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Music, Performing Arts and Rosenshine: Guide student practice

Catherine Barker

09 May 2019
  • At what point in your curriculum do you ensure that you model and teach your students about how to practise effectively?
  • Are you confident that they are able to apply this independently? Are students engaged in their learning, and internally motivated to practise developing all skills when unsupervised (performance, composition, improvisation, listening and responding)?
  • When teaching about the features of a genre or style, do you give enough time for students to practically try each one out, and embed their understanding?
  • Do you provide enough material to support whole class practice time?

We all nag students about practising, but are we confident that they know how to structure practice time, and how to practise effectively?

In almost every discipline, practice features a strong element of repetition, also known as ‘blocked practice’. In football you would practice penalties. In music, you would practice a tricky phrase in a piece. Typically, this would be repeated, slowly at first where every physical component can be broken down. This is a great start, but alone doesn’t often have great results. When it really starts having an impact, is when this sort of practice is interleaved with another. For example, a series of penalties practised after a heartrate-raising warm up, and then again at the end of a passing drill. In music, we could look at a slow and considered set of repetitions of a tricky 2 bar passage, after a play through of a more straight-forward phrase or breathing/bowing/drum rudiment exercise. This interleaving allows your brain to ‘unlearn’ and then ‘relearn’ the content, moving the memory from extrinsic to intrinsic more effectively.

Legendary jazz trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, has put together a list of the 12 steps for great practice: this is worth sharing with more advanced musicians. There’s also a good TED-Ed Video here, explaining how practice changes the brain.

Once you have provided guidance around practice to your students, if you are not confident that they will be able to work independently it is better to work as a whole class until a greater level of self-regulation has been achieved, or to keep practice time short and focused.

You would never teach a student about the theory of baking a cake without giving the opportunity to try it out. Likewise, when teaching about the features of new styles, or new compositional techniques, it is crucial that students have the opportunity to practically explore them. This may take more time, but will help to secure understanding so that the topic doesn’t require re-teaching several times. The majority of KS4 and KS5 music courses have set works, in Drama we have set texts and in Dance we have set phrases. Students must be able to practically explore this course content to internalise concepts and ideas within the course. This is another type of practice, weaved through lesson content to gain a deeper understanding.

Although it is tempting to give lesson time to individual instrumental practice in KS4, the level of challenge in the new curriculum rarely allows for this: there is so much content that needs to be taught. If you must include practice time during lessons, use it to actively check in on progress, requiring students to perform to you and their peers during the lesson. Guide the warm up as a class, give out/set up metronomes for slow practice and require students to set targets for the session.

In drama, students must practice with independence as they rehearse monologues, duologues and small group script work – it’s likely that within one class there are multiple different scripts being used, each with their own challenges. Or, if the same script is being used by multiple groups, it’s important that each group is guided to prepare a distinctive interpretation. Our best teachers think carefully about the flow of these lessons:

  • A warm up/ice breaker to focus the class, set the expectations for performance energy needed during the lesson
  • Bespoke notes and instructions given to each individual/duo/group, although there may be a theme (vocal tone or proxemics, for example, or line-learning in chunks)
  • Students read these and commit to a target for the lesson
  • Students begin their practice time, teacher circulates methodically, taking notes/jottings
  • Teacher allows time to watch rehearsals but doesn’t intervene. Whole class feedback given after 5-10mins, providing corrective teaching on their rehearsal technique. This could involve a group modelling their approach

And so on… the lesson ends and the teacher has a good understanding of what each group needs to work on – the next step is for the teacher to communicate how they must do this, and this comes through the notes/instructions given out in each lesson.

If students aren’t guided by you, there is a high risk that the lesson won’t have a long-term impact on their learning.

Share how you guide student practice – tweet @United_Music1 with your ideas