In today’s blog, we're picking apart Steve Oare’s 2018 article, "Teaching Instrumentalists to Practice Effectively," which offers some valuable tips and advice for music teachers and students alike.
As many music teachers will attest to, the rate of progress of students sometimes does not mirror the amount of practice they claim to have done. Oare, a seasoned middle school band teacher in the US, shared this frustration and decided to find out what his students were doing during their practice sessions. His basic premise was that, for any musician to practice effectively, they must first know how to practice. And his suspicion was that many of his students didn’t know how to practice.
So Oare became a ‘fly on the wall,' videotaping his students as they practiced. At the end of each videotaped session, he also got the students to talk about how they felt the practice session had gone, and to explain their decision-making during the session.
At the end of the research study, Oare’s observations revealed a lack of self-correction among his students, and also an inclination to prioritise pitch while neglecting other musical elements.
Take the specific case of Nick, a 13-year-old saxophonist and one of Oare’s research subjects. Nick diligently practiced scales and pieces during his first recorded session, but consistently failed to pause and correct his errors. By the end of the 20 minute videotaped session, Nick had played 17 different exercises and songs, without stopping to correct himself once or repeat any section of music that needed further work.
And when Oare recorded Nick again a month later - despite repeated practice sessions in the meantime and although he played many of the same pieces - there was little tangible improvement in Nick’s technique or rhythm, and again he did not stop to correct his errors. It seems that how Nick practiced was pretty representative of all the middle school students involved in the project.
Armed with his experiences as a band teacher, and what he had learnt from recording and observing some of his students during practice, Oare determined that the process of practicing music is made up of several key components - such as devising goals and strategies, being able to understand what a good performance sounds like, and being able to self-assess and evaluate each practice session.
Having identified the key elements of how we can practice music effectively, Oare then developed a model that incorporates those different elements and uses several strategies to allow music students to optimise their practice but also learn independently.
His model encourages students to practice effectively by focusing on six key areas, and in doing so aims to transform the task of practice into a purposeful and rewarding journey:
1. Supervision and Structure
Contrary to hovering over students during practice, this idea revolves around fostering a framework for students to set practice goals, devise learning strategies, and conduct self-assessments. Practice plans with specific targets can serve as a clear roadmap, creating a sense of responsibility and accountability among students, teachers and parents. And because students will often be practicing at home, Oare encourages very clear and consistent communication between teachers and parents.
2. Aural Imaging
This technique cultivates an image in the student’s mind, of how a performance should sound, even before they strike the first note. By listening to recordings and live performances, students can develop a clear perception of the tone, style, rhythm and other musical elements of a piece.
Most students need to have an aural image of a piece of music, before they can learn to play it well, and the quality of that aural image plays a key role in them meeting their practice goals. So this ‘internal soundcheck’ paves the way for musical accuracy and expressive performance.
Oare suggests shifting the motivation from being extrinsic - such as time-bound targets imposed by teachers or parents - to intrinsic. Nurturing the desire within a student to achieve a particular sound or technical skill can be a very potent motivator. Practice sheets that encourage intrinsic motivation can also help students focus on specific musical goals, rather than just the amount of time they have spent practicing.
4. Goal Setting
Setting tangible practice goals is at the heart of independent practice and learning. Oare recommends that teachers guide students in setting their own practice objectives and identifying any intermediate steps needed to reach them.
Music practice is a means to an end, and should never feel pointless. Students accomplish more, and enjoy practicing more, when they are working towards specific goals, rather than say just practicing for a required amount of time. Setting themselves sensible goals helps to make students pro-active and motivated learners.
Knowing how to fix errors, through techniques like repetition or slowing down to practice trickier passages, can significantly enhance the effectiveness of music practice. Oare also encourages teachers to enlighten students about learning and information retention, enabling them to choose strategies that are tailored to their own specific strengths and weaknesses.
The final, and crucial, part of the model is the ability of students to self-assess. The quality of a student’s aural image serves as a cognitive benchmark for them to objectively evaluate their progress during practice. Guided practice sessions, performance rubrics, and regular self-recording can further hone this skill, making students more self-reliant learners and performers.
Oare's model emphasizes turning practice sessions into parts of a purposeful journey of achievement, rather than a chore that is defined by time spent. By focusing on the six areas of his model, students can become independent and effective musical learners. Rather than merely practicing, they will be working towards their musical goals, making every session efficient and rewarding.
In the end, music practice isn't about how long you've spent, but what you've accomplished during that time. Equipped with Oare's model, and by understanding the techniques and strategies behind it, music educators can transform the way their students learn, practice and perform.