In an exclusive interview with Musicroom, author of the critically acclaimed book How to Practise Music Andrew Eales highlights strategies to get pupils engaged, inspired, and active in music over the summer holidays.
The “summer slump” has been a well-trodden area of educational research for over a decade, with considerable evidence citing the need for proportional study during the summer holidays. And in recent times, pupils and parents have become accustomed to schoolwork being set over the summer months, with a view to ensuring that progress over the previous academic year is not lost. But whilst this may be commonplace in the classroom, the picture for music practice is more patchy. There is less data certainly, but anecdotally instrumental teachers tell similar stories of the “summer slump,” with pupils needing to spend the first few weeks of the autumn term getting back up to speed.
What’s the Problem?
Andrew Eales (“A”): When I first started out as a peripatetic teacher for a local authority visiting various schools, meaningful lessons could start coming to an end as early as mid-May. Things would potter along through June and into early July but often with the proviso that I might well turn up to a school and find that all the kids had gone to France. And, of course, the second half of the summer term sees a gradual wind down in any case, with public examinations at primary and secondary changing not only the timetable but the whole tempo of learning at schools. So, you’d have this fairly lengthy slowing down followed by the definitive break of the summer holidays.
Musicroom (“M”): How did this seem to impact on the following autumn term?
A: Well, you’d spent nine months or so teaching someone and then they’d effectively had three months off, one way or another. So, once you’d got back into the swing of things around mid-September, you would often find that of those nine months of progress, maybe four had been lost. And this was always a real frustration, of course. In my private practice, I made a conscious choice to set myself up to still teach over the summer. The advantage being that this loss was largely avoided. But I was able to do so because of my personal circumstances and because I taught a number of adults, who had different needs from school children.
M: Does this seem to be a shared frustration amongst instrumental and vocal teachers?
A: On piano forums such as the Piano Network UK Group, I have certainly seen teachers expressing a frustration during the autumn months at this loss of previously acquired knowledge, skill, or confidence. And also a concern around June and July about what pupils will be doing over the summer. There may be less research but I do believe there is significant evidence to support the notion that what we know happens in the classroom also applies to music practice, and that quite a lot of progress is lost over the summer holidays. Unless certain steps are taken to support children in their music-making during this period.
A: I perceive my own teaching model in relation to the three dimensions of musical learning: the musical mind; the musical body; and the musical soul. When it comes to the musical mind, where we are talking about cognitive learning–memory and connections–you are bound to experience a loss in the same way as you would in any other subject area. A music pupil learns those concepts in a kinaesthetic, practical context, as part of what we might call the musical body, and those physical skills–instinct, responsiveness, touch–do degrade when they are not used.
M: How do you see this loss of skill manifest in pupils?
A: Well, for some pianists you can see this in precision, first of all. Then, elements that were previously committed to memory such as fingering in scales. This latter point is a really great example generally of those early autumn-term frustrations because pupils will spend the first few weeks re-learning all of that, but then it’ll snap back into place.
M: Given that we are talking about temporary regression rather than permanent loss, does the “summer slump” impact certain groups of learners more than others?
A: The longer you embed kinaesthetic learning in the musical body, the greater resilience you have to fallow periods. So, I would say that this summer loss impacts particularly on beginners, elementary through to intermediate players. Regarding the “musical soul,” elements such as aural skills and creativity, I’m not convinced those are areas that are vulnerable to the same type of loss. But the communication of that creativity through musical performance can of course be compromised as the mind and body suffer.
Solutions to Keep Them Playing
A: A golden thread in my book How to Practise Music is the importance of “play” in a musician’s development. If we want to engage players in play as well as learners in learning, then we need to stimulate their creativity. There are a number of ways we can do this for the summer months. For example, I’ve spent many years promoting the concept of “active repertoire.” Having a conversation with a student before the summer and setting three of four pieces they can just play each day is a great way to begin engaging them in summer creativity. This might catalyse other ideas for “play” over the summer. For example, composition and improvisation. If a student can return in the autumn able to play a piece they have composed through improvising at their instrument, that would demonstrate a wonderful engagement of the three dimensions of musical learning: musical mind, body, and soul.
M: So, in other words, we’re exploiting the connotations of the summer months–freedom, creativity, enjoyment–and making music a part of that.
A: As teachers, we should be challenging weaknesses and gaps in knowledge or skill. But we must always be leveraging strengths in the way we do that. So, if someone has particular technical problems but is very strong creatively, let’s do something creative that addresses the technique. If they struggle with music reading, let’s do some music reading within a creative context. The summer months are a good opportunity for leveraging creativity to keep your students playing.
M: And do we need to always be at the instrument?
A: Not necessarily. There are child-friendly books on music history and fun theory-related books that can help to engage the musical mind. And listening! Children love to listen to music; let’s engage here, too. It’s important to consider the learner that might be spending extended periods of the summer relocating, perhaps living elsewhere with relatives whilst parents or carers are working. They may not have access to their instrument and these forms of engagement are very useful here.
Breaks Are Important
M: In your book How to Practise Music, you are keen to stress the importance of rest in the learning process. So, it’s important in this conversation that we aren’t demonising the idea of having a break, would you say?
A: There’s that wonderful and often-cited piece of research where a group of musicians were asked to play a piece of music, which was recorded. Then, they were given a meal, sent to bed, and asked to record it again in the morning. And they’d all improved whilst they slept! People need to get away from the “10,000 hours” theory that has somehow managed to engrain its way into popular understanding of music practice. Because the research now suggests that deliberate practice is just one piece in a bigger jigsaw. That’s not to devalue practice, of course. But the book is called “how” to practise, not “how much.” Rest is an important part of the learning process, a process that should be imaginative, creative, varied, refreshing, and playful.
M: Yes, this emphasis on diversity is perhaps the standout message from How to Practise Music. It seems in some ways that the summer is not only a good opportunity but an ideal context for this.
A: Balance in practice is so important. There are lots of things that teachers can set students up with over the summer that will keep their music developing in a fun way and that fits with the fact that they are actually in a different season of their learning because they don’t have a teacher. As teachers, we can inspire that creativity by generating learning ideas for the summer based on our understanding of our pupils’ personalities, circumstances, and needs. In this way, the summer need not be a musical desert, but an exciting season of creative musical development.
Conclusion: How to Keep Practising Over the Summer
- Encourage a playful and varied routine of practice
- Implement special projects and “active repertoire” to stimulate creativity
- Engage in musical activities away from playing your instrument
- Take breaks and enjoy the Summer!
About Andrew Eales
One of the UK’s most influential piano educationalists, Andrew Eales is based in Milton Keynes, where he runs a successful piano-teaching studio. He is a published composer and author, and his compositions and recordings have been streamed well over a million times worldwide. Andrew has worked as a consultant for several leading educational organisations and examination boards. He has trained and worked alongside teachers across the UK, North America, and Africa. His video feedback service now provides affordable, expert support for piano players the world over.
Described by Strad Magazine as, “full of golden advice… a great source of wisdom,” Andrew’s book How to Practise Music is published by Hal Leonard, and he has compiled Graded Gillock and Naoko Ikeda: The Graded Collection for The Willis Music Company. Andrew is renowned for his piano education website pianodao.com, which includes hundreds of free articles and reviews to support piano players and teachers worldwide.
Andrew Eales: How to Practise Music
“Full of golden advice…a great source of wisdom.” – Strad Magazine. The essential, pocket-sized companion for every musician. Accessible and authoritative, How to Practise Music is an ideal guide for anyone learning to play music. Suitable for instrumentalists and vocalists of any genre, this comprehensive handbook will give you a better idea of how to practise music, good reasons for doing so, and the confidence to succeed.
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