No one can blow that horn but you!

I recently had a very interesting letter from a teacher named John, in Southern Ontario. He had retired last June after 25 years of teaching high school English — followed by seven years as a music educator!

In those last years teaching music, he says, he developed a passion for it that went far beyond his real enthusiasm for teaching English.

Now John volunteers at a local elementary school, where he has started a concert band. None of his students could read music when they joined the band, he says. Most of them joined “because it looked like fun, because they wanted to be with others who were doing it.”

The kids, John wrote, pulled off a laudable winter concert. But now, he said, “the honeymoon is over!” As the children reach a musical level where they hit significant frustration, they are starting to drop out of the band.

John is a big believer in practice. He knows that’s all his students need to make it past the hump. But he says that he can’t compete with the culture that surrounds them.

Athletics compete with music for kids’ time. A high-tech paradise entices and distracts them. And too few parents can be there to cheer kids on through those frustrating practice sessions in the six days between rehearsals.

In music, just like sports, you just can’t get away with not doing the practice. “You can rip off an essay from the internet,” this former English teacher says. “But no one can blow that horn but you!”

What do parents think of John’s dilemma? Let us know how you are handling the problem! We’ll mail a free copy of Fires in the Mind to whoever sends in the best comment on this subject.


4 thoughts on “No one can blow that horn but you!

  1. Loriana De Crescenzo on said:

    Recently my twin daughters who are middle school age, came home with a permission slip and payment request for an interactive web based program that allows students to use their computer to practice, and record and assess/access their daily progress. SmartMusic.

    I’m a classically trained singer and have had a professional career in music. I believe in human interaction, practice, learning from and with other musicians and knowing how to self assess, yet this program has my girls excited about practicing!

    I’m curious to see what impact it has on them, their practice and their joy for making music.

  2. John Picone on said:

    I became aware of SmartMusic when I started teaching instumental music more than 10 years ago. At the time, it seemed like an outstanding program to motivate young musicians to practice. I still feel the same way. What puzzles me is that so few students took advantage of this tool. Even when the SmartMusic software for the first 100 lessons in the methods book we were using was free!

    This is the second time I’ve heard of a school insisting that students purchase a subscription to SmartMusic. What will be interesting is whether they will, in fact, exploit this aid simply because they have paid for it.

    For me, the motivator in SmartMusic is the accompaniment tracks that can be played with or without the solo line and at varying tempos. There are few band instruments that give real satisfaction when played on their own. Oh, a flutist or a clarinetist may enjoy playing a Bach chorale as a solo. But for me, a trombone player, I want to hear the whole band around me. I’m much more highly motivated to learn my chart when I can “participate” with the accompaniment provided. And, as inviting the rest of the band to my house to join me in my practice session is usually not feasible, the accompaniment provided by SmartMusic is a great substitute.

    There is, however, one thing that SmartMusic can not do and Loriana has put her finger on it: human interaction! My experince suggests strongly to me that most young musicians want to practice but don’t know how. Accomplished musicians have an extensive repertoire of practice strategies; they know how to use them and – most importantly – when to use them. SmartMusic can’t help the young musician develop this. Only a sensitive and highly informed teacher. Sadly, this is an area of music education that needs a great deal of attention. Too often, music educators teach the students the techniques and the rudiments and then say simply, “OK, this is the piece to prepare; go practice it!” These music educators presume that the child knows “what” to practice and “how.” And the reality is that this is highly idiosyncratic: it will be different for EVERY musician even with the same score. Unfortunately, these two concepts are eclipsed by “how long” to practice.

    Surely one of the greatest frustrations for the young musician is trying to learn a piece of music and, despite a great deal of time and energy, getting nowhere. As Philip Johnston puts it: they’re chopping trees with a spoon.

  3. I know one mother (not a serious musician herself) who sits down at the piano after dinner each night, to accompany her twin daughters, 7, as they practice the violin and cello, playing scales and short pieces for ten minutes each. Simply having their mother do it with them — plus the added richness of her chords behind their often squeaky efforts — makes what could be an ordeal into something that has elements of pleasure in it, including her consistently encouraging comments as they go through the exercises. (Her custom is also to reward them with a small piece of candy afterward!) Any other parents have experience with participating in practice with the children? I’d love to hear from you!

  4. middlemath on said:

    My son loves to play his new Gameboy DS. I know that at first thought it’s not very educational to spend time playing Mario64 with a five year old, but he absolutely loves it! My husband gives me a terrible time because I am a middle school math teacher playing a child’s video game, but after a seminar I attended yesterday, I am seeing it in a different light.
    Everytime Owen and I die in the video game, we learn something that benefits us as we try again. That is the important part…that we are persistent and problem solving. It may not be a standard that can be checked off according to the state of Ohio, but it means something to him…and regardless of what anyone says, he is learning.

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