As I continually seek to challenge students, it is sometimes the easiest statements and questions that can be the most challenging and produce the best results. With practicing at home (and even in lessons at time) playing music can becomes more about a run out the clock situation than a learning experience: "Did I put in my 20 minutes of practice yet?" And we, as educators, are mostly to blame. For so long we have made how much time a student practices the standard of excellence in our lessons because, in our minds, practice equals dedication and learning. Practice makes you get better. But, what if it doesn't?

I've been seeing more and more students lately that I am fairly confident are practicing, but there is almost nothing to show for it. Is it possible to practice for two hours in a week and get nothing done? Absolutely. And students seem really surprised by it. 

So, I've been making a real attempt this semester at more of a goal and performance based concept to practicing. My focus is on what the student got done over the week instead of how much time they spent with the instrument. To be honest, I don't care if the student spent 10 minutes or 10 hours in practice. As long as they are meeting (and possibly exceeding) the goals set before them, I'm thrilled!

So, what does this look like? There are lots of different methods out there that I've tried including the Level System, but I think it comes down to a few things:

1) Teachers need to be ABSOLUTELY clear about what is expected and how the students will know that they have achieved the goal

I spent years saying things like, "Practice page 2" or "Make sure that the chorus section sounds better next week". Those goals are not measurable. I've been making a concerted effort to give measurable goals: "Be able to play page 2 with a metronome at 80 bpm next week. You are ready to play it for me when you can play it three times in a row without error at home." There is no wiggle room there. When the student comes in the next week they are either ready to play it for me as assigned or they aren't. The expectation is clear. 

2) Active Practice vs. Passive Practice

I've begun talking to students about this recently as we prepare for our recital next month. Active Practice involves being actively involved in what you are doing. The student is not watching TV, daydreaming, watching the clock, or mindlessly playing. Passive Practice happens when students are not fully engaged in their practice. Their mind wanders or they are focussed on something else. Ever spend time reading a book only to stop and realize that you've gone through a few pages but have no idea what you've just read? That's passive. I think that most students are very passive about their practice times and don't really get much accomplished. Just knowing this and making an attempt to be actively engaged in your practice can make a big difference. 

3) Two Life Changing Questions: Am I a better musician (insert guitarist, drummer, pianist here) than when I picked up my instrument? In what specific way am I better?

The goal of practice is to be better at something. I am astounded at how little that students can accomplish even when putting in hours of practice. Most seem dumbfounded that they are supposed to accomplish anything at all. These two questions will change the way that you practice. 

There should be measurable goals that were accomplished during your practice session and you should be able to name them. If you cannot pinpoint any specific area that is better than when you started, then you have just wasted time! There is no point in practicing if you aren't actively getting better at something. Here are a few examples of measurable goals: memorized a section, played section with metronome, played section without error, improved a specific technique, maintenance of a  previously perfected section. This is definitely not an all inclusive list, but you should be able to point to a few specific things about your musicianship that is better than if you had chosen not to pick up your instrument that day. 


1. Remove distractions from the Practice Zone. 

2. At any time during your child's practice, ask them to tell you specifically what they are working on and what goal they are trying to accomplish. 

3. At the end of their practice, ask them what they accomplished today and what they hope to accomplish before their next lesson. 

Simply being involved and asking questions can make all the difference. 

As a person who has been involved in music from a very young age, it was always so important to me to have music be in life for the rest of my life. I decided in 7th grade (about 14 years ago) that I wanted to be a band director when I grew up. Now, I know pretty much everyone reading this blog are either drummers or guitarists, but I promise this'll be worth your while. Honestly, this wasn't a very tough decision because I knew at that young of an age that I wasn't really very good at anything else. Playing trombone came naturally to me. I had just enough talent to get me by when I started. 

        That was my problem...

"Just enough talent" got me by, but the older I got the lower on the totem poll I went. I relied on talent, and not work ethic. I was told in 8th grade that I would be a Texas All-State musician... so I relied on that, and never actually worked to get there. Now that I've been teaching middle school, high school, and a little bit of elementary band for over 3 years now, I'm discovering that this is like a plague across our nation in our kids. Too many kids give up on something they once liked because they discover they have to work at it to be good at it. This year was a little bit of a disappointment during our summer marching band camp because a large portion of my middle school kids quit band before the high school year even started, all because they were lazy and didn't want to wake up in the early morning, or because the marching didn't come naturally to them in the beginning. Some of those students had potential to be GREAT musicians. This is happening more and more each year. 

If you love playing drums, or guitar, uke, or whatever it may be (maybe even playing football or public speaking), it's not always going to be easy, but the greatest reward in life is when you reach the end of that long tiring race. Ask Shane about his first race, I'm sure training wasn't easy, but the feeling when it was over was SO worth it! You're going to have fills or licks you want but can't play yet, or a gig you really hope to get, but if you push passed the hump and "just keep swimming", you will feel an unbelievable sense of accomplishment. I marched with the Bluecoats (Drum Corps International) for 3 summers, and those were the hardest summers of my life, and cost a LOT of money, but the feeling after that finals performance at World Championships and hearing the crowd yell "Bloooooo!!" (not to mention that each year I marched, our placement went up), was THE best feeling I've ever had as a musician.         

To bring this blog to an end, I want to just reinforce the idea that if you really love what you're doing, no matter what it is, or even if you're just getting started and you're not sure yet - KEEP TRYING. Keep practicing, keep working hard, and I promise you'll reap the benefits, and I promise in the tough times it will get fun again. And also remember, as another blogger said, it's not always about being the best at what you do... being good may get you A gig, but being a good and reliable person will help you KEEP gigs. Keep practicing, and when the going get tough, just keep swimming.



Cassie Hammond is my wife's cousin and was the proud owner of the only faux hawk that I have ever been truly jealous of. She is currently the band director at J.M. Hanks High School and Desert View Middle School in El Paso, TX.  Cassie has a degree in music education from UTEP and plays bass and drums in various praise bands in addition to her career as an educator and trombonist. I am thrilled to have Cassie on board as a guest blogger at stickandstrum and look forward to her insight and musings on the current music scene. If you have any questions or comments for Cassie, leave them below!

The impact that Guitar Hero and Rock Band has had on our current musical state is undeniable. When I first started teaching guitar, I was saddened by the songs that most students wanted to learn. Most of it was whatever bland, pop artist was currently on the radio or rap. There's just not much that a guitar teacher can do within those genres. Enter Guitar Hero. All of a sudden my students want to learn AC/DC, Ozzy,  and Boston. Excellent! Now I've got something to work with. Guitar Hero and Rock Band have introduced the current generation to a lot of artists that they would probably have never heard, but will it make you a great guitarist or drummer?

First, lets separate the two and talk about guitar. Sadly, even if you can rock it out on expert on the latest guitar hero, it probably won't help you out very much in the real guitar world. Pushing buttons just isn't the same as having to learn to press down strings. But there are some benefits. It will help you with dual hand coordination. Translation: It may be easier for you to fret a note with your left hand and pick a note with your right hand if you've had some Guitar Hero experience. Depending on the song and your right hand technique (all downstrokes or moving the controller down and up) it may even help with developing more solid rhythm or alternate/sweep picking. So, if I had to rate Guitar Hero's ability to prepare you for the world of actual guitar I would give it about a 3/10, only slightly higher than air guitar.

Now we come to drums. Caveat: I must first admit that I have only had limited experience playing with the drums on Rock Band and haven't had the opportunity to try it on Guitar Hero. That being said, I think that drums on Guitar Hero/Rock band are an adequate preparatory tool for learning drum set. You get the feel of holding sticks and playing with multiple limbs (both hands and your right foot) and it definitely helps with developing a solid rhythmic foundation. While playing drums on Rock Band I had to stop midway through the song and refocus because I caught myself jamming along to the song and playing parts that may not have necessarily been flashing on the screen. The Rock Band drum parts are a very decent replication of what it would feel like to actually play drums. It also gives a feel for staying in a consistent tempo (speed) instead of randomly beating drums in whatever tempo the aspiring drummer may choose. Now for the negative. Although Guitar Hero/Rock Band is a great way to get a feel for drums, it is almost inevitable that bad technique will form that will later have to be broken. Live drums feel and sound different then rubber pads (and are positioned differently), so this will take some adjustment. There is also no Guitar Hero/Rockband provision for your hihat (left foot) technique. But more important is stick grip and hand technique. The "caveman approach" to drumming (manhandling the stick like a club) that Guitar Hero/Rock Band often causes is quite different from the grips and finesse used in modern drumming. To be fair, most students begin drums with this caveman grip whether they have played Guitar Hero/Rock Band or not. Guitar Hero/Rock Band only strengthens a bad technique through repeated exposure. So, if I had to rate Guitar Hero's ability to prepare you for the world of actual drumming I would give it about a 7/10, a noticeable improvement from banging on mom's pots and pans in the kitchen.

It is almost funny to me how many beginner students I have that brag about the level that they can play on Guitar Hero/Rock Band and assume that they will immediately be able to transfer that over to the actual instrument. I think that speaks to our instant gratification culture, but I'll save that for a later blog. 

In closing, here are two guys jamming out to arguably the most difficult song on Guitar Hero. Could these guys play this on real instruments? Not sure, but i'm impressed at their video game virtuosity:
Practice. We all have to do it and none of us does it as well as we should. I've been rethinking practice lately and here's a few simple thoughts that I'll expound on in a later blog..

1) Have Goals. If you don't have specific and measurable goals in your practice you are setting yourself up for failure and/or mediocrity. They don't need to be elaborate. Here's a few examples: "I want to be able to play through the entire song without stopping or having to look at my hands", "I want to play through this song at 80bpm", "I want to play all notes correctly", etc.

2) Work on different aspects of your playing. Once you are past the beginner level start to identify different aspects of you're playing that you want to improve on and alternate practices with these. For example, if you are a guitarist working on the lesson book and chords: Divide your time between both! This seems like a simple enough concept but many musicians (myself included!) seem to have tunnel vision when it comes to practice. It's good to work on single aspects of your playing to gain mastery, but make sure that you're not ignoring other parts.

More later...