3-Minute Practice Challenges

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Summer is here in its full glory in the Midwest! We’re still about a month out from school starting back up in Springfield and the temperature outside is almost unbearably hot. That should mean students will be more motivated to stay inside and practice, right? I wish. More realistically, students are busier than ever. Summer school, camps, vacations, and general fun tend to take over the summer schedule for most students. (Let’s not even get started on pre-season sports practices…) I cannot tell you how much I struggle with genuinely wanting my students to enjoy the summer months, but also wanting them to grow and improve over the summer in their studies.

So, what can we do as music instructors to keep students motivated and engaged throughout the summer months?

I present…Timed Practice Challenges! I’ve come up with a list of “challenges” students can incorporate into their daily routines that take anywhere from 3-10 minutes. These will help keep practice feeling fun, students shouldn’t have trouble fitting one or two of these into their busy schedules, and they aid in avoiding any lost progress when life gets hectic!

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First up: 3-Minute Practice Challenges! The following is a list of activities involving a three-minute time limit. These are aimed for students with very limited schedules, students who need a little boost during their regular practice, or students who need a kick-start when feeling unmotivated.

Flash Cards: This one is pretty basic, but definitely a good start in a time crunch. I ask most of my students to keep a supply of music flash cards (like these) at home. Simply set a timer for three minutes, and see how many cards the student can get through. Bonus: This activity can be done without a piano/keyboard present, making it perfect for traveling in the summer months!

Sight Read: This is another basic activity, but one that I’ve found is often neglected. Assign a page or two in a lesson book, a book from your studio library, or something in the public domain that can be printed for your student, and ask your student to spend three minutes each day sight reading. For students who aren’t fond of sight reading, it’s only three minutes. For students who enjoy it and/or are skilled at the task, it becomes a challenge of just how much or how well they can sight read in the time span. Benefit: students will become better sight readers through this activity, and it’s easy to track their progress by implementing the challenge into their lessons.

Note Hunt: This is especially great when learning new pieces. Choose a note–A, for example–and the student must locate each appearance of that note in the piece. Obviously, since this is a 3-Minute Challenge, they have three minutes to do. For shorter pieces, it may work better to see how many notes you can get through in the time, and for lengthier pieces it may work better to stick with one pitch. For more advanced students, you can vary this and have them search for different elements, like specific chords, scales, motifs, sequences, etc. Recommendation: point or circle with a pencil; I’ve had students show up to lessons with marker/highlighter all over their music after doing this activity at home and it was not so pretty.

Speed memorization: My studio is involved in an organization that holds a couple different adjudicated events in the fall. This means many students are working to learn and perfect pieces during the summer months. Often around the time that school starts back up there’s a bit of panic amongst students who did not meet their preparation/memorization goals and feel the time crunch. I’ve started encouraging some “speed memorization” during every practice session, and it has helped alleviate a lot of this anxiety! There are two routes for this challenge: pick a measure/line/section and memorize it in three minutes, or memorize as much as you can in general in three minutes. By doing this during each practice session, students are able to break up the memorization process and get the ball rolling even before the piece is “perfect.” Note: older/more advanced students will do very well with this on their own, but younger/beginner students may need more guidance before doing this on their own during practice.

Speed Listening/Response: Do students listen to classical music very often? How often do they mindfully listen to popular music? The majority of my studio doesn’t unless it’s an assignment or their repertoire requires studying various performances. This challenge is in hopes that they’ll open their ears and start listening more closely to music, and it’s another example of something that can be done without a piano nearby. Assign a piece, collection of pieces, or have the student choose something to listen to. Afterwards, set a timer for three minutes and have the student discuss everything they heard and experienced during the performance. My older students tend to keep separate listening notebooks and write down their thoughts in journal-entry format, and my younger students often draw pictures or have their parents record their thoughts. Sometimes students end up wanting more than three minutes to discuss their thoughts on the performance, and that’s great! Developing good ears is important for all musicians. Extra: try assigning contrasting music, music associated with particular holiday/composers, popular music, let the student choose, etc.

Transposition: This is for slightly more advanced students or students with good ears. Suggest a piece with which you know your student is comfortable, and give them three minutes to try and transpose it to another key. During the first lesson, the student will probably struggle under the time constraint; but after a week or two, they’ll feel more comfortable with the process and find that the time limit actually helps motivate creativity. Important: make sure your student understands transposition and that you’ve guided them through some exercises in this before throwing them into the challenge.

In an effort to avoid too lengthy of a post, I’m going to end my list of practice challenges there. There are many more that I use with students, and as I’m sure you can tell, when multiple challenges are used in a single practice session, it becomes easy to stay motivated and meet goals during the summer! Of course, feel free to use these throughout the year as well.

What are some ways you keep students motivated and accommodate busy schedules during the summer? I’d love to hear if you try any of these!

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Happy practicing!

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