I recently read an insightful article by Bruce Berr in the latest issue of American Music Teacher magazine about his experiences with assigning “OYO” pieces to his students. “OYO” is short for “on your own,” and these pieces are assigned to assess how well a student can practice new material without teacher assistance.
I have also found it helpful to assign independent study pieces to my students, for many of the same reasons listed in Bruce Berr’s article. I focus on instilling good practice habits in my students, but assigning these independent study pieces really helps me to know how well students are remembering and applying these practice techniques at home. Are my students really breaking a piece into small sections, or practicing hands separately, or counting carefully without being prompted?
Independent study pieces also help me to see if there are any gaps in a student’s understanding of concepts like note reading or rhythm. I might think that I have done a good job teaching a student to count eighth note patterns (for example), but sometimes the results of an independent study piece say differently! It is helpful to know which concepts need extra drilling in our weekly lessons.
The article also makes an important point about the value of building a student’s self-confidence through “OYO” pieces. It is possible for students to become so reliant upon their teachers’ guidance that they become paralyzed with indecision when presented with a new piece of music. At the elementary level, this might present itself with questions such as “where do my hands go?” or “what is that note?” At the intermediate and advanced levels, this might present itself as a lack of artistry; students might be waiting to be told by their teacher where to shape a phrase, or exactly how to pedal a section of music, instead of asking those important musical questions on their own. It is important that students learn to develop strategies for problem solving, as well as their own ideas for interpreting music artistically. Independent study pieces are a great way to help students do just that.
So how do you assign an independent study piece? Here are a few guidelines:
- Choose a short piece that is slightly above a student’s sight-reading level.
- Choose a piece that doesn’t introduce any new concepts or unfamiliar artistic challenges.
- Remind students of the practice techniques they have learned (slow practice, section practice, hands separately practice, using the "practice cake" as a checklist) so they will have strategies to apply to this new piece at home. I also tell my students that they are allowed to look for recordings of their independent study pieces if they would like.
This is a perfect time of year to incorporate a few independent study pieces into your lessons. Perhaps you have students preparing to take an extended holiday break and you want to keep their skills sharp? Or maybe you need some “easy wins” that students can work on during the busy holiday season when their time is limited? As a bonus, there are plenty of free, public domain holiday pieces available online that would make great independent study pieces (two of my favorite websites for free public domain sheet music are G Major Music Theory and Making Music Fun).
What do you think? Will you be assigning “OYO” pieces to your students this season?