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Herriman Journal

Innovative practice curriculum hits all the right notes

Mar 30, 2023 02:08PM ● By Jet Burnham

Fort Herriman Middle School’s advanced orchestra at the 2023 UMEA State Junior High Orchestra Festival. (Amy Stutznegger/Fort Herriman Middle)

Traditional practice time logs aren’t in tune with students’ needs, say two music teachers who have orchestrated a shift in how students practice their instruments.

Meagan Thorup, the orchestra director at Mountain Ridge High School, and Amy Stutznegger, the orchestra director at Fort Herriman Middle School, like many music teachers, were struggling to get their students to practice their instruments at home. When they did assign practice logs, they realized it wasn’t an effective way for students to develop good practicing habits, playing skills or honesty, as many didn’t record minutes accurately.

“My students just weren't learning the practice strategies and the habits and the skills that you need to be able to practice and do well from what we were doing traditionally with the recording minutes,” Thorup said.

Thorup researched practice techniques and read books on how the brain develops habits and skills. She applied what she learned to the concepts music students need to master and created weekly practice assignments for an entire school year. She shared the curriculum with Stutznegger, who adapted it for beginning players.

Instead of just reporting how long they practice, their students focus their practice time on how to practice. One week they focus on setting up a practice space and a practice time, another week they practice with a metronome, or get familiar with scales.

“We go through the skill together as a class and talk about what they need to do,” Stutznegger said. “They try it for a week and then report back at the end of the week.”

“She really focuses on improving our playing, not how many hours we practiced,” ninth-grade viola player Ryker Cadigan said. “Miss Stutz really does want us to be better musicians, and I think that's why she does the practice logs like she does.”

Ninth-grade violinist Natalie Heywood said the assignments teach “the little techniques to help you be able to play better.”

Eighth-grader Conner Andersen, a cellist, said, “I thought I had good position, but then after I really reviewed it, I guess I have typical faults and flaws and stuff that I needed to fix.” 

In February, Thorup and Stutznegger presented their innovative curriculum at the Utah Music Educators Conference. Many music teachers have asked to use it with their students.

Thorup said part of what makes the curriculum so appealing is that students are learning life skills.

“This is what my students need to know to be successful at anything—it's not just about music,” she said. “It's about being successful in life, learning how to build a habit, no matter what that habit is, whether it's practicing every day or exercising or flossing your teeth.”

Cellist Gaige Dupaix, a ninth-grader, said the week that focused on time management and required him to stick to a set practice schedule was an eye-opener.

“It helped me schedule out my day better,” he said. “Things got done instead of me procrastinating.”

Ryker said the sight reading assignment helped him to have reasonable expectations when facing new situations.

“You don't need to beat yourself right off the bat if you're bad, because that's your first go—you're not going to be the greatest you can be on your first try,” he said.

Stutznegger is proud of her students’ progress and their dedication.

“It's hard to learn an instrument, so they're learning a lot of discipline and grit, like when things get hard to keep going and not quit,” she said. “And they learn a lot about working together—there's no one on the bench in music. They all have a part to play and they're all actively helping and making the ensemble what it is.”

Fort Herriman Middle School’s advanced orchestra was selected as one of 30 middle school orchestras to perform at the 2023 Utah Music Educators Conference State Junior High Orchestra Festival in March. They earned a Superior score, and the following week, earned another high score at the District Orchestra Festival.

Mountain Ridge High School orchestras usually qualify for State High School Festival every year and tend to receive Excellent and Superior scores. They are headed to Region Festival later this month where Thorup expects they will continue their tradition of earning high scores.



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