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Mark Burke is CEO and founder of mynddset

High School Band Goes Back to Basics

By Mark T. Burke

I just spent an hour with a high school band and WOW, they provided some great insight into music education by sharing their life as student musicians. 

Background:  My task was to engage a band of about 60 members in a conversation around how to improve musical skills.  The presentation was planned as part of a two year project with their school aimed at improving several key areas of student musicianship through an innovative, hybrid learning environment. The students, all 9-12th graders and members of a very successful band program (with a long legacy), will receive lessons from a beginner lesson book starting today.  Students will learn through a combination of online and in class tools and resources (hybrid learning). The goals are simple, improve their desire to practice, ensure they play at level, improve their rhythmic accuracy, ensure they actually sound like their instrument should sound, increase their motivation and raise overall program retention.   

Today’s session was the introductory session.  My goal, get them THINKING differently.  So, we talked, I listened, I provided some insights…Now, I’ve had a minute to digest a bit.  Through a series of questions, I learned more about how they think.  Here are a few notes.

Question 1

1.  How many of you listen to recorded music?  100% said they did.

We then talked about the recording process.  I asked them to describe how the recording process works.

A few chimed in mentioning the technical aspects of recording music, such as playing into microphones, adding tracks, etc.  One or two mentioned editing to take out mistakes and add “better” tracks and sounds into a final mix.  One mentioned LISTENING and revising, re-recording.  We then talked about LISTENING and decision making.  I asked:

2.  How are those decisions made?  Responses:  Experiences, Education….good!

I then asked;

3.  How many of you make recordings for the purpose of improving your own musical performance?  Responses….2 -3 said they did. 

Very interesting…With some additional conversation, it became clear that students understand the value and benefits of recording, listening and making changes.  But they do not apply that to their own music making.  They understand that the evaluation of a recording has value when provided by experienced, educated person.  Again, you would think they would be knocking down their music teacher’s doors to have them listen to recordings, critique them and provide concrete feedback. They are not.

I then introduced them to a new phrase, DILIGENT PRACTICE.  Now, “practice” by itself is not new, they know what that means.  They cringed like I expected them to when I said the word “practice.”  When I added “diligent” to the word “practice,”, they said….”Oh, man, that makes it even harder.”  I then asked them:

4.  What do you think of when you hear the word “diligent?”  Responses….Dedication over a long time, attention to detail, willingness to fix things.  

I then asked them about their own practice routines.

5.  How many of you would agree that you have a practice routine?  Responses….2 or 3 agreed.  

We then talked about attention to detail and the basics of playing an instrument.  I started this conversation by asking:

6.  How many of you could play a whole note that sounded great?  Responses…again, only 2 or 3 responded YES.  

To them, practice is about playing through their ensemble music or audition pieces.  If they “mess up” a section, they play it again.  I then wanted to learn a bit more about the way they break down their own practice.  I asked:

7.  When you “mess up” a section, is everything bad?  Responses….”No, just parts.”  Most agreed.

Of course, this shows they can critique themselves, or at least know the right answer to that question.  What they have trouble with is connecting their knowledge with their own musical habits. It is also clear that few have confidence in their basic performance abilities.  Few had confidence that they could play something as fundamental as a whole note well.  CONFIDENCE is certainly a huge factor when we consider motivation and retention.

This session was extremely telling and we have a long way to go.  What excites me is that after the session, some students came in for their regularly scheduled lessons and expressed being excited to get rolling.  I believe what really sold them on the idea of going back to the basics and learning from a beginner band book was telling them how difficult the advanced high school and college age student who performed for the videos within the online course found the challenge of playing beginning instrumental lesson book exercises and music.  The technical level is not high, but playing music at this level forces us to think about the fundamentals.  Imagine, if your students don’t feel confident enough in their ability to play a good whole note, how will they feel playing an entire 2-3 pages worth of whole notes?  This project is aimed at demonstrating how important it is (and possible) to provide the tools to build fundamentals.  When asked why the students do many of the things listed above, their answer tells it all. They said, “we don’t have the resources.”  While we could argue that they do, we can’t argue that in many cases, in all our lives, we need tools to help us accomplish even the simplest of tasks.

I’ll keep everyone up to date.  And of course, if you are interested in rolling out a hybrid program at your school, drop me an email.   



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