Grading student practicing

Each week I have my university woodwind students submit a report on the number of hours they have practiced, and I award them points based on that number. (They are additionally graded on how well their lesson goes.)

I don’t think points-for-practicing is an ideal situation, and perhaps not necessary at some more competitive, more performance-oriented schools. The students at my small, regional university have a range of backgrounds and ability levels, but certainly for some the idea of an intensive practicing routine is new and challenging. This approach helps keep them incentivized (bribed? threatened?) to practice several hours per day, until hopefully it becomes a self-motivating habit. Or, in some cases, it helps them realize that their commitment level isn’t compatible with the degree program.

I use a simple formula for grading practice hours. Each student has a weekly practice hours target, which varies depending on the degree program (or, more precisely, the number of credit hours of lessons: more for performance majors, fewer for music education majors, etc.). If they put in that exact number of hours, they get 100% of the points. If they put in half the hours they get 50% the points, if they put in one and a half times the target they get 150% of the points, and so forth.

(hours practiced)/(required practice hours) × (possible points) = (grade as a percentage)

That gives them essentially unlimited extra credit if they want to go above and beyond, or lets them practice a little extra during slower weeks so they can free up some time for weeks that are busier with midterms or band trips.

Practice reports are due every single Monday of the semester, even holidays. This works better than having them report hours between lessons, since sometimes things get moved around in my schedule and it ends up being more or fewer than seven days between lessons. I have streamlined the reporting process quite a bit by using the university’s LMS to automatically administer a weekly “quiz,” which looks like this:

For Thanksgiving break in November and spring break in March (each a full week with no classes) I have been collecting practice reports, and treating them as pure extra credit. That way I’m not punishing students who spend those vacation days with family or who need a break from the instrument. But the students who are serious about playing usually put in a pretty solid effort during those weeks and earn a nice grade bonus for it.

When I explain this system to other educators I often get asked about honesty. I haven’t found it to be a major issue. That might be partly because of my students’ background and upbringing (it’s the Bible Belt), and maybe partly because lying turns out to be pretty unsustainable: if their reported practice hours don’t seem to match their level of achievement, I start asking tough questions.

When I was a first-year undergraduate music major and not yet fully convinced of the importance of practicing several hours per day, a nudge/threat from the music department scared me into changing my ways. But the sudden “motivation” to apply myself a little better soon started paying off. As I had more and more success I felt more and more inclined to practice because I got more and more out of it. Ultimately, I learned to enjoy and even crave the hours in the practice rooms. It’s exciting to see my students making that same transition.

Prepping the dumb guy

photo, Corrie

In the practice room, I’m smart, organized, and focused. I’d like to say that this always leads to performances that are relaxed, poised, and confident. But sometimes the smart guy from the practice room fails to show up, and instead a much dumber version of me ends up on the stage: nervous, distracted, and scatterbrained.

It’s my job (the smart guy) to make sure the dumb guy is prepped and ready to go. He’s not much good at thinking on his feet or making good musical decisions, but he’s trainable. So here’s the preparation regimen:

  • Practice in a thorough, methodical way. Not just the hard parts—the easy parts, too, which the dumb guy thinks he can handle but will be prone to boneheaded mistakes.
  • If recordings of the repertoire are available, listen to them over and over. Sometimes when the dumb guy’s reading or memory fail him, his ear can help him through.
  • Include a clear breathing plan in the practice routine. Mark the breaths in, early in the process, and practice them like they are notes. My particular dumb guy tends to breathe in weird places when he gets nervous, so I have to make sure good breaths are part of his muscle memory. (If you have a dumb guy/girl, they might have their own personal quirks that need a safety net.)
  • Make extensive markings. Anything that the dumb guy might forget gets penciled in, in clear and unambiguous terms (no just circling things—the dumb guy can’t always remember in the heat of the moment what the circles mean). If necessary, I even leave him a little reminder a few bars in advance (“big breath coming up,” “keep fingers relaxed,” etc.).
  • Make foolproof arrangements for page turns. Sometimes that means things like making a couple of copies of a page, with some bars completely blacked out so the dumb guy can’t accidentally play past the page turn, or fail to find his place after turning. Sometimes I even leave some instructions in the margin about how to do the page turn successfully.
  • After the recital or concert, I review the dumb guy’s performance to figure out what other holes he managed to fall into, and strategize about how to plug those holes for next time.

If you’re like me, and your IQ sometimes drops a few points under the hot stage lights, make sure you’ve done your advance work so the dumb guy can’t cause too much havoc.

Preventing accidents with pencil marks

photo, S. Parker

After some recent windy weather I saw someone in my neighborhood cutting up some fallen tree branches with a chainsaw. He wore jeans and sneakers and handled the saw with something less than familiarity.

Later, I saw a professional tree removal crew working at a similar task. They operated their chainsaws expertly and with confidence, and wore helmets, eye and ear protection, and heavy protective clothing.

I thought the amateur might really be the one in need of safety gear. But the professionals showed up equipped to do the job right, do it promptly, and do it without mishaps. Continue reading “Preventing accidents with pencil marks”

Recording your practicing

photo, James Cridland

“Record yourself when you practice” is common advice, and good advice. I frequently recommend it to my students, but few of them do it. I think it can seem overwhelming. Recording seems like a big production: getting the material to performance level, using complicated and expensive equipment, playing beginning to end, doing cruelly thorough analysis followed by self-flagellation and sadness.

Here’s a simple, effective, low-stress approach that I use: Continue reading “Recording your practicing”

How are you going to improve this?

I’ve blogged previously about getting my students to give more than pat answers about how they think their playing sounds:

It’s an ongoing battle to get my students to listen more deeply than that. Was the articulation “not good” because it started with air noise instead of tone? Because it was accompanied by an unwanted percussive sound? Was the articulation technique perfect but you failed to follow the composer’s markings? Or was it something else?

The next step is getting students to make a clear, actionable plan to improve. That conversation often goes like this:

Me: Okay, what are you going to do to improve that aspect of your—

Student [rolling eyes]: Practice.

Me: Well, obviously. But how are you going to prac—

Student [sighing]: Keep practicing until I get it right.

Me: No, I mean what specific practice tech—

Student [through clenched teeth]: Use a metronome.

In other words, the “plan” is usually to suffer for a few hours in the practice room, and maybe, against all odds, emerge with the problem magically fixed.

But practicing without a plan rarely produces the desired results. I’m much more optimistic about the student’s success if they can tell me something like: “Well, I need to slow this way down, slow enough that I can get it exactly right, and use the metronome to make sure I’m not rushing. When I can play this passage with the correct articulations 10 times in a row without mistakes, then I’ll inch the metronome up by a couple of clicks and try again.” That’s a clear commitment to a tried-and-true method. It will probably be a much more productive and satisfying practice session, which means the student is more likely to put in some more good hours the next day.

Less-experienced students might have a smaller repertoire of practice techniques, and I consider it a lesson-time priority to teach them more of those techniques. Trial and error in the practice room will help them refine these techniques, and determine which ones are most effective for them.

Productive practicing requires identifying an area to improve, selecting a technique (or series of techniques) to apply to it, evaluating progress, adjusting the practice technique as needed, and noting what does and doesn’t work for future practice sessions.

Staying motivated for summer practicing

photo, Craig ONeal
For musicians on an academic schedule, summers are often wide open. This can be a great opportunity to get ahead, or a bottomless pit of procrastination and idleness. Here are some ideas for staying motivated to get some summer practicing done.

Continue reading “Staying motivated for summer practicing”

The best practice routine

Lately I’ve been on a diet that has a weekly “cheat” day. Six days out of the week, my meals are Spartan, but on cheat day I get to eat whatever I want.

My guess is that isn’t the ideal way to manage my waistline. I would be better off eating more regimented meals every day. But I would burn out and quit. The cheat day is a compromise. It cedes a little ground to my sweet tooth, but keeps me going back to lentils and broccoli for another six days.

photo, Dave Crosby
photo, Dave Crosby

Every so often I decide to revamp my practice routine. It’s always ambitious. I plan hours of long tones, a battery of scales and exercises and etudes, piles of classical repertoire, and new jazz tunes. I see myself drilling every aspect of my playing for hours and hours every day.

It usually goes well for a few days, and then fizzles out. I tell myself that I’m not getting my routine done because of a deadline. Or a conflict. Or because I just needed to sleep in a little that day. But the truth is that I’m burned out—I’ve given myself a practice routine that I can’t or won’t sustain.

It’s often said that the best diet is the one you stick to. I think that’s good advice for practicing, too. It would be great to do a super-intense practice routine every day. But if a little lower intensity is what prevents burnout, then so be it.

If you are finding your latest practice routine to be hard to keep up, ask yourself what you can do to make it a better experience. What will bring you back again the next day? Shorter sessions? More frequent breaks? Fewer things to practice? A greater variety of things to practice? More structure? Less structure? A weekly “cheat day” when you get to skip scales and play whatever you want?

A practice routine, like a diet plan, should be good for you and should help you reach your goals, but it should also be something you can sustain and even enjoy.

Practice slump checklist

Sometimes my students complain that they have had bad practicing days or weeks. Not that I have ever had this problem (ahem), but here are a few ideas for breaking out of a practicing slump.

photo, Katy Wrathall
photo, Katy Wrathall
  1. Check equipment. Slightly-malfunctioning gear can make you feel like a bad player. Be sure to eliminate this possibility.
    • Are your reeds functioning well? Prioritize response-balanced-with-stability over more subjective and malleable things like tone. Many reed players use unnecessarily stiff reeds; consider trying something a little softer if you haven’t lately.
    • Is your instrument functioning well? If you know how, check the most important adjustment screws (oboe: left hand stack, left G-sharp key, F resonance; saxophone: bis, G-sharp, right hand stack). Re-check basics like alignment of bridge keys. And, of course, make sure your instrument gets regular (at least annual) maintenance checkups. Professional instruments should probably get full mechanical overhauls every 5-10 years.
    • Are you using the best equipment for you? Don’t let new purchases be your go-to solution for every problem, but in some cases replacing an instrument or accessory can remove a roadblock to progress. (Do a reality-check with your teacher to make sure you aren’t just throwing away money chasing a quick fix.)
  2. Check technique. It might be you after all.
    • Have you warmed up thoroughly and correctly today? It’s best to do this at the beginning of your practice session, but there’s no rule that says you can’t warm up some more mid-session to double-check your tone production and reset your mental focus.
    • Have you reviewed all your fundamentals? Take a closer look at your posture, hand position, breath support, embouchure, voicing, finger movement, etc. Have you slipped back into a bad habit? Are you suffering the effects of a technique deficiency you know you should fix but haven’t gotten around to yet? If you don’t know how to fix it, check in with your teacher.
    • Can you release some tension? Frustration often goes hand-in-hand with tense muscles. Consider doing a little deep breathing, stretching, mindfulness practice, yoga, Alexander Technique, or whatever else puts your body back in balance.
    • Have you laid sufficient technical groundwork? If you are working on something especially difficult, is there something else you could practice as an intermediate step? Études, technical exercises, or other preparatory material can help bridge the gap between your current ability level and the ability level you need.
  3. Check your health. If your body isn’t responding well, your practice sessions will be difficult and unpleasant.
    • Have you been getting enough quality sleep? Implementing good sleep habits is a major upgrade to the function of your mind and body.
    • Are you eating balanced meals? Are you eating enough? Are you eating too much? Is your diet too low on good stuff and/or too high in bad stuff?
    • Are you getting outside for at least a few minutes of sunshine and “fresh” air? Sunshine is important to your body’s vitamin D level.
    • Are you stressed, or otherwise not at your best mentally? In some cases, professional counseling and/or treatment may be needed. If you are a college student, there is a good chance there are free, discreet counseling services available on your campus. In other cases, taking a break, getting a little exercise, talking something out with a friend or loved one, or just getting a change of scenery might be enough.
  4. Check your mindset.
    • Are you practicing mindlessly or without direction? Try making a short list of goals you would like to accomplish during this practice session. If you’re not sure where to start, make a quick recording (perhaps with the voice memo app on your smartphone) and listen to it to get some ideas about what needs improvement. If you don’t meet all your goals, you can tackle them again tomorrow or re-prioritize.
  5. Check your environment.
    • At what time of day are your practice sessions the most productive and pleasant? Do you practice best in the morning before your body is tired and your brain is full? Or do you get a second wind after the sun goes down?
    • What locations are most conducive to good practice sessions? Sometimes just changing the scenery can revitalize your focus and productivity. Practicing in places with different acoustical qualities can make you hear yourself in new ways and get your creative juices flowing.
    • What distractions are getting in your way? Can you reduce or remove them?
  6. Check your ego. Practicing should challenge you, but not overwhelm you.
    • Are you working on music that is inappropriately difficult for your current abilities? If you have some freedom to choose what you practice, consider working on something else for now and tackling this project later. If you are committed to a performance of something very difficult and have to make it work, be sure to include other things in your practice session that you can be successful at, to keep your motivation primed.

Don’t let poor practice sessions bring you down—use them to refine your habits and make the next session your best yet.

Practicing and the two-minute rule

David Allen’s well-known book Getting Things Done is always within arm’s reach at my desk. I find its concepts and techniques valuable for managing my time and productivity.

I don’t consciously use a lot of “GTD” ideas in my practicing, since practicing seems to me like a thing that is never “done.” (If any of you are applying GTD concepts to practicing, I’m interested in hearing about it.) But there’s one part of the GTD system that I do think of often when practicing or working with students: the “two-minute” rule.

photo, Matthew
photo, Matthew

The idea is this: when organizing your tasks, if something comes up that will take less than two minutes to complete, it’s better to go ahead and do it rather than taking the time to process it into your to-do list and revisit it again later.

I try especially to impress this on students who are stuck in “stage one” practicing, running long passages or entire pieces without stopping to isolate and fix problem spots. If you are practicing, here are some examples of things to spend two minutes or less solving now, rather than adding them to a do-later list:

  • Look up an unfamiliar foreign term
  • Mark in a missed key-signature note or ensemble cue
  • Practice an awkward three- or four-note passage (How many times can you practice it in two minutes? One or two hundred times?)
  • Check and adjust the tuning of a problem note
  • Revisit a favorite tone exercise to improve the sound of a certain note or passage
  • Figure out and mark in a trill fingering
  • Make and notate an interpretive decision (You can always change your mind later. For now, pick a plan and try it out rather than leaving it up in the air.)
  • Choose and mark a good place to breathe
  • Settle a question or conflict by consulting the full score or accompaniment part
  • Make a quick recording (your smartphone probably has a voice-recording app) and identify some areas to focus on (and possibly solve in two minutes)

This approach does sometimes mean breaking stride on larger practice-time projects, but in general I find the two-minute fixes to be worthwhile.

But I can do it in the practice room

Every week I hear students play badly, then tell me, “but I can do it in the practice room…”

Here are some reasons things might go more poorly in a lesson than in a practice session, and some strategies for dealing with those problems.

photo, Derek Bruff
photo, Derek Bruff
  • It’s possible that you’re not really playing any differently. Things seem worse because having someone else listen heightens your sense of what you really sound like. Try recording yourself while practicing, then listening back. It can be a painful revelation, but it can bring problems to your attention and improve your ability to really hear yourself as you play.
  • It’s possible that your mastery of the music is really only borderline, and the normal stress of having an audience is enough to cause trouble. This is what I call “sight-reading mode.” It’s not that you are necessarily playing the music for the first time, but you are still at the point of having to mentally process each note as it goes by. For more stress-proof performance, put in more slow, accurate repetitions when practicing to build your muscle “memory” and aural memory.
  • It’s possible that your mastery of the music is good, but your stress is above normal. In this case the problem isn’t your practicing per se. Improve your ability to play in front of others with techniques for managing performance anxiety. These might include healthy lifestyle habits (sleep, nutrition, and exercise) or mental exercises (like visualization, affirmations, or mindfulness practice).

Don’t make excuses, look for solutions!