Because the title of this post will no doubt lead the reader to expect a veritable burst of negativity, I will begin with several disclaimers. First of all, I am not writing in order to “call out” an individual student or students. I have observed all of these behaviors repeatedly throughout my twelve-plus years of teaching at five different universities. This semester is no exception; I have already observed all of these behaviors on several occasions this fall.
Secondly, I am using the term “inexplicable” somewhat loosely. Students will usually give some kind of reason for these behaviors; they are inexplicable in that they almost always lack a good reason.
Thirdly, while overall tone of this post will be somewhat negative due to its subject matter, I will endeavor to present positive alternatives to each of these behaviors, or at least possible motivations to “do better.”
Fourthly, while this list can be applicable to music students of various ages, ability levels, and career goals, I am writing primarily with undergraduate music and music education majors in mind.
Finally, this list is not comprehensive. Given unlimited time to write I’m sure I could come up with a longer list than this one. Still, I think this list broadly captures the kinds of negative behaviors I have most often observed in my low brass students.
With those disclaimers in mind, let us begin.
1. Lack of Practice
The first of these behaviors is lack of individual practice. From a purely “negative motivation” standpoint, I cannot understand how students that receive academic credit for enrolling in applied lessons expect to receive a passing grade if they do not do the assigned work. While different teachers have different practices in this regard, my students receive a written list of assignments following each lesson. It is simply not possible to say “I didn’t know.”
One misperception that even music majors sometimes have difficulty overcoming is the idea that their lessons are “extracurricular.” Students that would not imagine showing up for an English, math, or even music theory course without completing their assignments will neglect individual practice and cite time spent working on material for other courses as an excuse. While I do grant that high school students and non-music majors sometimes are forced to neglect practice in order to complete assignments for other courses, for the music major the applied lesson is the primary forum for the development of comprehensive musicianship, and yields its greatest benefits only with diligent, daily practice. This is not to say that other coursework does not need to be done; of course it does. In my experience, the student that truly does not have time to spend the required time on individual practice and complete homework and studying for other courses is exceedingly rare. More often the problem is poor time management, a problem easily solved with a little planning. Schedule time for practice and study just like class meetings are scheduled, and then commit to maintaining that practice and study schedule.
Of course, “not getting a bad grade” and even “getting a good grade” are poor motivations for diligent and effective practice. An even better motivation is simply playing well. To one extent or another, people that go into music as a profession do so because they enjoy making music. Well, playing well is much more fun than playing badly! Perhaps even more important to future educators is that the development of good comprehensive musicianship will make them better teachers. Effective individual practice requires and develops skills and techniques similar to those used by effective teachers and conductors in their rehearsals. Do you want to learn how to effectively rehearse a band? Learn to practice effectively!
2. Insufficient and/or Inadequate Practice
Happily, very few students try to get by with no practice at all. Still, many fail to practice enough, or to practice well. Brass playing is a skill that cannot be developed in “fits and starts.” It requires daily, repetitive, and often difficult work in order to attain mastery, and yet the rewards are there waiting to be taken.
Insufficient practice is difficult to explain except out of pure laziness. I have often observed that, even for me, the hardest thing about practicing is showing up. If I go to the practice room, I’ll practice for thirty minutes before even looking at the clock. Do that two or three times in the day (more for performance majors, of course), and the day’s minimal practice requirements are satisfied. The only way to not practice enough is to not try at all!
Inadequate practice, by which I mean practice that is sufficient in quantity but not quality, is a little harder to correct. The most common culprit is lack of regular and comprehensive practice of playing fundamentals. In a misguided zeal to move on to “real music,” many students give playing fundamentals “short shrift” in their individual practice. Ironically, this leads to more time being required to learn that “real music,” as the skills and understandings that undergird great playing of almost any piece of music are covered in a good daily fundamentals routine. Students that spend 20-50% (or more) of their daily practice time on fundamentals find that they learn more music more quickly, and play it better to boot!
Also worth discussing here is a certain inequity in “natural talent” between students. Think about a math class in which a worksheet is assigned with a certain number of problems to solve. One student completes the entire sheet in ten minutes; another takes thirty, and another sixty. All three students must complete the same worksheet, but the time required for each to do so varies widely. We see something similar in music, where one student can learn his required materials by fulfilling the minimum required practice time, while others must practice much longer to play equally well. That’s not fair, but it is “how it is,” and students should expect to encounter this phenomenon in their musical careers. I will say, though, that the students with somewhat less “natural talent” that really learn to work hard and use what they have will often eventually surpass the students that “get it naturally.”
In short, practice enough, and practice well. How much is enough? You’ll know. When it sounds great, then it’s enough. Whether it takes you one hour per day or three (or more), so be it. Practice until it’s good!
3. Lack of Curiosity
We are living in a time in which great recordings are available on an unprecedented scale, often for free. I began my own college career just as internet access was becoming readily available (and it was still quite slow and unreliable). Not too many years ago services like YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and even subscription services like the Naxos Music Library were not even conceivable. The only way to listen to recordings of brass players was to have the physical (CD or LP) recordings of those players, and even then one had to know where to obtain printed catalogs from which to order those albums. Still, we excitedly purchased and devoured recordings by our favorite musicians, and were excited to have models of fine playing so “easily” available to us.
Today, students can listen for free to very fine players performing their assigned literature, often with just a few clicks of the mouse. While YouTube is a “mixed bag,” simply knowing the names of a few top players can increase the chances of finding a “good” recording. With services like the Naxos Music Library, to which our university subscribes as do many others, thousands of professional-quality recordings of all kinds of music are easily and instantly available.
And yet, students often have to be begged and admonished and cajoled into taking a few minutes to listen to just a bit of this free, easily-available music online. If only they knew how revealing listening to multiple recordings of their assigned literature would be, and how much better their performances would become as a result.
Even better, if students would only spend a little time each week simply browsing through available music and listening to all kinds of different things for different instruments and ensembles, they would be amazed at how much more informed and exciting their performances would become.
There’s so much to take in, and I’ve only talked about recordings. A great deal of sheet music is available with comparable ease, and of course browsing the library stacks remains a fun and informative activity. And then there are conferences, where the greatest players in the world gather all in one place to perform and teach. There’s so much out there, and all you have to do is look for it!
4. Failure to Have (and Use) a Pencil
Musicians should carry pencils with them at all times. That’s right, all the time, even when not practicing or rehearsing. That way, they won’t be caught without pencils when they are needed. It is incredibly disappointing to hear a student repeat mistakes, and then to look at his music and see that it is devoid of pencil marks of any kind. I know only one (almost) foolproof method to correct a repeatedly missed key signature, accidental, note, or fingering, and that is to write it down the first time a given mistake is made. Don’t say to yourself “I’ll remember that; I don’t need to write it down.” That is almost certainly not true. You’ll make the mistake again, and often at a highly inopportune moment. Besides, writing it down the first time ensures that you will practice a given passage correctly in the future, rather than risking multiple repetitions of an error that will then be much harder to “unlearn.”
I have often challenged my students to take every opportunity they have to watch fine professional ensembles rehearse. What is most telling to me is that every time the conductor or leader stops, members of the best groups immediately reach for their pencils to mark instructions or corrections. As one saying puts it, “The difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional only misses notes once.” In other words, the professional avoids repeating mistakes by marking them immediately.
Students, carry pencils and use them frequently. This is such an easy way to improve performance with minimal added effort.
5. Skipping Lessons without Excuse
This one makes the least sense to me. Not only is it incredibly rude to “leave hanging” a teacher that has set aside time to work with you individually, but since a grade is assigned to each week’s lesson, every unexcused absence results in a “zero” being averaged into your final grade. Even a poorly prepared lesson will earn a higher grade than zero, and you will still benefit from your teacher’s coaching, counsel, encouragement, and, when needed, admonition.
Of course, we all get sick sometimes, and on rare occasions sudden emergencies arise that necessitate an unexpected absence. As with any once-weekly class, though, every effort should be made to ensure that such absences are indeed exceedingly rare.
To my present students, again, I have not written this to “call anyone out.” With the possible exception of the last item, I’m sure all of us (and yes, I’m including myself here) have been guilty of these behaviors to one extent or another. If you do see yourself in any of these, I hope you will take to heart the positive alternatives to these behaviors and begin to make changes. You have much to gain by doing so, and nothing to lose!