The Practice Problem
What does the holiday break mean to most students? Many would answer, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” It means spending time with family, last minute holiday shopping, eating delicious food…and practicing their instrument! Well, maybe not the practicing. A few outstanding students may practice a lot over the break; a few more may practice once or twice. However, most students will not practice at all. Why? Because they view the holiday break as a break not only from school itself, but anything associated with school – including music.
As music educators, if we do not address the idea of practicing over the holiday break, we are admitting defeat: we are guaranteeing that our students will not practice. However, if we address the idea of practicing over the holiday break in a way that appeals to our students, we have the opportunity to utilize those weeks for their musical improvement. The question is, how do we do this? During the first few months of school, our students have spent their practice time perfecting the precise articulations and styles of our concert repertoire, and frankly, they need to be rejuvenated with something new.
The Solution: Holiday Music
We need to supply our students with fresh music that will capture their interest, and for many, holiday music can be the answer. Students are not often given the chance to play pieces they already know, and holiday music falls into that category. It is simple enough for most of us to use Finale® to transcribe a quick version of Jingle Bells or other Public Domain titles for them to play. Elementary school students might play just the chorus; middle school students can try the entire song; perhaps high school students can tackle songs in several keys. Our students are crying out for a break in their monotonous routine! We need to revitalize their interest with something new.
To help you get started in the search of holiday music for your students, check out MakeMusic’s free holiday collection of Finale files.
Offer Performance Outlet
The second thing that we can do is give students an outlet to perform this new music. At some point during the duration of the holiday break, most families will gather to celebrate. Create an extra credit assignment which requires the student to perform a mini-concert for their family and friends. A suggested title to this assignment could be “The Gift of Music.” You might create several requirements for the performance, including the length of time and number of songs performed. After the concert, ask them to write a few paragraphs about their performance. Some sample questions for younger students could be: “Who did you play for? What did you perform? How did you feel while you were performing? What do you love about music? Why do you think the gift of music is important?” For older students, leave out the simple questions and get right to the last three questions. Ask them to elaborate in several paragraphs what the gift of music is, and why it is important.
At the conclusion of the mini-concert, have the student take a picture alongside their family and friends. The project can fit all onto one page; “The Gift of Music” on top, their paragraph(s) in the middle, and the picture on bottom. Students of all age levels love to perform music, they just need to be given the opportunity to do so! In addition, grandma and grandpa will be thankful that you gave the student new holiday music to perform; the Cornet II part from “The Hounds of Spring” by Alfred Reed doesn’t translate well as a mini-concert solo piece.
A third method of motivating students to practice over the holiday break is by providing them with duets or trios to practice. This sounds simple and somewhat uninspiring; the twist is to have each student learn and perform each part. Then, using GarageBand or a similar program, have each student record one part at a time, eventually layering them together to form their duet or trio. This would have been more difficult when GarageBand was only available for Mac users, but now that GarageBand is available for PC users too, nearly any student can download and use the program at home. Don’t forget to instruct the students to use a metronome to help the parts stay together.
You may be surprised at how familiar your students are with one person multi-tracking every part of an ensemble; there are many impressive examples of both instrumentalists and vocalists doing this on YouTube.
Use these types of clips to inspire your students. Most importantly, if you have a computer or Smart Board in your classroom, demonstrate how to use GarageBand in your rehearsal. I know that we are all protective of what little rehearsal time we are given, but think of this as an investment; inspiring your students to practice over the holiday break and ultimately helping them gain a passion for music will build your program far more than the five minutes of sacrificed rehearsal time.
Finally, the most important thing we can do in our teaching is motivate our students to enjoy practicing. When a child is forced to practice, they can quickly lose interest. This holiday season, take the extra time to develop a project for them to accomplish over the break and to demonstrate the use of GarageBand within your rehearsal. You will notice that each of these ideas start with us. We are charged with the mission of instilling a passion for music in our students. Merely telling them to practice for 40 minutes is not enough. We must face the problem head on, enable our students to achieve success, and inspire them to do so.
Christopher Toomey is an elementary band director in the Garden City Public School District and serves as the Assistant Director of the Garden City High School Marching Band. Mr. Toomey has been awarded several grants to help fund projects for his students. He received a B.S. in Music Education, summa cum laude, from Hofstra University and a M.A. in Liberal Studies, summa cum laude, from SUNY Stony Brook. He is also the founder of the Long Island Street Band, and leads the Music Ministry at his local church. Christopher resides in Oakdale, NY with his wife, Christina, a fellow music educator.