By Dr. Scott Watson
As spring concert season winds down and the end of the school year approaches, a common concern for instrumental music teachers centers on encouraging students to keep playing throughout the summer. Getting kids to practice any time of year is tough enough (it’s no wonder Wynton Marsalis’ famous discourse on the topic is entitled, “Tackling the Monster”), but motivating summer practice might require some new thinking. Below are six strategies—some tried-and-true, others somewhat new—that might make a difference this summer with students at all levels.
Structured Playing Opportunities
Summer is a great time for the following helpful playing opportunities, though each requires some scheduling effort and a specific commitment of time.
- Private Lessons. This is a no-brainer; do whatever you can to encourage it. My story, which involved private lessons changing the trajectory of my life, is not all that uncommon. Despite a promising start in 4th grade, by 6th grade I had become a sad specimen of a trumpeter. I barely practiced and was seated at the bottom of my section. By the end of 6th grade I wanted to quit. My wise mother (bless her) struck a deal with me, “Let’s get you some private lessons this summer, then decide about quitting in the fall.” She found a wonderful teacher in our area (a big band era player) to whom I responded well. My playing took off, helping me enjoy band so much more in the fall. Most kids quit either because they are frustrated (my situation) or are bored and need more challenge. Private study addresses both, and late spring is a great time to send a letter or email home vaunting the benefits of private study. Maintain a listing of recommended instrument teachers in your area; using Google Docs makes it easy to share an up-to-date list. I recommend you make personal contact (phone call or face-to-face chat) with the parents of students you strongly feel would benefit from summer lessons. If you’re sharing that a student needs lessons to keep from falling dangerously behind, or to unlock musical potential that might lead to them qualifying for district (or regional or state) events, I believe parents need to hear your voice. With younger students, especially if you sense money might be a concern, perhaps the right high school student (strong player with a gracious personality) can serve as a less costly mentor. It’ll be good for both of them.
- Summer Music Rehearsals. Some middle and high schools hold weekly or monthly summer music rehearsals to keep students engaged. In addition to getting a jump on fall warm-up routines and music, consider doing something special during each meeting to keep students coming back. For instance, a guest soloist (i.e. nearby university teacher, alumnus playing professionally, etc.) could perform a selection or two followed by a brief Q & A time, or parents (and/or student leaders) could organize a “make-your-own-sundae” party for the close of a rehearsal. Attendance can be less rigid than during the year (“If you’re in town, join your band family for some music and fun!”). Spread the word via student leaders, website, email blasts, text messaging apps, etc. so students and their families know what’s going on.
- Summer Camp. There are some wonderful instrumental music camps around the country for students at all levels, but your school or district might consider establishing one of your own. Years ago my colleagues and I launched a one-week day camp for 1st and 2nd year band and strings students that has become a successful part of our program. The camp features sectional and full ensemble rehearsals, music games (led by volunteer high school helpers), an exploratory/elective block (students choose between jazz ensemble, music composition, solo/duets/trios, and percussion ensemble), daily mini-recitals by staff (or friends), and (of course) snack time! Camp week closes with a demonstration concert for parents. To pull this off you need to start planning about a year in advance. Advertise early and often since students’ summer schedules fill up fast.
Independent Playing Opportunities
The following are suggestions for summer musical engagement that tap into student’s intrinsic motivation and don’t require a specific time commitment.
- Fun, Compelling Music. Players of all levels enjoy working on familiar tunes, movie themes, pop/rock songs, and other novelties. I recommend using the final weeks of school to introduce examples of this sort of music, perhaps even sending home a list of suggested collections (and where to order them) appropriate for the level you teach. Students who attend a house of worship might want to work on a hymn arrangement or appropriate classical selection to perform as a prelude or special music during a service over the summer. Many solo collections of all sorts—fun, pop, classical, and sacred—come with accompaniment tracks (CDs or online) or are available in SmartMusic. Create a Google Doc to share with students/parents that lists the solos—books and individual pieces, by category (i.e. fun, classical, sacred, etc.)—that you recommend for each instrument at the level you teach. Include links for ordering these resources online, plus contact info for any good brick-and-mortar sheet music retailer in your area.
- Student-Led Chamber Music. When I was in 6th grade, I convinced my middle school band director to let me take some jazz band charts home for the summer so I could invite jazz band friends to my house to jam on our favorite charts. With the organizational help of my mom, we actually did meet a few times in my basement and it was a lot of fun! In the interest of full disclosure, the main reason I hatched that plan was to get our jazz band’s cute piano player to notice me. While my romantic stratagem was an utter failure, the enterprise was an example of stakeholders (me and my friends) being given agency (my band director letting me run with a crazy idea) before such ed-jargon terms were fashionable. The big lesson: summer is a great time to encourage kids to experiment with music for brass quartet/quintet, woodwind quintet, flute or clarinet trios, and more. Probably the single greatest way to get students to carry through on forming a summer chamber group is to line up a performance (church, community park, arts festival, etc.).
- Fun, Free Music Tech. There are some wonderful, free music apps that are sure to capture student’s attention and/or unlocking their creativity. Here are three great apps sure to musically engage many of your students who use them. Did I mention they are FREE?!
- Staff Wars 2 is a fun note recognition app that taps into kids’ love of space adventure and video gaming. It is a free download for Windows or Mac OSX. Staff Wars Live is available for iOS mobile devices. After choosing their instrument, note range and key, students play on their instruments the notes they see flying across the screen on a large staff. Playing the correct note blasts it off the staff; but three wrong notes and you’re out! There are three stages (levels) of the game and 20 speeds players can advance through. Students LOVE playing this game (watch some doing so in lessons). I use it as an incentive here and there throughout the year, but I always play it with students near the end of the school year (after concert season is over) just for fun and to encourage them to download it for summer.
- Finale NotePad is one of several great, entry-level music notation apps available for free to students today. Take a moment to demonstrate for your students the ease with which music can be typeset and played back with these apps and some will dive right in! Challenge high school section leaders to compose a “cheer” for their section. Encourage younger instrumentalists to create their own melodies or a duet to play with a friend, perhaps based on the rhythm of their school mascot or a favorite sports team:
- Soundtrap is a leading cloud-based digital audio workstation, or DAW (think GarageBand online). Students can record and edit audio and MIDI (assigned to a decent collection of synth sounds), add effects (i.e. reverb, EQ, etc.), create a groove using loops, and more. Because of Soundtrap’s intuitive interface, kids will be creating “sick beats” in no time. If you want your students to do something more directly connected to playing their instrument, ask them to create a track to accompany a scale or warm-up exercise you do routinely. They can create their accompaniment using several tracks of layered loops, then record the scale or warm-up exercise in an audio track with their instrument.
Most of the six suggestions above have one thing in common: they will be more effective if you make time near the end of the school year to introduce them to your students in the most tangible way you can. In other words, having students begin to work together on one of the fun solos in a lesson group is better than just handing out a list of books you recommend. Allowing students to actually play Staff Wars 2 in lessons/sectionals is better than only sending an email to parents with a link to download it. And I guarantee if you devote 20 minutes of class time to demonstrating Soundtrap to your students, many will go home that very day inspired to create their own music with it!
Scott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music for 30 years in the Parkland School District (Allentown, PA) and is an award-winning and frequently commissioned composer. Many of Watson’s published works at all levels for concert band and orchestra have been named J.W. Pepper Editor’s Choice and appear on various state lists; he is a contributor to Alfred Music’s Sound Development Ensemble Series. His music has been performed at prestigious venues around the world, including the Midwest Clinic, and received awards and recognition from the American Composers Forum, the American Music Center, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the Percussive Arts Society, and others. Watson has presented numerous sessions and professional development workshops for music educators and frequently serves as guest conductor for honor band festivals. Additionally, Dr. Watson is an adjunct professor for Cairn University, the University of the Arts, and Central Connecticut State University, and the author of the highly regarded music education text, Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity (©2011, Oxford University Press). Learn more at scottwatsonmusic.com.