Talent Doesn’t Grow on Trees . . . It Grows in Orchestra!

Motivating and Inspiring Students to Practice Using Fun and Creativity

By Angela Harman

If you had a tree in your classroom that represented student practice, and you were allowed to water it only when your students practiced at home, would your tree survive?

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I actually bought a small plant for my classroom, and I told my students that it was our “practicing plant.” Our job was to keep it alive—just as we want to keep their talents alive by nurturing ability through careful practice. For every student that practiced, I watered our plant with just a ½ teaspoon of water. There were a few days where our plant received only a couple of drops of water, and it was sad to see the soil become dry, and the leaves begin to wilt. Students got the message—if they didn’t practice, their progress would stagnate and could even fade.

Wake-Up Call

A few years ago, I received a phone call from a parent of a boy who was transferring to my school. He was taking beginning orchestra at his previous school, but was not enjoying the experience because of the practice card requirement. Student grades in that class were heavily weighted with weekly timed practice cards where students were required to practice 30 minutes every day from the method book. I told the parent that I did not require practice cards, and I never base grades on practice minutes, so the student decided to take my class.

Thankfully, this student stuck with it and I was so pleased to help him LOVE orchestra. In fact, every single day after school, this student would walk through my classroom just to say, “Mrs. Harman, you’re still my favorite teacher.” I was feeling pretty proud of myself. After all, I did take a student who was burnt out and ready to quit, and I inspired him to love music.




My bubble eventually burst one day at the end of the school year. As we were cleaning out instrument lockers and getting ready for summer break, this student came to me and said, “I never practiced once for this class!” He seemed pleased with himself, but my heart sank. My student had done pretty well, but what if he had practiced? What about the potential development this student missed from his lack of effort? He was pretty good, but he could have been great. His comment drove me to reflect on my expectations and standards for my students.

I want my students to know that they are filled to the brim with talent and potential—they only have to tap into their ability through diligent focus and effort. I hope to instill in my students the idea that anything is possible. They can work to achieve anything they desire, and success is always worth the effort. Their talents can grow steadily when they are regularly nourished.

Three Strategies to Motivate Students to Practice

After much thought and research, I still do not believe in a regimen of timed practice cards. There are many reasons why I avoid time-cards, but mostly because total minutes don’t tell me anything about home practice except how long it was endured. Instead, I choose to inspire my students to practice, and I believe in goal-driven or progress-based practice assignments.

Here are three strategies you can implement to motivate students to practice without using practice cards:

  1. To motivate students, establish an expectation of excellence. This expectation is internalized by students through the use of class themes, mini-lessons about practice, and your own belief in your student’s abilities.
  2. To motivate students, they must sense progress. Students must feel that their practice is beneficial and worth their sacrifice. They can be given assignments that track their progress to help them recognize growth in their competence.
  3. To motivate students, make it fun! There are many ways to keep practicing fun. You may hold contests or competitions, or you might offer a small reward for diligent practice.

All students naturally want to be successful, and they want to play well. With proper care, they can be motivated to practice without having to track practice minutes.

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Discover more resources and teaching tips on my blog: http://orchestrateacher.blogspot.com/

Website: www.orchestraclassroom.com

Follow me on Twitter: @teachorchestra

About the author:

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Angela Harman teaches orchestra at Spanish Fork Junior High in Spanish Fork, UT. Since starting in 2012, she has helped the orchestra program at the school grow by 341%. Angela is passionate about music education and is the founder of www.orchestraclassroom.com, where she posts ideas and methods that she uses in her classroom. Her recent books, Be an Amazing Note-Reader and The True Beginning: Before the Method Book have sold many copies worldwide through her website. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in K-12 Instrumental Education from Brigham Young University and completed Suzuki teacher training. Angela enjoys baking, eating sweets, and caring for her husband and five children.

Angela Harman will be presenting on this topic (Monday, October 26, at 11:30AM) and “No More Beginners Blues: Tips for making your beginning orchestra class irresistibly fun while still focusing on good pedagogy” (Tuesday, October 27, at 2:30PM) at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this month in Nashville, TN! Register today!


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Join us for more than 300 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, a wild time at the Give a Note Extravaganza, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/Nafville2015. And follow the hashtag #Nafville2015!

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Catherina Hurlburt, Communications Manager, October 21, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)