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Practicing: beyond hoping they will.

It's not easy to address a room full of music teachers at a national conference and have something new or provocative to say on the subject of practice. What more is there? What's out there that hasn't been tried already? Teachers provide good information about practice. Think back to a recent lesson when you talked about problem solving, gave a practice pep talk, demonstrated a practice technique or checked a practice record. I'll bet you were good--so good most students can talk easily about techniques of good practice. They know about isolating trouble spots, hands-separate practice, slowing down, jazzing the rhythm and correct repetition. But despite access to good information and an ability to "talk smart" about practice, too many students, too often, don't practice effectively, if they practice at all. Together, providing good information and creating students who are knowledgeable about practice constitute a good start, but the process is far from finished. Rather than examining issues of student motivation and commitment, repertoire, busy schedules and lack of structure at home as practice issues, I suggest teachers turn their attention to developing and extending the good start they establish with students. So harkening back to the top of this article, what's new or provocative about the subject of practice? From my perspective today--nothing. My message is that teachers should dig deeper to develop what they've already started. Here's one way to do it.

Ask and Answer the Question

Think hard about the question, "What do I want my students to do when left to their own devices as they practice?" There is no way to overstate how important it is that teachers derive a vividly clear answer. It is easy to think in general terms, such as, "I want my students to practice well." It's more difficult to develop a complete, specific and detailed answer or mental image of, let's say, Melissa, as she practices effectively by herself at home. What will she do under these circumstances? What would you like her to do? The approach to teaching practice must be governed by one overarching reality--that what matters most is not what the teacher says or does in the lesson, but what students do in the lesson. This, then serves as a precursor to what they are likely to do on their own away from the teacher. Hence the phrase, "When left to their own devices."

No doubt, there are multiple answers to this question, but one I like forms the basis of the remainder of this article. Practice entails many aspects, one of which is problem solving. Problem solving involves thought process and decision making. I want Melissa, when left to her own devices, to "think smart" about practice, make wise practice decisions and apply proven practice techniques in the context of a consistent problem-solving structure. What is the likelihood the typical student will engage in thought beyond the most basic level when encountering a difficult section in the music, if thought process during practice has not been a major lesson theme? Not likely. And remember when the teacher talks about problem solving, gives a practice pep talk or demonstrates practice techniques, students are not generating thought and making decisions. They instead are responding to thought generated by the teacher. When, if not in the teacher's presence, do students learn the thinking part of problem solving?

If students, when they practice, are to become thought generators and decision makers beyond the inane, teachers must 1) take responsibility for the quality of practice that occurs at home; 2) make the teaching of problem solving a lesson priority; 3) provide a structure that organizes thought and action relative to problem solving in practice; and 4) focus less on showing and telling students and more on creating opportunity for students to problem solve in the teacher's presence. By doing so, thought process and decision making can be taught by design, rather than left to chance.

Numbers 1 and 2 above (taking responsibility and teaching practice) are two easy-to-believe-in ideas; however, they often are not evident in private teaching. The teacher takes responsibility for at-home practice by devoting lesson time--much of it--to the teaching of practice, by making practice a planned part of the lesson and by teaching practice in substantive ways, not by "mentioning" it on occasion. The reader might ask, "What about students? Aren't they ultimately responsible for the quality of practice that occurs at home?" Certainly they are, but except for the rare exceptional student, responsibility needs to be taught. Most students likely need to experience it externally (that is, demonstrated by the teacher) for it ultimately to take root internally (demonstrated by the student).

Using a problem-solving structure (number 3) to guide students is not a new idea. The Work Place Protocol is one example of an overarching problem-solving structure that can be adapted for use by students of any age or maturity) (1) It provides a starting point (a trouble spot in the music, called the work place), an ending point and a consistent sequence of in-between steps that address the issues of "how" and "when" in this type of practice. How slow is slow enough? Slow enough for errorless performance. How does one promote correct repetition? By inching, not leaping, forward in degree of difficulty. When does one use the metronome? After a mistake-free tempo has been found. When does one play expressively? Before the inching forward process begins.

Students benefit by being taught precise meanings of the words "isolate and simplify," "slow down" and "repetition." In the Work Place Protocol, "isolate" is defined as a process that extends far beyond the admonition, "Take a small section of the music and work on it." "Isolate" is defined in specific, what-to-do terms. By defining "slow down" as slow enough for errorless performance, by defining repetition as correct repetition before an increase in difficulty and by further defining repetition as involving incremental increases in difficulty, teachers set the stage for students to reap maximum gain from these techniques. But defining is one thing; getting students to do these techniques is another. By providing frequent work-place experiences during the lesson, teachers position themselves to teach students to value efficient problem solving as a practice priority.

The Teacher as Master Assesor/the student as Thought-Generator

This practice structure, like any other, is introduced in the lesson in conventional ways; the teacher presents, explains, demonstrates, tells. But if Melissa ultimately is to think intelligently and make wise practice decisions on her own, the in-lesson thought-generation role must soon shift from the teacher to Melissa. This places the teacher in the position of being a master assessor. To judge the quality of drought, decision making and, hence, ability to solve problems effectively, teachers must create conditions that expose student thinking. Melissa must be given numerous chances during lessons to demonstrate thinking and decision making in the context provided by a problem-solving structure; otherwise, there is little reason to believe there will be carry-over away from the lesson.

When observing students thinking at the intersection of work place and problem-solving structure, teachers are positioned ideally to guide and shape student thinking in substantive and meaningful ways. This ideal positioning is facilitated by in-lesson and at-home problem-solving tasks that place the decision-making onus on students and allow teachers to evaluate progress in precise ways. Figures 1 and 2 (2) are examples that can be part of a larger program of assessment that establishes problem solving as a lesson priority.

Students who are effective problem solvers exercise control over the likelihood they will succeed in the practice environment. By making problem solving a lesson priority in which students generate thought and make decisions, teachers exercise control over the likelihood that students will recognize and take pleasure in their own accomplishment.
Figure 1: In-Lesson Practice Challenge

Student -- Date -- Music --

The student is presented with a teacher-determined work place not
seen before. Student practices for four minutes and is evaluated
as follows:

The student:

YES/NO 1. played the work place at an errorless slow tempo two times
in a row; Comments:

YES/NO 2. marked this tempo in the music;

YES/NO 3. played the work place with all expressive elements two times
in a row without mistake; Comments:

YES/NO 4. inched forward in 4bpm increments and continued until time
was up; Comments:

YES/NO 5. leaped back in difficulty if ran into trouble; Comments:

YES/NO 6. wrote the final tempo on the music.

Figure 2: Finding a Mistake-Free Tempo at Home

Student -- Date -- Music --

1. One time this week, tape record yourself as you practice.

2. Choose a work place.

3. Find a mistake-free tempo.

4. Play the work place two times in a row mistake-free. If you make a
mistake, hesitate or feel uncomfortable with it,
practice until you can play it two times in a row mistake-free.
Remember that if mistakes continue, you have not yet
found your mistake-free tempo.

5. Find this tempo on your metronome and write it on your music.

6. Rewind the tape to the beginning of work place selection.

7. Label the tape with your name.


5 points: Tape was submitted on time, rewound and labeled. Choice of
work place and amount of isolated material are
appropriate. Work place was played two times in a row without
mistake. Tempo is marked in music.

3 points: Tape submitted on time, rewound and labeled. One or more of
the following--choice of work place, amount of
isolated material, errorless tempo and recording of errorless
tempo--is deficient.

0 points: Tape not submitted.



(1.) Byo, James L. (in press). "Teaching Problem-Solving in Practice." Music Educators Journal.

(2.) Ibid.

James L. Byo is professor of music education at Louisiana State University, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in instrumental music; pedagogy and research. His articles on teacher effectiveness appear in the premier research journals in music education.
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Title Annotation:Pedagogy Saturday VIII
Author:Byo, James L.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:Teaching for independence: creating lifelong musicians.
Next Article:Teaching for independence.

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