Do you have weak or average students? Do you struggle when motivating these students to practice?

In this week’s blog you can read how Cadenza, a free online notebook, transformed the practising habits of weak and average students by reading teacher accounts.

We’re delighted that Professor Rena Upitis has written a 3-part blog series for us on the topic of ‘Motivating Students to Practise’. A Professor of Education at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario), Rena is also the Principal Investigator for the research and development of a project called Transforming Music Education with Digital Tools.

Rena writes

In Part 2 of this blog series [click here to read Part 2] I shared what our research team learned about the effectiveness of Cadenza an online notebook in helping to motivate several different types of students to practise.

Perhaps the most interesting student profile is that of the student who is progressing minimally or not at all, and for whom Cadenza is nothing short of transformative. Each of the three teachers in our study told us they experienced exciting transformations with several of their students who had struggled before using the digital tool.

They said that Cadenza’s ability to facilitate communication between lessons was an essential feature for these students, and also, that by logging practices, the students themselves could see week-to-week improvements in their habits. The structuring of tasks through the checklists also helped these students understand what was expected of them between lessons. As one teacher noted, in some cases it wasn’t that the students were unwilling to practise – it was simply that they could not remember the details that were discussed and demonstrated through the lessons.

Emma described the following transformation in a twelve-year-old student:

“My second student whom I tried Cadenza with (aged 12, Grade 4 piano) was a transfer student. It was taking us a while to jive together, as I needed to determine her strengths and weaknesses and she had little patience during the lessons. She was often interruptive and distracted in the early days, with very little progress from week to week. I thought I had been as creative as I possibly could during the lessons and in strategies for her to practise, but somehow nothing seemed to work. I was willing to try anything and Cadenza was the answer. Within 2 weeks I had noticed a huge improvement. With Cadenza, I was able to encourage her in areas that need improvement, including sight-reading, self-criticism and the ability to ‘drill’ specific parts of pieces. She was incredibly fast with the technological side of things, and once she realized how many cool features Cadenza had (recording, reward system, commenting), she was off to the races with her practising. A big motivator in the beginning as well was that I had a window into her weekly practice time and she could now be held accountable between each lesson. Without Cadenza, I am certain she would not have passed her Grade 4 exam and/or I may have lost her as a student.”

Like Emma, Jackie related that accountability and consistency were important in a student who improved significantly with Cadenza:

“One 9-year-old student, in the very beginning stages, was making slow progress. Since starting to use Cadenza, she has gained confidence, and she is seeing progress, therefore progressing more! The consistency in practice habits has increased. I believe knowing that I am on the other end has made a big difference for this student for accountability as well as support.”

Jane also reported extraordinary progress with a very young student, five years of age, who used Cadenza with the help of her mother. As with Emma’s student described above, this young musician was a transfer student:

“She is definitely benefiting from Cadenza, improving her tense, mechanical technique since I started capturing and annotating, “Good! Play THIS way every time!” moments from her lessons, using the media annotator, so she and mum could reference them at home. She came to me a classic mechanically proficient note reader and after a few months of unhelpful in-lesson correction/demonstration, I recently started using the video capture feature and WOW, it’s made a big difference in only a couple of weeks!”

The most powerful example of a transformation in a student was reported by Jackie, again with a relatively young student. In describing the transformation, Jackie noted that without Cadenza, she herself would not have been able to “look back and see our progress so that I can apply the successful strategies for this student in our next big musical hurdle.” Nor, as she pointed out, would she be able to relate the progress without the documentation that Cadenza could provide. In other words, while archiving strategies and progress can be helpful for students, so too can teachers benefit from a running record of the strategies that have been employed and the progress that has been made.

Jackie described the student’s growth in this way:

“One of my little Cadenza users has been struggling with the first movement of the Clementi Sonatina in C+ for months. We began in September, but nothing seemed to be “clicking.” By February, we were still struggling with hands together playing in any line except the first. I gave checklists of painstakingly slow hands together/hands separate work line by line, in scrambled order, in reverse order, smaller parts, passage work. I demonstrated, I sent recordings home. Progress was minimal, if not sometimes backwards!

Enter the Cadenza Media Annotator. In February and through March, I started asking for mid-week videos of any line of her choice, so that I could give input, but also for her to see and hear the improvements, no matter how small. By April there was some progress, and I felt that this was actually going to be possible. We continued with videos and really focused on the recapitulation so that it would be a magnet to draw the other parts forward. Although the performance still had significant bumps, hesitations, memory stutters, rhythm issues, etc., she had the piece memorized and was playing it through. But by the beginning of May, I was concerned that she wouldn’t be ready for her June exam. I like my students to have exam pieces for June ready no later than March.

Now, here’s the important moment: for May, I didn’t make up the checklist of what to do. She dictated what needed to be done – I was just the secretary. I found that she used Cadenza without necessarily clicking “start practice.” The targets weren’t important anymore. The results were. She had created the checklist and so took the responsibility to get the job done and wasn’t aimlessly playing it from start to finish with little to no results. She played it for me yesterday. Start to finish – musically, confidently, like she had climbed Mount Everest! I could care less how it goes in the exam. What a great accomplishment in self-regulation. So proud of this girl!”

The teacher’s summary of the student’s progress is about much more than learning a piece of repertoire that the student found challenging. The real accomplishment – as recognized and named by the teacher herself – was that the student learned to self-regulate. Interestingly, her use of Cadenza also changed as she became more fully self-regulating as a musician. And this, in fact, is the overall aim: that students fall in love with learning to play music, not that they fall in love with a digital tool. The tool is only the means to the end.

Cadenza helped motivate a wide range of students, of varying ages and abilities, to practise between lessons. But without dedicated teachers and parents supporting student learning, digital tools are likely to have limited success. After all, it is not the tools that do the teaching – it is ultimately the teachers who help guide students to become self-regulating musicians, with the support of a home environment where music is valued and parents are willing to help their children succeed as musicians.

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