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Struggling To Get Teens To Practice Their Musical Instruments? Purdue May Have An App For That

Getting teenagers to practice their musical instruments can be a struggle. But a new app being developed at Purdue is attempting to change that, by turning practicing into a game.

It takes a lot of practice to play music at the level of the West Lafayette High School wind ensemble.

“It’s like a love hate relationship that I have with practicing,” says senior Ryan Kim, who plays clarinet for the wind ensemble. He has also been playing classical piano since he was 5 years old, and now “dabbles” in the saxophone as well.

“Well, sometimes when I really feel motivated to do well and be better I do love practicing,” says Kim. “But then a lot of times it seems like a chore, it seems like something that just takes up my time.”

Sophomore Wesley Taylor plays the saxophone in the group. He doesn’t mind practicing, but with Cross Country and Track practice and homework he has trouble finding time.

“But then when you don’t have those activities, especially on the weekends it’s like free time, I can go to my room and play whatever,” says Taylor. “I can play jazz, I can play classical, I can just play anything and just play for an hour and just get some solid practice time in. I kind of enjoy it because you’re free to do whatever you want and you can just let everything go and relax.”

Taylor says the more he practices, the more he wants to practice.

“The better you get the more fun it is because you’re able to play more,” says Taylor. “There’s a wider variety of music and a wider variety of things you can do to make yourself sound better and to make good music.”

And Ryan Kim says when he gets out of the routine, peer pressure can motivate him to get back on track.

“If there’s a really hard clarinet part that I need to play and I’m not ready for it, the other clarinets kind of give you the stink eye if you’re not getting it.”

Andrew King is the Music Director of the Purdue University Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras. He hopes an app he is developing provides another reason to practice— fun.

“As a student myself, I used to find any kind of way that I could make doing things like practice a sort of competitive thing,” says King. “Like when I was in college a bunch of my friends and I had a practice pool where we would all put money in and then if you didn’t practice a certain amount in a week you were out.”

King says the idea for the app started when he saw a friend of his using an app at home to make doing chores a game. He wondered if the same thing could apply to getting students to practice their musical instruments.

“Every student that’s involved has an avatar, and as you practice you get points and you level up,” says King. “And there’s a way that teachers can embed YouTube videos in the app and it’ll appear on all their kids screens and then if a student watches the whole thing, when it finishes, then they get points for that.”

King says the app can be set up to have individual students, sections of a band, or even bands from different schools compete against each other. He says the app runs on an honor system, meaning students are trusted to watch videos and complete tasks and not just say that they are. He says there is technology that could record snippets of a student practicing or “listen in” while a student plays, but right now it’s just designed to be a fun way to motivate kids.

Kevin O’Shea is an Educational Technologist at Purdue. He says pretty much anything can be turned into a game, as long as the goals and the means to get there are clear to the intended audience.

“Because we have an entire generation who’s grown up playing games and having that experience of trying to go after epic wins in their personal gaming careers. So in trying to translate that into something meaningful in an education realm requires a lot more thought than just making it a game.”

But the university’s Director of Informatics, Jason Fish, says just because virtually anything can be turned into a game doesn’t mean it’s necessary.

“The idea behind the gaming is to provide a different avenue for the students to go about this learning,” says Fish. “So if the instructor already has something that’s working, stick with what’s working. You don’t need to invent something else.”

West Lafayette High School Band Director Don Pettit says he’s all for something that encourages students to practice.

“Practice makes all the difference in the world,” says Pettit. “It’s really obvious to a music educator when they see a student who’s putting in the time outside the classroom as opposed to a student who’s just coming to class every day and learning their parts through the simple class rehearsals. Those students who put time in outside the classroom always excel, they always play at a higher level than those students who do not put the time in outside the classroom.”

Andrew King says the app is currently it’s being tested by a group of Purdue students. He says three Indianapolis schools are lined up to test it this spring, and he hopes to have the app available to anyone who wants to use it by the fall of this year.

By KRISTIN MALAVENDA, www.wbaa.org, www.msidallas.com