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  • Drew Downing

STACK YOUR A.C.E.S.

This piece is best suited for teachers of teenage students.


Having a small win now and then is important for all of us. I feel it’s an essential part of progress.


But what we consider a ‘small win’ from a teacher's perspective, may not always be the win the student needs.


Amidst exam syllabi and assessment tasks, we sometimes forget our students deserve some golden opportunities to present a well-rounded, quality performance without the looming pressure of technical accuracy. (Side note: I’m absolutely in favour of solid technical training for all students.)


We want our students to showcase their technical development (dexterity, pitching, tone, etc). We encourage it to be showcased because it’s great - and we’re proud! Naturally, this ties in with increasing the complexity of repertoire.


Here’s a common scenario I see in schools:


After months of work on a piece, we now encourage the student to present it at an upcoming concert event.

But is the student actually ready to perform the piece? No, not always.


But they do it - in front of their families, friends and peers, plus a whole lot of strangers.


They fumble over the chromatic run, their breathing is shallow, shoulders are tense and they need to restart a phrase a couple of times. But they make it through.


We debrief with the student afterwards, telling them how proud we are that they “did it”. They sigh with relief that it’s over and we both have a giggle about it.


And then the cycle starts again. It so easily becomes routine and a ‘go to’ process.


So heavily focussed on simply making it through a piece, students can miss out on all the other great stuff:

  • Learning how to perform

  • Adding natural emphasis to phrases

  • Presentation skills

  • Authentically connecting with repertoire

  • Enjoying themselves.


Having the confidence to go on stage is not the same as having confidence in their performance.


Personally, I love nothing more than seeing a confident sparkle in a students’ eye before they go on stage. That quiet self-assuredness knowing they’re gonna sing/play the sh*t out of a number.


And they usually do.


It’s an electric feeling. An absolute vibe.


This student now has much more than a sense of completion and commitment. This student feels accomplished, satisfied and proud.


Of course, it’s still important for students to feel nervous sometimes. (Although, within the jumble of teen/pre-teen emotions, it’s hard to differentiate excitement from nervousness once the adrenaline kicks in!)


But over the course of a semester or a year, we must make sure the scale tips in favour of “I’m excited to share this with an audience” over “I’m nervous about presenting this piece”.


I coined a phrase a few years ago which I implement into every student plan:


“Stack Your A.C.E.S.”


A.C.E.S. stands for Achievable Content Encourages Success.


My approach to music education has always been to ensure students will find joy in music for life, not just during their school years. I want them to leave school and join a community band, get some Saturday night pub gigs, or whip out a guitar at a party for an Ed Sheeran singalong.


For that reason, I “stack the A.C.E.S.”.


I ‘stack’ them by creating equitable performance items for each student every few months. The pieces are chosen as a vehicle for individual success; something which utilises and showcases their existing skills.


All I am doing is setting the bar at their current level of skill. Not above. (Revolutionary, right?)

 

For example:


We have ten weeks to prepare for a concert.


By week three of preparations I would want my student to have the piece sitting in their voice / in their fingers.


The remaining weeks are used to discuss, trial and implement performance skills.


Sometime around week eight, I try to arrange for students to watch each other at informal lunchtime practices or during after-school ensemble rehearsals. A bit of a ‘trial run’.


Whatever the instrument, some questions I might pose along the journey:


What is this going to look like to an audience?”


“What would you like to do while you’re singing/playing?”


“What is your favourite phrase in the piece and how are you going to convey that to the audience?”


Come concert time in week ten, we have an event full of confident performers.


This initiates an authentic and game-changing conversation post-performance:


Students are congratulated on their high standard performance, not just their participation.


Where can that lead?

  • Students start to identity the difference between ability and potential

  • An acknowledgement of ability gained through development can support enrolment retention

  • Students have now created a standard of excellence to gauge their own progress

  • Because the piece is so manageable, it can coexist with graded technical work and more complicated repertoire

Whether at home for leisure, a lunchtime concert or major event, giving students a platform to present something achievable within their current skill set is an investment for all parties.


A small win now and then is a big win in the long run.


- Drew Downing

 

FURTHER READING:


Some great works / papers have been published covering the importance of small wins.


'Intrinsic Motivation at Work’ by Kenneth Thomas is such a good read. It’s still my regular go to book for ideas - and reassurance!


Have a read up on the Power of Progress and Progress Principles.

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