by: Donna Schwartz
For many students and their families, Holiday breaks mean a break from everything school-related, even music practice. Some take a break because they want to get away from the stress of learning pieces for school. Others take a break because they feel like they have nothing to play. There’s no Band music to work on, so there’s nothing to practice. And some want to practice over the break, but either don’t know what to practice or how to work on a piece because they have relied on their Band teacher to tell them how a song sounds.
If your students play a brass or woodwind instrument, which requires training and developing the fine muscles of the face (embouchure), taking too long of a break can make them fall behind and resort to playing with bad technique to compensate for the time off. Some type of consistent practice over a break benefits all students, and here’s how you can inspire them to want to pull out their instrument during the Holiday break.
(Some of your students take extended vacations during school breaks. Over the many years that I have been teaching, this was common for many of my students. There are quick exercises these students can perform that will keep them in shape and not take up much time.)
Is it bad to take a break from playing an instrument?
Since we are dealing with developing muscles of the embouchure (or forearm, shoulder and other muscles for other instruments), an occasional day or two off here and there is not a bad idea as muscles do need rest to recover and build strength.
Too much rest, especially for Brass and Flute musicians can mean a loss of tone quality and range. This can make the student feel frustrated as they try to pick up where they left off before vacation. Many students do not realize that they need to slowly and carefully get back in shape and pushing the limits of the muscles too quickly after a long hiatus can create bad habits.
Here are two exercises these students can do that will keep their embouchure in shape if they are not able to practice for more than 5 consecutive days.
1. Simply holding an “Mmmmm” position (no vocal cords) with the lips for an extended period of time (30 seconds, gradually increasing to a few minutes) will help strengthen the embouchure. (It’s also great for keeping them quiet!)
2. “Oooo-Eeee” exercise: Slowly moving the lips from an extreme “Oooo” position (with the mouth corners touching the teeth) to an “Eeee” position over 10 seconds and repeating as many times as possible in one setting will also build embouchure strength.
For those students playing percussion or string instruments, daily stretching of the shoulders, neck, wrists, forearms and legs will help keep those areas nimble during a break.
Five Ideas to Inspire Students to Practice Over the Break
These ideas will not only keep students in shape physically, but also build creativity and musicianship, and therefore improve their overall performance and motivation.
Explore a new genre
Most students play Classical music in schools. Why not expose them to popular music or Jazz? Most people want to learn an instrument because they want to play their favorite songs. Find out what songs are popular with your students and either find the sheet music on MusicArts.com or write out a simpler version of the melody for them to learn.
Learn songs by ear
Using the above idea, take those melodies and teach your students how to learn to play them by ear. If you show them the process and have them transfer their learning to more tunes, they will learn an invaluable skill that will inspire them to want to practice more.
When I was growing up, I would dedicate my Saturdays to a quick warm-up and all sight-reading. Not only did it make me a great reader, it also kept me interested and if it didn’t sound right I had the simple excuse, “I was sight-reading!” There are many books devoted to just sight-reading; I used jazz sight-reading books to improve my rhythmic reading and swing feel. You can find many selections on the Music and Arts website.
Perform Holiday songs in public
Aside from performing Holiday songs for family and friends, encourage students to perform for those less fortunate. Program a mini-recital at an assisted living facility or nursing home. Perform for other children at a children’s hospital. Perform at a community event or at the library. There are many opportunities here that will motivate students and help them also work on their performance skills.
Improvise using songs and scales you already know
Many people think improvising is a secret art that only a few know how to do. If you can create a conversation with someone (which is what we do all the time), you can improvise on an instrument. There are no secret notes to play; just use the material that you know.
Most students know at least one major scale. They can get Jamey Aebersold’s Volume 24 book of Major and Minor scales and have background music to create their own rhythms and ideas. Take 1 note at a time and create your own rhythms; add a note when you are ready to do so. Just doing this one idea can open up a whole new world for students and motivate them to practice more.
Holidays don’t necessarily have to mean a break from music practice. Students can explore other genres, work on other pieces, learn songs by ear, sight-read, perform in their communities or improvise to change up their routine. This simple change in routine could be the spark to ignite your students’ interest in practicing and performing on a more consistent basis.
Donna Schwartz has been playing trumpet for almost 40 years, and saxophones for more than 25. She has performed on many large stages and theaters in the NY and Los Angeles metro areas.
Donna has taught thousands of Brass and Saxophone students all over the world, with great success. Her website, DonnaSchwartzMusic.com, provides practical tips and solutions for musicians wanting to improve their musical performance.