Teachers' views of effective practice in the instrumental ensemble

Steven M. Demorest & Brian N. Weidner


National Association for Music Education Research and Music Education Conference

Atlanta, GA

March 19, 2016


Illinois Music Education Conference

Peoria, IL

January 29, 2016


Effective practice is a critical skill for developing musicianship.  Past research provides an extensive foundation for what are effective versus ineffective practice strategies.  The ensemble classroom serves as a primary location for fostering the development of these skills, and the teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding independent practice may dictate how practice strategies are presented to students.  Understanding the teachers’ views on practice and the extent to which they reflect strategies recommended by research are critical to improving our ability to teach effective practice skills.  The purpose of this descriptive study is to identify instrumental music teachers’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviors regarding effective practice and to what extent those beliefs reflect research findings on effectiveness.



An online survey was developed that addressed ensemble teachers' attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding effective practice.  This included questions regarding their own personal practice and their classroom instruction.  This survey was distributed online via Qualtrics to 290 instrumental music teachers throughout the state of Illinois using stratified random sampling.  The sampling was stratified from the Illinois State Board of Education's Directory of Educational Entities (2014-2015) by region and grade level taught.  The 9 Illinois Music Education Association regions plus Chicago Public Schools created regional divisions to ensure equal representation from throughout the state.  Half of the sample were high school teachers with the other half teaching pre-8th grade.  


102 (35.2% response rate) completed responses were recieved which roughly evenly divided by region and grade level.  All identities were anonymous on the survey.



Regarding their attitudes toward practice, teachers tended to strongly agree with statements that supported the importance of practice for their students.  On average, they saw their students as having the skills necessary to practice effectively, but reported a neutral response as to how effective their students' practice was.  The chart below summarizes the findings.  On the Likert scale questions, 1 was equal to strongly disagree and 7 was equal to strongly agree.

Figure 1. Teachers' reported attitudes toward practice

In the final section of the survey, teachers were asked to identify 34 strategies (presented in 2 sets of 17) as either effective or ineffective.  These strategies were derived from practice effectiveness research and had, in that research, been identified as effective or ineffective.  Broadly, teachers were able to identify effective practice strategies as effective.   By contrast, as a group, the teachers performed at chance for being able to accurately identify ineffective strategies as ineffective.  This data could also be viewed from the perspective that teachers saw most strategies as effective practice strategies.  Figure 2 shows the percentage of teachers accurately identifying each effective strategy as effective, while Figure 3 shows the percentage of teachers accurately identifying each ineffective strategy as ineffective.

Figure 2.  % of teachers identifying effective strategies as effective

Figure 2.  % of teachers identifying effective strategies as effective

Figure 3.  % of teachers identifying ineffective strategies as ineffective

At the end of each list of 17 strategies, teachers were asked to identify the 3 strategies that they felt were the three most effective ones from each list.  Figure 4 shows the frequency of responses that were identified by 10 or more teachers.  Bars in green are effective strategies as defined in research, while bars in red are ineffective strategies.

Figure 4.  Teacher identified most effective responses by frequency

Additional findings from this survey include the following:

  • Teachers report that their own practice habits closely resemble what they view to be effective for their students.

  • On average, teachers report teaching practice strategies in ensemble rehearsal several times per month.

  • When asked what they believed their students did while practicing, teachers reported a relatively small skill set dominated by ineffective strategies such as repetition (15.1% of all responses) and play-throughs (14.1%).

  • Teachers who practice more regularly are significantly more likely to accurately identify ineffective practice strategies (t(101)=2.16, p=.03).

  • The more strongly a teacher believes that practice is critical, the less likely they give A’s without practice (t(101)=-2.57, p=.01) and the more likely they are to report teaching practice strategies in the large ensemble (t(101)=2.65, p<.01).



These findings suggest that teachers tend to identify most strategies as effective, including those that research suggests to be ineffective.  In particular, teachers are particularly unclear about the application of metacognitive strategies related to mental practice, goal setting and practice anticipation.


There appears to be a disconnect between teachers' attitude toward the importance of practice, which they rank very highly, and the role it plays in their teaching practice and student evaluation, where instruction in these strategies is infrequent and appears to have little bearing on student grading.


It is also noted that some of these strategies may have been misidentified due to the description of specific strategies (e.g. "Establish practice goals throughout practice" may have been identified as effective as teachers were concerned with goal setting exclusive of the timing of when goals are made).  The low response rate is also concerning, as it may suggest that these findings do not reflect the general population of Illinois instrumental music teachers.  


Further research is ongoing, using this study as a pilot for data collection methods.

Additional materials