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Practical practicing

Oct 05, 2017 03:33PM ● Published by Jet Burnham

The band has grown from 40 to 94 students in the last four years. The percussion ensembles have increased in size from just 12 to 50 members. (Jason Weimer/RHS)

Gallery: Music Department [1 Image] Click any image to expand.

The music department at Riverton High School has tripled in the last four years. Music teachers Max Meyer and Jason Weimer have fine tuned their program to harmonize with a teenager’s lifestyle. 

“We don’t require practice logs because most kids lie,” said Weimer. “Practicing shouldn’t be an awful chore if you like playing your instrument.”

Instead of assigning students practice minutes at home, the teachers ask students to practice just 30 minutes a week—at school. That’s six minutes a day or one 30-minute sitting any time after school, before school or during lunch. Weimer knows his students are busy so half an hour each week is achievable. And because the kids like the social aspect of practicing, he said usually six minutes turns into 15. He said kids will usually end up practicing more than the required 30 minutes once they get in the room. 

 “That has made a huge shift in the just the culture of practicing-—because kids are pretty bad at practicing,” said Weimer, who also said kids get distracted easily at home. “But if they’re in the room, we’re able to help them learn how to develop good practice habits and how to actually enjoy practicing.”

Amelia Van Komen, clarinet, oboe player and drum major, said she noticed improvement in the band’s performance just a month after the new practicing requirement was introduced.

 “It wasn’t necessarily that we were practicing more, we were just practicing more effectively,” she said. “It can be the minimum amount of time but maximum results.” 

Clarinet player Mekenna Jolley said Weimer’s practicing requirement works well for her.

 “He motivates us instead of making us,” she said. 

Weimer and Meyer also adapt to teen culture by asking them to take out their phones during class.

“We’re finding ways to make it easy for them to do what they’re supposed to,” said Weimer. “That’s made it really easy to take out what seemed like work, but they’re still doing essentially the same assignment.” 

For example, to analyze the group’s performance, students use their smartphones to access a poll created by the teacher. Answers are compiled instantaneously and then displayed on a classroom screen.

“We can quickly just dive into a conversation how everybody felt. and they can all see each other’s answers,” Weimer said.

Classes also listen to a piece of music for collaborative critical listening exercises using Google Classroom. Students post a comment to the group about the piece, and others respond with their perspectives. Students can continue the discussion, commenting and posting from their phones throughout the day.

Some assignments for the music theory class can be completed with game-based learning. Weimer said they try to create a fun environment for students.

“It feels like they’re not in school for an hour and a half,” he said. “We kind of trick them into learning, I guess.”

Assessments are easier to grade when technology is used, said Weimer. Students record themselves and upload the performance to be graded by the teacher. It’s much less intimidating than playing in front of the class, and they can record as many takes as they want before submitting their final version. 

“It’s another way to trick them into practicing,” said Weimer. “They will try again and again—50 times later, it’s perfect.”

Together, Weimer and Meyer are responsible for the two concert bands, two orchestras, two jazz bands, three percussion ensembles, symphony, marching band, color guard, guitar class and AP music theory classes.

Four years ago there were only 25 students in the orchestra; now there are 88. All ensembles have doubled, even quadrupled since Weimer began teaching in 2013. The music program continues to grow because RHS is one of the few high schools that allow beginners in their ensembles. They also reach out to middle school programs that feed into their school.

“We make a big deal about getting to know the kids before they enroll,” said Weimer. He organizes combined concerts so the middle school and high school groups are performing for and with each other.

“We’ve seen a huge jump in the numbers of students who continue playing after middle school,” Weimer said. 

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