Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Strategies for Fighting Summer Learning Loss

Welcome to our new studio blog! I hope you'll find this a fun and effective way to stay informed about happenings in the studio. I'll also use this forum as a place to share articles of interest, photos from our studio events, and fun teaching tools.

For my first post, I'd like to talk a bit about an issue that's of interest to nearly all private music teachers, parents and students: Giving kids a break in the summer without losing all the musical gains they've made during the school year.

Let me start by saying that I would prefer *not* to take the summers off. I find that a little bit of scheduling in the summer goes a long way in keeping my personal sanity (and pocketbook) in the black. As a mom, I also understand that kids who work very hard and are very scheduled during the school year need and deserve some summer freedom. So where is the balance and how do we find it?

Learning loss is a big issue for public school teachers as well as private tutors and music teachers. After students have taken a whole summer off, we nearly always spend the first month to six weeks revisiting the concepts we studied last year, correcting bad technical habits formed through unsupervised playing, and just getting back into the swing of regular practice.

Here a few suggestions you might consider for giving kids a break while maintaining learning:

1) Reduce the number of lessons you take in the summer, but don't eliminate lessons altogether. Coming to lessons every other week or a few times throughout the summer will allow students some breathing room while maintaining some of the skills learned during the school year.

2) Consider taking fewer lessons of a longer duration. One hour-long lesson in June, July, and August allows us to focus on technical and theory skills that I might not have had time to work on during our regular time slot. This extra time is always well spent, and knowing your teacher expects you to have even a few fun pieces ready to play keeps the brain from going into vacation mode quite so thoroughly.

3) Maintain some kind of practice schedule, even if it is reduced. Of course kids should have time for fun in the summer, but if your kids are like mine, too much freedom is a little overwhelming. Just like math and reading skills, piano playing and music reading must be maintained. Plunking through some old pieces is probably not enough. Younger students in particular will lose note reading skills fairly quickly when not exercising them. Practicing with correct technique and hand position on new pieces is the only way to truly prevent skill loss.

4) Don't expect your student to learn five new or challenging pieces to play for me in the fall. Knowing how bright the kids in my studio are, many of them probably could learn the basics on this many pieces successfully. What most kids can't do is self-monitor details like counting, hand position, phrasing, and technique, and unmonitored learning can actually reinforce errors. It's much harder to unlearn sloppy hand position and technique than it is to teach them correctly in the first place.

If you absolutely can't work even a few lessons into your schedule, try to maintain a practice schedule that includes pieces the student knows well, a few sightreading pieces of their own level, and careful monitoring to prevent sloppy playing. Repetitive practice of old material can get boring (thus my encouragement to take a few lessons during the summer), but it's better than nothing at all.

In the long run, students who don't take summers off completely and use this extra time for fun, laid-back, and stress-free lessons lose less learning, advance instead of regress, and show less frustration when lessons begin in the fall. Everybody wins!

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