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Do your students practice before school starts?

As we start to count down the number of days left in the school year (9 days of instruction left for me!), I’ve started to bring up Summer plans with my students. Many of them will not be taking lessons this summer, but most of them plan to practice to some extent.


Today I thought I’d give you the structure I use with my students to encourage them to have a relaxing summer, while also helping them think about how to get back to playing before they have to play in class or a lesson or Youth Symphony.


It’s OK to take time away from the oboe.

The very first thing I try to make clear to students is that they should take time away from the oboe. I want to normalize taking breaks in my studio, because I have experienced firsthand the physical and mental damage that occurs when the culture is to never take a break from playing. (I’m just now learning how to practice for fun rather than out of a sense of competition or guilt!)


I think it’s also essential to make it clear in our communications with student’s families that we expect students to take breaks from playing on occasion. A handful of my students have the “you must practice every day” mentality dictated to them by their parents. Practicing is important! But rest is also important, so I work on managing those parental expectations as much as I can on behalf of students. This year I’ve included Practice Tips in studio newsletters to help parents understand practice strategy, and last week’s practice tip was normalizing taking breaks from playing as long as the student makes a plan to start practicing again before their next lesson/rehearsal/band camp.


Make a plan to get back into playing shape

The key to taking a successful break from playing is knowing when you need to start playing again to get back into shape before the first time you have to play in public again. I consider lessons, in-school ensemble, music camp, or Youth Symphony all to be “public” playing. My guideline for students is that they should practice for a minimum of 4 days for 30 minutes each day before playing in public to make sure they have control over their dynamics and intonation again.


In private lessons, I look at a calendar with the student, and the student chooses when they want to start practicing again after their break. Then I have the student write down their plan in their lesson notebook. Many students also create calendar events with notifications that will remind them when they need to start practicing, and when they need to order new reeds.


Write down your plan

When making a plan to return to practicing, it’s really important to write down the plan. Something about writing a plan down helps with commitment. The plan feels more like a promise you’ve made to your future self.


Making and writing down the plan to return to practicing also gives students the permission they might need to not worry about the oboe for a certain amount of time. This way, they come back to practicing without the stress and guilt of neglecting their practice.


Since summer break routines are often quite different from the rest of the year, it can be a challenge for families to remember to order new reeds in time for the beginning of the school year (or camp, or lessons). I recommend students collaborate with their parents to set some calendar events or reminders so that at least one of them will see the reminder and order new reeds before the reeds are needed. We can support families with reed-purchase reminder emails a week or two before the first day of lessons or class.


Reed Strategy matters when taking a break

If we’ve taken a week or more away from the oboe, our embouchures are going to be weak, and our ability to use the ideal embouchure will be diminished for a while. The worst thing you can do is play on a reed that’s too hard when you’re getting back in shape! This will encourage bad embouchure and bad air support habits.


Instead, I recommend that students start playing on old, mostly dead reeds for the first 4-6 days of practicing. Then, they can start breaking in a new reed and cycle the older reeds out of their box. It’s really important to have a range of hardness options immediately after taking a break from playing, so students should be sure to save some mostly-dead reeds to play on after they’ve taken a break from playing.


Expect the best, plan for the rest

As teachers know, the best plans often go unfollowed. Not all students are going to continue to practice over break or remember to start practicing again before their first lesson or class or rehearsal. So the last step is for teachers to plan easier lessons at the beginning of the year and hope to be surprised by students who come back to lessons/class/rehearsal prepared and ready to learn.


Do you talk about practicing over the summer with your students? What strategies do you find work best?


Until next time,

Alli

 

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