Testing student's practice habits

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I was wondering if and how other teachers test a student's practice habits. I know we can tell A LOT from the student's performance at their weekly lessons, but does anyone "test" the student?

After moving to a new area and getting a new crop of students and (esp.) transfers, I wanted to find ways to observe what they do at home during practice. Here's my basic "test"; I call it more of a "game" so younger students don't panic and freeze up!

SIGHT-PLAYING -- I choose 5 short examples that I feel the student should be able to play easily at sight. They can look it over for 20-30 seconds, but no "playing through". Points are deducted for each naughty sight-playing habit; the worst habits get more points deducted.

Example: Stop/start over = -4 Wrong rhythm = -3 Wrong note = -2 Not observing dynamics/articulation = -1

I deduct points instead of awarding points simply because it's easier to make quick marks for very noticeable errors. I also use a little flexibility...not a total tyrant....I just want to make notes of the REALLY bad habits!

PRACTICE HABITS -- I give them a short piece and sit back for at least 5 minutes and simply observe their practice...often I leave the room, since I can hear their "method" of practice. I am sadly amazed at how some will literally just run through the piece at top speed, mistakes galore, not "practicing" anything.....and believe me I DO go over detailed practice steps and they have a chart next to their assignment sheets on each step! I think many of us would gasp at the way some students "practice" on their own.

I take off points when I DON'T hear them practice the rhythm first (if needed), work on problem spots/use time wisely, or play as SLOW as accurate. When I hear the same mistake repeated over and over I make notes on how they need to work on that area.

READING HABITS -- I record them "performing" the example they just practiced 2 times. I look for things like:

Plays as slow as accurate, keeps going after mistakes, correct notes/rhythms/dynamics/articulations, EYES ON MUSIC. I actually WATCH their eyes and record how many times they look at their hands (we're talkin' no change of position in these examples!). Since they get 2 tries to "record" the piece...I use the best performance for grading, and write out general comments.

This may seem a little "over-board"....but I learn SO MUCH about how my students work independently; I also have a way to QUANTIFY my observations and have tangible proof when I want to let parents know their child is not ready to work without supervision.

I'd love to know how other teachers find ways to observe their student's practice. I've also tried requiring them to record their home practice, but often the student and parent orchestrate the whole affair; this way I catch them off-guard and see how they REALLY work by themselves. (no warning about this "test"...they can't "practice" for it!)

-- John Bisceglia (Bisceglia2000@yahoo.com), April 07, 2001


Well, John!!

You've truly amazed me with your topic! I never thought it could be possible to devise such a complete method of evaluating student practice... and I guess that's the main point in student progress through the years! Many times I feel students are progressing slowly because of wrong practicing at home. I ALWAYS study with them at the lesson, showing them different ways to solve problems. Most of them, unfortunately, only play through pieces at home, leaving the mistakes for correction at the lesson. Besides, in the school where I teach, we have two students-at-the-same-time 60 min.lessons, so there's not much time left for the suggestions you gave... but I sometimes (with the older students) tell them - "Imagine you're all alone at home. how would you practice this piece?"; did it once with a 9-year old going through her first Bach piece (G-Major Minuet), was a bit rough with her, not helping at all and always asking - "do you feel this passage is O.K.? No? So stop and study it the way we do it at the lesson!" (not very nice for a reply, huh?). But now she is progressing a lot faster (got that Minuet right in 3-weeks time from that day!) and I think that,if the student has a bit of experience with the teacher (enough for "being used" to certain ways of solving problems) it's a good push forward! Given the time, I really would give it a try on your suggestions, John. Thanks a lot!

-- Nuno Maulide (nmaulide@hotmail.com), April 16, 2001.

I just tested student's habits last week and am writing out the suggestions and observations (a mini progress report) right now. It is worth doing this AT LEAST once a year...maybe more. My test only takes 15 minutes of lesson time. The results are horrifying! Despite what we do at lessons, students (AND PARENTS!) are allowing sloppy, unproductive "practice" at home. I am sure this is a national phenomenon! In their report I end with the advice: STUDENT STILL NEEDS SUPERVISED PRACTICE. This often motivates the older child who doesn't want their parent around to shape up! I also make a general comment about how MOST of my students could literally be a level ahead if they would simply use their time better. The tone is one of encouragement and concern; it may seem cold on this page. When you put it in terms students can relate to (your 30 minutes of practice could be done in 15 with the same results!), and parents can relate to (your annual tuition could buy you twice the progress if you and your child improve practice habits)....well....I see light bulbs go off! Thanks for your comments.

-- John Bisceglia (Bisceglia2000@yahoo.com), April 16, 2001.

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