The Illusion of Practice Records
A primary aim in teaching beginning and intermediate bands is to develop a foundation of the understanding and skill to play a musical instrument. Along with this comes creating an environment where every child, despite their background, support, or learning needs, may experience the fulfillment of growth and success as a member of a musical community (Reimer, 1989). The executive functioning and interpersonal skills which are needed and developed in an ensemble setting are extensive (Elliot, 1995). Dedication and maturity are required to create this uniquely human ability. Dedication because the necessary skills to recreate music are both numerous and complex. Maturity because, once the technical skills are learned, a musician must be patient and open-minded to understand and then communicate the essence of a composer's work.
At the middle level, I work to develop the musical skills necessary to recreate meaningful music and listen critically to ourselves and others as students perform. I strive to start young people down a path that will eventually lead to aesthetic awareness and individual fulfillment to contribute to their musical community. A person who is aesthetically aware and has a sense of belonging will be better able to reap all that life has to offer and share the wealth of their talent with others. I have always held this ideal to be my program's vision and mission, but my actions did not support this for many years. My history and continued evolution in student practice logs capture my struggle between what past practice modeled and what the needs and goals of current students dictate.
Traditional Practice Logs
I collected weekly practice logs that tracked practice minutes outside of class and required a parent signature for several years. The weekly grade was dependent upon the number of reported minutes. This system was perfectly acceptable to parents since many had participated in similar band programs and collecting minutes was common practice. Parents also supported students' involvement in music because they knew that it was good for their children in some vague way. Music participation was part of the parent's view of a balanced education and childhood. Unfortunately, I did not realize that I was not reaching all the students in my building and my decisions and actions reflected the White, middle class, and often elitist norms I was raised with during the 1970s and '80s.
I quickly realized the classic problem that most practice reports were not accurate (Miska et al., 2012). Students and parents submitted inaccurate information to have one less thing to worry about on a Sunday night. Furthermore, the information students presented did not align with their ability to perform class material. This finding is common among beginner and intermediate musicians (2012). I began to understand that I was giving students a grade for nonmusical behavior, compliance and possibly reinforcing the temptation to fabricate practice minutes. Grading based upon minutes with no specific guidelines consistently resulted in poor practice routines (Oare, 2012). As Reimer states, I knew that my young students could appreciate the aesthetic beauty and emotional connection to the music we studied and produced (1989). The reality was that the aesthetic experience was not enough to motivate or guide their practice.
My next step was to require practice reflections each week. I eliminated the required minutes. Instead, students were asked what they worked on, what strategies they used, what results they had, and what they could do differently for better results. Students continued to struggle with meaningful practice behavior and reflection. Christensen (2010) reported that 8th Grade instrumentalists might know good practice strategies but rarely apply them during independent practice. There seems to be a step missing between knowledge and doing young musicians rarely possess. I added dropdown options for students to select strategies and goals, hoping to solve student frustrations. Hewitt (2001) found that students could perceive problems in their playing, but they struggled to identify what they were and what strategies would provide solutions. My experience reflects those findings, and once again, practice reflections became meaningless busywork.
Weekly Playing Assignments Outside of Class
After several years, I eliminated practice records and reflections and instead, assigned weekly playing assignments outside of class time. For several years students submitted these on cassette tape, and I graded them outside of class. This plan was an improvement since it gave students' practice a specific goal, and I provided rubrics for clarity and transparency of grading. However, the grading involved was overwhelming, and as soon as self-grading computer programs became more reliable, I switched to using SmartMusic. During the past dozen years, I have become much wiser with assigning material in SmartMusic. I build in parameters that lead to better practice. For example, Duke et al. found that isolating difficult spots, reducing tempo, and increasing repetition increased retention of corrections (2009). Currently, these are three of the techniques I use when assigning material. The results have reflected more efficient and effective student practice as demonstrated in their ability to play assignments and literature at a mastery level.
Equity and Opportunity for Success
While addressing my primary concerns, the current model raises essential questions about the environment I provide. What began twenty-nine years ago as an upper-middle-class band program that involved twenty percent of the school's population is now an increasingly diverse group with a significant number of lower socioeconomic members. It reflects forty percent of our total student body. We have cast a wider net and are sharing the experience of band with more students each year. As the number and type of students diversify, I need to be sensitive to the levels of support they may or may not have from their families. The work of Pitts et al. (2000) found that supportive parental involvement was present in nearly all students who continued past twenty months of beginner instruction. The lower the level of parental interest and involvement, the more likely the student would drop from the program. Is a student with an uninvolved parent less deserving of a successful band experience? Will that child then have fewer exposures to aesthetic experiences that may help them be more fulfilled in life? Is that child less deserving of the profound experience that comes with being a musician, listener, evaluator, and genuinely equal contributor in an ensemble?
I must ask myself what I can do for my students who do not have a place to practice, who are not encouraged or not allowed to practice at home, live in an apartment, or have a parent who works a night shift. How can we help the students who must watch younger siblings, prepare dinner, or do other household tasks? What if they do not have the correct supplies and materials at home or have a parent who doesn't value music education or band? I have come to understand that when a student does not practice at home, it does not always mean that they do not care or love music. Things are going on in students' lives and living environments of which we know nothing. Students who have little to no support at home deserve the opportunity to succeed.
There are several steps I may take moving forward to better support all students in the band program at Traughber Junior High School. The daily schedule provides opportunities to access the practice rooms and teacher support during a Student Support Time for the first twenty minutes of the day, a forty-one-minute lunch period, and, for some students, a study hall. Hewitt (2001) found that listening to a model increased student performance scores and awareness of their mistakes. Using modeling of the test material during rehearsal will ensure students listen to and understand the qualities of an exemplar. Rowher and Polk (2006) found that students who used analytic practicing obtained high levels of success and mastery compared to more holistic strategies. Concise two to three minutes of individual practice can happen in ensemble rehearsal by identifying focused problem areas, providing precise solutions, and encouraging several repetitions (Duke et al.2009; Pritchard, 2021). I will also use the practice minute tracker in SmartMusic to better understand how students are using their time and provide practical and quickly understood suggestions (Miska, 2012). Incorporating these strategies and providing a time and place for their application may provide more students with a positive and fulfilling experience.
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Oare, S. (2012). Decisions made in the practice room: A qualitative study of middle school students’ thought processes while practicing. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 30(2), 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/8755123312437051
Pitts, S. E., Davidson, J. W., & McPherson, G. E. (2000). Models of success and failure in instrumental learning: Case studies of young players in the first 20 months of learning. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 146, 51–69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40319033
Prichard, S. (2021). The Impact of music practice instruction on middle school band students’ independent practice behaviors. Journal of Research in Music Education, 68(4), 419–435. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022429420947132
Reimer, B. (1989). Experiencing art. In B. Reimer, A philosophy of music education (2nd ed.), (pp. 99-118). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
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