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Thomas J. West Music

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An Experiment In Excellence, Part 1

Posted on January 16, 2011 at 6:15 PM

think outside of the box

This is part one of a series. Visit the other entries here.

As I pondered the unique challenges that I face with the instrumental music program I teach at my school, it became very apparent that it was time for me to make some adjustments and try a little experiment. Initially, I wrote about some of the pre-planning I intended to do in this article about rehearsal mapping.

Now, I have introduced my students to a new approach to rehearsing. As I thought this all through, it became apparent that my students simply have no concept of the actual amount of successful repetitions it takes to master a piece of music. It was time to not only pattern our in-class rehearsals to highlight this point, but to give them guidance for how they could improve their own music preparation outside of class.

The typical pattern in most American households is similar - the student sits down to practice for a half-hour with little or no guidance from their parents unless the parents are versed in music performance of some kind. Many students have home environments that actually punish them for praciticing (typically psychological punishment like "Do you have to play that stuff while I'm trying to watch TV?"). Many parents simply don't know how to help their student practice and think that their part to an ensemble piece doesn't sound like much of anything even when it's right.

Practice Quotas, Check-Offs, And Home Facilitators

I devised a practice quota for each week. I post a number for each piece or scale they are supposed to be working on on the class's web page. To begin with, they needed to complete at least 10 successful repetitions of each item over the course of a week. That's all - 10 total successful repetitions - not in one session, simply in one week. The quota totals will go up over time as they get used to it.

I require no accountability sign-off sheet and so on. The quota is a guideline, that is all. Where the rubber hits the road with this plan is that they will periodically have music check-offs in class. For ensemble pieces, they have to check off each major section of the piece by rehearsal number. For solo memorized pieces (like from the Suzuki books), they have to check-off the entire memorized song. If they don't check it off by the deadline, they keep working on it. If they check it off, they move on to the next song or the next section. Whatever they have mastered by concert time is what they get to perform on.

In many ways, this is what students do anyway. If they have a technical passage they can't do, most make an honest effort to get better at it, but if they can't quite play it up to performance tempo, they just sort of fake that part and let the stronger players do it. We're just formalizing that process a bit more. The check-offs are going to be done in class with entire sections (violin 2, clarinets, etc.) playing together. I will check them off and then hand them a slip with the results and a brief suggestion or two. Discrete, and hopefully not discouraging.

I sent home the following letter to parents:

To: CPFA Instrumental Music Parents

From: Mr. West

Re: Spring 2011 semester

Happy New Year,

I hope that you enjoyed the winter concert just before the holiday break. The students worked well toward this performance, and their results, while mixed, were a good representation of the progress they have made so far. As I reviewed the results and contemplated our progress, it became apparent that a more focused approach is required

for every student to maximize their learning. For this approach to work, we need your help.

First, some logistics – our spring chamber orchestra rehearsal is on Friday, April 8 from 1to 3:30 PM. Our dress rehearsal and spring concert will both occur on Monday, April 11. Lower School students will also be performing during the school day on Wednesday, May 18th from 8:30 to 9:30 AM.

Our focus this spring will be on attaining a level of mastery on all music that they present in their concert. In terms of mastery, the student should be able to perform the music either from memory or with the music only as a reference point with a high level of accuracy in pitch, rhythm, and intonation. They reach this level of mastery by completing successful repetitions of the music on the order of hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.

A successful repetition is one that the student plays the correct sequence of fingerings, rhythms, and pitches. The tempo of the repetition can and should be slow enough to get it right, even if that means the tempo is painfully slow. Over time with many, many more repetitions, the proficiency will come and the tempo will be able to be increased. This amount of repetition will not only make them successful, it will internalize the music to the point where they will be able to perform some or all of it without looking at the sheet music.

We need your help to get the students to increase the amount of successful repetitions of their music they are accomplishing. Your student will be coming home with a list of music they will be working on. Since we are working for higher quality levels, there will be less material to learn. Some of the pieces will be very short and simple and will be easier to memorize. Once the student checks off that song, they will move on to the next one in the list. The more songs they check off, the more pieces they will be able to perform in the concert.

Each week, I will post a practice quota on the class Moodle page for each piece of music. That number is the minimum amount of successful repetitions (not just repetitions – they have to be correct repetitions) required of them for the week on that piece of music. I will also have deadlines for music check offs for each piece of music. These are dates for students to shoot to have the song memorized by. If they do not get the music checked off by this deadline, they will continue working on that piece until the next check off deadline. If they get the piece checked off, they can move on to the next piece on the list.

I am not requiring a practice chart or journal that must be checked off. My experience with these is that students fudge the numbers and forge their parents’ signature when they forget to ask them to sign the chart. I simply ask you to use the practice quotas and deadlines to help your student structure their at-home practicing. There will be practice recordings of all of their songs available on their Moodle page, so you will know what their music is supposed to sound like for each one. You will be able to tell if they are practicing effectively and achieving successful repetitions, or if they are wasting time or practicing ineffectively.

Again, the amount of pieces of music they will be able to perform in the spring concert will be based on the number of pieces of music they have checked off by the final deadline, which is our combined chamber orchestra rehearsal on April 8th.

Please allow some time for me to populate the Moodle page with the practice recordings

and practice quotas. We will begin next week with our first round of quotas and deadlines. Thank you for your continued support of your student’s music education, and please contact me if you have any questions.


Mr. West

I got some interesting reactions when I shared this letter with colleagues on last week's #musedchat on Twitter. Students in many districts are so overburdened with homework that this just seemed to some to add to those hours of required outside work. I pointed out, however, that the student is ultimately in control of how much music they master. I expect every student to at the very least finish one of our memorized pieces and at least master the less technical passages in our chamber orchestra repertoire.

The letter above is being followed by a series of phone calls to each family to make sure that parents read it, understand what we're doing, and are able to assist with meeting those quotas at home. There will be practice recordings of all of this music on the class web pages, so the parents and students will all know what their parts are supposed to sound like.

It's all a grand experiment, and the end result is hopefully a group of students who, when they rehearse music, work in an efficient and effective manner, getting "in the zone" and cranking out as many successful repetitions in the session as possible.

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, Band, Experiment In Excellence

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