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Tips for Teachers: Improving Self-Guided Student Practice

This sample rubric was created and provided by Mrs. Becky Stewart, who teaches music at Yuba Gardens Middle School in Olivehurst, Ca. Sgt. Mahovsky adapted this for her own use as a teacher, and found it to be a powerful tool in guiding students’ individual practice.

This sample rubric was created and provided by Mrs. Becky Stewart, who teaches music at Yuba Gardens Middle School in Olivehurst, Ca. Sgt. Mahovsky adapted this for her own use as a teacher, and found it to be a powerful tool in guiding students’ individual practice.

The author of this article, Sgt. Mahovsky, was a middle school band director before joining The U.S. Air Force Band. Here, she is pictured with her Jazz Band at a music festival hosted by Sacramento State University.

The author of this article, Sgt. Mahovsky, was a middle school band director before joining The U.S. Air Force Band. Here, she is pictured with her Jazz Band at a music festival hosted by Sacramento State University.

JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, D.C. --

“How do I join the Band?” is one of the most frequently asked questions to the members of The U.S. Air Force Band. While there are many steps involved in winning a position with the Band, including the audition, the process truly begins in the early stages of learning an instrument. Diligent practice is necessary to be a successful musician in any capacity. 

The art of practicing is not simply going through the motions; effective practicing is repeatedly executing a skill in hopes of maintaining and improving proficiency. It also allows the student the opportunity to explore, challenge, fall, and get back up again. Practice is paramount to growth throughout all stages of musicianship, from the first notes performed as a beginner to the notes concluding a virtuosic performance as an expert. To master the art of practicing at a young age is the first of many steps to setting oneself up for success as a musician, and perhaps one day winning a professional audition.

During band, orchestra, and choir classes, students are accustomed to the process of taking music from its humblest beginnings, to working it up to a level acceptable for performance. However, this process is commonly facilitated by an educator and happens alongside other students. To bolster and expedite the progress made in the classroom, teachers often recommend that students practice performance and supplemental materials at home. The expectation for students to practice beyond the classroom is valid. However, educators may get so caught up in teaching and leading group rehearsals that they might forget to teach students how to practice independently.

When students practice on their own, they are not provided the comfort of blending in and listening alongside their peers, nor do they have their teacher’s keen ear and guidance. To expect a beginning student to have the same trained ear as their teacher would be irrational, but it is not irrational to encourage students to develop a keen ear of their own. Once students develop this skill, they can then coach themselves, especially when given the tools and techniques to meet practice expectations. 

To state that educators have much on their plates is an understatement. Adding one more item to the mental load of an educator might seem unbearable. However, if educators feel that they have the flexibility to experiment and implement the following suggestions in their classrooms, an uptick in productive self-guided practice among students may be noticed. 

It is imperative that educators provide students with a home warm-up routine unique to their respective instrument or voice type. Classroom warm-up routines performed in a group setting often contain exercises that are beneficial to students’ fundamental development. However, a more individualized warm-up focusing on a particular instrument or voice’s unique tendencies is better suited for home practice. The best reference to access these individualized warm-ups is private lesson instructors. 

A constructive performance rubric for student assessment can be beneficial to both the educator and the student. For every tier of every category on the rubric, suggestions of what to practice for improvement should be included. For example, tone quality might be set on a scale of one to five, with one indicating a thin, shallow, unsupported sound, and five indicating a full, advanced sound. If a student scores a two, a column next to the category should exist to provide practice suggestions for improvement. For example, to improve tone quality, the rubric might suggest practice of long tones or utilizing provided breathing exercises. Once students know what their teacher is looking for, and how they might achieve it, they can utilize the rubric at home as a resource. An example of such a rubric is attached at the top of this article. 

Increasing tempo on a given exercise or excerpt is a common item on students’ practice wishlists. Teachers can model practice in tempo acceleration in classroom rehearsal settings. Slow practice in which every note might be heard (to assess the value and accuracy of each note) is absolutely necessary. Advise students to perform the passage three times without mistakes before increasing the tempo. If a mistake occurs, students must restart their count. Once the passage is performed three times without mistakes, the tempo may increase by a small increment, ranging anywhere from two to ten beats per minute. The practice of performing a passage three times without mistakes should be carried out until the student reaches the desired tempo. 

These suggestions are just a few of many techniques and tools that can be used to improve self-guided practice. Educators should also reflect on what supplemental materials can be provided to students, and what strategies might be implemented to improve independent practice. Thoughtful and diligent practice leads to musical proficiency. Perhaps the progress made in a child’s first practice sessions may lead to the mastery of skills required to secure a career in The U.S. Air Force Band!