A Teacher’s View on Practice Records

One of the most fundamentally important concepts that must be presented to young Beginning Band students is the routine of practice.  Finding ways to encourage students to practice with regularity is both one of the most important and also most challenging tasks that faces Beginning Band teachers.  Although students often enjoy their time in Band class, they have an almost universal distaste for practice at home.  I find that this comes from a few sources.  One is that although music is fun, it is hard work and can be a difficult choice to make over the allure of the popular video game.   The other common reason is that students have a pre-conceived idea that they need to lock themselves in a room and practice for hours and hours.  The difficulty lies in helping make students aware that their time spent practicing instead of playing video games and surfing the Internet is valuable, and that they can spend only minutes doing it if they use their time effectively.  I have tried three different methodologies with different levels of success.  The honor system, practice charts, and practice journals have had vastly different results.  However, I have come to believe at this stage of my career that practice journals provide the most accurate picture of the three.

The honor system, or not requiring any practice records at all, relies on using the level of student preparedness in class as the sole barometer of student achievement.  Often it seems like students that are highly academically successful and involved in numerous extra-curricular activities are in-effect punished by the use of a prescribed amount of practice time as grade criteria.  These same students are often quick to pick up musical concepts and are prepared for class even though their schedules are full.  The honor system rewards those that are naturally talented and don’t need as much home practice to excel, but does not provide the teacher with very much of a picture of what is taking place outside the classroom.  The struggle that young musicians find with the growing complexity of music is harder to cope with when strategies for at-home practice are left until students have already fallen behind.  Furthermore, the lure of modern technology and television is particularly hard for young people to resist, and the honor system does not provide them with an incentive to practice instead.

The practice chart has been used for decades by Band teachers and is probably the most popular method for keeping students honest and tracking their at-home work.   Teachers like to have practice records because they think that this provides the feedback that they are looking for, and also to show student work.  As a teacher of Band for seven years I have tried a number of formats for practice charts.  All of these formats were designed to accommodate different school settings and student needs.  In the end, these practice charts were ineffective methods of recording time because the student grades were tied to quotas for minutes practiced.  Teachers have sought to confirm the times listed on charts through including a parent signature block.  I firmly believe that practice charts with these quotas attached only encourage both students and parental dishonesty about the time they have actually spent practicing their instruments.

After years of struggling with the first two methods, I have settled on one that I think provides a truer picture of what is happening at home.  I currently use a practice journal to track my students’ practice time instead of a practice chart.  I do not prescribe a mandatory number of minutes, but I expect students to come prepared for each class.  When a student’s grade begins to drop the first thing that I look at is their practice journal.  Students do receive a grade for their practice journal, but it is tied only to the parent signature and not to the number of minutes they have practiced.  I send letters home to the parents reminding them that they need to hear the success in their home, and also that they need to be signing their child’s journal.  The school district uses an online grade system that allows parents to sign in and keep track of their children’s grades on a daily basis.  When a student’s daily participation grade is lowered the parent can see that their child was unprepared for class.  The combination of the practice journal and the online grading system helps get the parents to buy in to the fact that practicing at home for Band class really is homework like any other class.  The fact that the grade for the journal is tied only to the parent signature encourages them to help me enforce practicing in the home instead of being dishonest to protect their child’s grade.

These three methods have been the source of a great deal of personal trial and error for me.  However after seven years I really think that I have finally found the system that works for many different teaching situations.  This system will both provide my students with the necessary support for Band success, and me with a clear picture of their practice so that I can help them achieve that success!

 

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephanie K.
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 15:49:17

    This is such a hard topic. “Practice” is almost a taboo word in my middle school band, and not just with my students. In 4th grade, students are able to join band if they choose to. It is shocking to me that I even have their parents ask me – with worried looks on their faces – how much practice time is required. I will find myself giving an answer and then quickly changing it if their worried looks get even more concerned. I try to cover as much material as possible in my short amount of time with my band students because the reality is that very few of them are going to practice at home. As a result, some of our band rehearsals and sectionals are hurried, chaotic messes. I was really happy to read this blog post because I really do need some ways to motivate and encourage my students to practice at home.

    Like Amy, I have tried several different methods in an attempt to get students to practice at home. I have tried practice charts, practice logs, playing tests, the honor system, guilt, and even bribery. It has been my experience with practice charts and practice logs that they are rarely accurate, especially if they are for a grade. I agree with Amy that they seem to encourage both student and parent dishonesty. With that in mind, I really appreciated the idea of a practice journal, which is something I have not tried. We do not tell our students to practice at home because we are mean teachers. Rather, we encourage them to practice at home because we know it will help them improve as musicians. With better musicians, we have better ensembles. When our students improve, our ensembles improve. Therefore, I can see how the practice journal would be more beneficial to students than a practice chart or log in that it does not require a certain number of minutes. Rather, students have the expectation that they do enough practice time at home to prepare them for the next rehearsal or sectional.

    Finally, I would like to offer one suggestion of my own: the playing test. I have found that, when you tell students to get some practice time in at home for the purpose of performing together as a group during the next rehearsal or sectional, they are probably not going to take you very seriously. However, when you tell students to practice at home for the purpose of an individual playing test, you are likely to get better results, especially with younger students. Playing tests are time-consuming, but they are usually effective. No student wants to sound “bad” in front of a peer or friend. Thus, a playing test is motivation to practice. Still, I do not always use playing tests as a grade. Instead, I will use the playing test as feedback for improvement. By listening to the students one-on-one, you can find the specific areas and issues that need work. When you can target your problem areas, you can work to correct them.

    Reply

  2. Patti B.
    Dec 04, 2011 @ 03:41:06

    At first, I might think that this subject does not really apply to me as a general music teacher who does not teach band. However, I do want my third graders to practice their recorders at home. I, too, like the idea of the practice journal. It could be utilized with recorders! I think it is excellent to not require a certain amount of minutes. We can always tell who has and hasn’t practiced. They really can’t fool us. I believe I can be justified in linking their practice journal for recorders to their general music grade. I can be clear with this expectation to the students and the parents when the recorder unit starts in February.

    I have had the problem of making my own two daughters practice their piano (private lessons) and drumming (in school band). They are at the junior high and the high school level now, and there is no formal way of reporting their practice time required by their directors. Both of my girls do very well, and actually need little practice anyway. Their private piano lessons have stopped, however, because of a lack of practice. To be fair, their interests also lie in sports over music. I just wonder how many students you both have eventually lost over the lack of practicing issue and/or the desire to pursue other opportunities. How much do both of you believe that the students who truly have a passion and love for music will practice and perservere no matter what is or isn’t required of them? Are you two satisfied with the amount of students that are remaining in band even if their practice, passion, and achievement isn’t exemplary?

    Reply

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