the correct pitches to their part, which assist in audiating the correct pitches as they perform and with playing with more accurate intonation. This is especially important for instruments like the bowed strings and the trombone where the perofrmer has to memorize kinesthetically where the correct intonation is on the instrument.
  2. Students hear the correct rhythms for their part played at a steady tempo. Many times, students have a concept for rhythm that is accurate, but they do not practice playing those rhythms to a steady beat and never develop consistency.
  3. Students hear how their part interacts with others.
  4. Students hear how to treat their part stylistically in terms of articulation - a trait of performance that is not inherent for most people and must be learned through experience. I continue to be amazed at how students can pick up articulation and style cues from a recording.
  5. Students hear how dynamic contrasts affect a piece's performance and can become more aware of them.

The Detriments of Model Recordings

As with anything, you can over-use model practice recordings. Model recordings should not become a replacement for good teaching. Some downsides to model recordings:

  1. The model recording needs to be set to an achievable tempo for the ensemble. Playing the students a professional or collegiate level of performance on the same piece can set unrealistic expectations and even be demoralizing.
  2. Model recordings must be used in conjunction with some kind of organized effort to teach tonal and rhythm literacy. Simply copying the performance of a practice recording with no effort to learn to read the notation off of the page may be effective, but does not improve the students' musical skills in the long run.
  3. Students tend to play through pieces from beginning to end with the recording, glossing over the portions of the piece that they could not perform accurately. Students must be instructed to use the model recording to help identify problematic areas that they then must isolate and repeat until it can be performed at tempo. Smart Music allows students to do all of this as part of one recording.

Making Home Practice More Fun

Model practice recordings allow students to practice at home in a way that makes it more interesting than simply playing alone. It also provides a very realistic view of how well they have progressed on their part, since they have to perform to a target tempo. With proper instruction from the teacher, model recordings can give students opportunities to work at their own pace and can provide the teacher with a way of individualizing and diversifying instruction.

Future hybrid coursework for my instrumental courses will include graduated music composition projects for my students, beginning with simple solo melodic writing and ending with two, three, and four part composition assignments. My high school level classes have already begun this process and will be recording their own performances of their original solo melodies later this marking period.

This article (c) 2010 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

Categories: Music Education, Orchestra, Vocal

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