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Summer's finally here. Warm weather, vacations, summer camps, long days in the pool or at the beach… Who wants to practice their instrument?

For many Band and Orchestra Directors, the summertime is where their students stop practicing and lose some technical and reading skills that they have worked hard to attain. You can almost call it the “Summertime Blues.” But with these three tips, students' interest, enjoyment, technique and reading can be maintained and even improved. Share these with your students and Music parents so that they can experience a creative summer.

1. Learn Tunes by ear

“Whether we are an adult or a young child, the main reason we all take an instrument is to play music.”

Everyone has certain songs that they love and want to perform, whether for themselves or for friends and family. Once beginners learn how to play at least 5-6 notes with a good tone quality, good breath support and clear articulation on their instrument, they can play many simple folk songs, like Hot Cross Buns, Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridge, Oh Susanna, Go Tell Aunt Rhody, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Jingle Bells, My Dreydl, Ode to Joy, Yankee Doodle and America.  The best way to learn these tunes is to first sing them (try to do this without the lyrics so that you can focus on the notes) many times until they are so clear in your head you can sing them back at any time you want. (We call this audiating, a term created by Dr. Edwin Gordon.) Figure out the key the song is in, use a fingering chart (if necessary), and work through each phrase of the song by ear. After you have figured many songs by ear, find the music for them. Compare what you played by ear with what you are reading. (If you want firsthand experience learning songs this way, and learning how to read music with understanding, check out my Online Video Lessons.)

For intermediate level musicians, try learning the Star Spangled Banner, Happy Birthday, Amazing Grace, Auld Lang Syne, Greensleeves, Reveille (for trumpeters), Haydn's Surprise Symphony, William Tell Overture, Offenbach's Can Can, and Bach's Minuet (originally in G). See how much of these tunes you can figure out by ear. At this point, you are probably reading music, so find the sheet music in method books or song books and compare what you figured out by ear with what you see on the page.

For advanced and also intermediate musicians, learn some of your favorite popular tunes. Try to learn these by ear also, and then afterwards either buy a songbook  or download the sheet music on sites like Sheet Music Plus. Try to purchase songbooks with a CD so you have background music to play along with. (If you have an app like iReal Pro, you can input the chords and the style of the song so you have background tracks.)  Having a CD can also help you check your rhythm reading.

 2. Improvise – everyone can do it!

You don't have to call yourself a jazz musician to improvise; anyone on any instrument is capable of doing it. Centuries ago, classical musicians improvised all the time; those cadenzas you hear in our most challenging solos were improvised by these musicians. Once music became printed and distribution was easy, people stopped improvising and using the power of their ears to learn music and improvise.

For beginners: 

  • Start with your scales, in particular, your major scales. Take the 1st 3 notes and make up any rhythms you want. Change the order of the notes. You can just play 1 note with lots of different rhythms.
  • Add the next note in the scale (4 notes) and repeat the process.
  • Keep adding a note when you feel comfortable until you have played all the notes in the scale.
  • When you are comfortable with one scale (i.e. “C”), go to the next scale (i.e. “G”), until you have done this with all your major scales that you know.
  • This is a great way to learn your scales and have fun at the same time.
  • Use an app like iReal Pro to set up background music. (If you play trumpet and want to improvise on your C scale, type in Bb for the chord, and let it loop for 4 – 8 measures.

 For intermediate/advanced musicians:

    • The Jamey Aebersold series of Improvisation books contains every conceivable combination of chords and styles. For intermediate players, start with Volume 24: Major and Minor Scales, to work through your scales with cool background tracks.

    • The next book in Jamey's series to buy would be Volume 1;How to Improvise. There's a lot of material to read in this book; some of it may be very advanced. You can still play along with the tracks, and you also get some Blues forms to play over.

        • The Hal Leonard series of books also has some great tunes and play-a-longs. You can find jazz, Motown, Movie music, Classical pieces in a jazz style and even The Beatles in this series.

 3. Work on ear-training by playing songs

Ear-training can be boring, but it is a really crucial skill to have for playing all styles of music. Listen to the radio… Yes, I am dating myself. You can listen to Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, whatever works for you! Just put on a station, and play a long. Figure out the key, work out the bass line to help figure out the chords, figure out the melody, and then figure out the chord changes. Try to sing through each part you are working on to help you figure it out. This process will help you thoroughly learn a song.

At first, with any of these tips, it will feel very challenging and possibly frustrating. But if you stick with it and shoot for making at least 1% progress every day with whatever song you want to learn, or improvisation skill, you will see and hear the results in weeks. There are so many things available to us today that are easily accessible that I wish I had growing up.  Take advantage of them and most importantly, have fun!

Are there any tips you have used with your students that have helped them continue practicing over the summer?

Please share in the Comments below – I would love to hear them!

Action Steps:

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