Finding Balance, part 3: Teamwork

What do sports programs offer students that we music teachers usually do not?

A team.

One reason that students put music practice in last place among their daily assignments is that they see playing music as a solitary endeavor. Traditionally, this is true. A student practices and plays alone for many years before he is eligible to participate in an orchestra and start having some fun. Always being alone with an instrument can be demotivating for a child, however. He just doesn’t understand what all the practicing is for. What’s the remedy?


This is where we music teachers can slug it out with sports programs  – by making music into a “team sport” which offers the camaraderie and fellowship of teamwork that young people love, but doing performances instead of competitive games.

But aren’t there local school and regional orchestras that take care of this?

While it is true that these orchestras promote teamwork and are surely a good experience for your young musicians, you have no control over what the orchestra plays or what parts they give your students and as their teacher you may often find yourself helping them learn their orchestra parts instead of doing the work YOU think is necessary for their progress. This is okay if your students also practice what you assign them, but if you have time-challenged students, they’ll tend to give practice priority to those “team” assignments over whatever you give them to do.

So form your own team! In my case, putting a small orchestra together came about gradually. I had always offered group lessons, but soon realized that I had to find other ways to stimulate my students to practice. So I started giving my older students very attractive pieces involving solo work, such as various Vivaldi concertos for four violins and orchestra. They soon realized that if someone didn’t practice his part, EVERYONE would notice it, driving home the point that if you don’t do your part, the others cannot do theirs, and that if you don’t show up for rehearsal then the others can’t even rehearse. You can’t let your team down!

I also pick pieces that will bump their technical levels up a notch and sometimes I let them choose the pieces. Not long ago my students asked if we couldn’t do “Summer” (3rd movement) from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” which is all the rage in pop groups at the moment. Hmmm, I said. It turned out that even though I may eventually have to rustle up a soloist, these kids are so excited about playing this piece that they are willingly practicing all the scales in it. Even if we never play the piece in public it’s still of great value to them: they are having so much fun playing it in the group lesson that they are tackling its various technical problems and ARE LEARNING TO ENJOY SCALES. I have also assigned the solo parts of this particular piece to my more advanced students to get them to practice playing in higher positions without putting a gun to their heads (and so they finally understand why I always insist on those 5th position-and-up studies, scales and arpeggios). They’re having fun AND they’re practicing.

The trickle-down effect has the younger ones hearing all the various neat pieces the more advanced students play and deciding they had better learn to read music (some children resist), or use their wrists properly, or change positions correctly so they, too, can play them. I’ll admit that here I’m doing what’s good for my students, not necessarily what is good for Vivaldi. But he’s dead anyway – unless he’s up there somewhere listening. And even then, he above all would understand. Most people aren’t aware or forget that he wrote many of his concertos as teaching devices. A genius before his time (a sort of Italian Suzuki), he made learning to play the violin fun and 300 years later students still love his music so much they will practice it with enthusiasm.

I happen to have a pretty big class so forming a small orchestra is easy for me. If you have just a few students you can still get them to play together. There are lots of pieces that have harder and easier parts for different levels of expertise. I transcribe the viola parts of the concertos we play for my less advanced students, for example.

Yes, it’s time consuming and sometimes nerve-wracking but getting your students to work as a team is absolutely the best way I have found to lure them into doing what they don’t think they have time to do. And it’s also a lot of fun.

Next: One last thought. Really.


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20 May 2015

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