• Study Cycles sticky notes can be affixed directly to the students’ music for weekly assignments

  • Easy to understand graphics to aid mood analysis

Music Study Cycles
Why Are They? What Are They? How Do They Work?

Music educators are having to work too hard to achieve results with their students. Students don’t have the knowledge of study techniques necessary for them to take more responsibility for achieving excellent results in their practice sessions.

For the first eleven years of studio teaching, I played my trombone for my students throughout every lesson. I played phrases, whole movements of solos, etudes and had them play them back to me – over and over. By the time the lesson was over, I had made very sure that the student was playing the music correctly. Then came the universal instruction, “go home and practice.”

A week went by. The student returned for the next lesson. The student was asked to play the music. The student had managed to mess up key signature, intervals, rhythms, etc., even though, just six days ago, the student had it “down perfectly.” So, I would play it for them again and patch up the errors.

My career as a studio teacher lasted fifty years. How could any teacher survive that long given the above scenario, teaching twenty to thirty (oftentimes forty) students a week without collapsing from frustration and a worn-out embouchure?

Studio teaching for me lasted another thirty-nine years because I researched and perfected a method wherein I could teach my students to study and comprehend their music before they subjected it to repetitious practice, entirely on their own. It took twelve years to research and develop the music study cycles. Once completed, they were tested an additional twenty-seven years. In those twenty-seven years, my low brass students became the top performers in the state of Michigan, including All-State Band, All-State Orchestra, All-State Jazz Band, Michigan Youth Arts Festival Band, as well as orchestra, jazz band, and solo competitions at the state, national and international levels.

As well, they became the top players in their local high school bands, jazz bands, and orchestras for the better part of those twenty-seven years, winning twenty-two concerto competitions. And in 2005, the “Ann Arbor Trombone Choir” was founded enrolling twelve to fourteen of the top players from my studio. Over a period of twelve years, they performed joint recitals with the University of Michigan Trombone Ensemble five times, the Western Michigan University Trombone Choir, and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music Trombone Choir. The Ann Arbor Trombone Choir was the only high school trombone choir featured at The American Trombone Workshop in 2013 at Ft. Myers in Arlington, Virginia – a performance venue normally provided exclusively for university and professional trombone choirs.

In my final year of studio teaching, my trombone students took the top seven chairs across All-State Band, All-State Orchestra, and All-State Jazz Band, and took the majority of nominations on trombone and euphonium for the Michigan Youth Arts Festival Solo Competition, Band, Orchestra, and Jazz Band. The most exciting part of those twenty-seven years was that the students were achieving those results on a remarkably self-sufficient basis.

This is how it works: you simply teach the student to follow the steps of the algorithm which is the music study cycle. Once they have learned the algorithm, they apply it to every piece of music they learn before they begin repetitious practice. They make their own corrections. They perfect their own etudes, solos, and band/orchestra parts. And, if they don’t, you simply instruct them to apply the appropriate music study cycle to the error. They do the majority of the work and take personal responsibility for their own progress. They become an independent and self-sufficient music student who comes back after a week of “practicing” having achieved excellent results.

A music study cycle is a “step-by-step, recursive problem-solving procedure for solving a specific problem in music performance using a finite number of steps.” (which is the definition of “algorithm,” slightly modified, from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). Once the student is trained in its use, a music study cycle can take as few as seven seconds to complete. Some take a few minutes. The music study cycle establishes a path of logic in the mind of the student that, eventually, becomes very rapid and enables the student to extrapolate earlier music knowledge and apply it to new contexts.

There are seven music study cycles that become a regular part of the practice routine. They form a study sequence or lesson plan for the student which is applied to each etude, solo work, or band/orchestra piece. Each one fits on a 4”x 6” sticky note affixed to a single sheet of paper (see Chapter 13, page 70 of Music Study Cycles Handbook). The entire lesson plan is visible on one page, taking the student through a consistent series of steps to perfect the music. As the study sequence progresses, the student learns audiation of the key (tonal center), pitches/intervals, rhythms, performance tempo, breathing at phrase endings, dynamics, articulations, style, phrase shapes, and mood/emotional content of the music.

There are five music study cycles that specialize in trouble-shooting persistent errors, establishing fluency in 16 th -note extended runs, achieving continuity in performance, etc. The theory behind these “trouble-shooters” is covered in the chapters dedicated to those specific music study cycles. The instructor will not only know what to train the student to do but will have a full grasp of the underlying theory as well.

Two of the music study cycles develop specific skills in 1) diatonic modes performance and 2) brass instrument range building. The “Scale Study Cycle” is covered in Chapter 1 of this book. The goal of this music study cycle is to teach the student complete fluency in eighty-four diatonic scales at 16 th -note tempos from 50 to 120 bpm. It covers the tonal center structure of modes, tetrachords, brightest-to-darkest mode sequence, and, for instruments using them, alternate fingerings appropriate to the key. The music study cycle for brass-instrument range building is not included in this book.

In the final fifteen years of studio teaching, I became increasingly excited about the results my students were achieving using Music Study Cycles. However, my schedule was very full, having forty-one students and a trombone choir to teach. There wasn’t the time to write a book on the subject until I was fully retired from studio teaching and the trombone choir. When 50 years of teaching had been completed, I retired from both and began writing the Music Study Cycles Handbook.

Music Study Cycles makes teaching music lighter work for the instructor (and far easier on the embouchure of the instructor), and fully engages the mind of the student to become the source of their own problem-solving. Having taught public school elementary, middle school, and high school orchestra, band, and jazz band for thirty- two years, I found the last twenty-five years were made extraordinarily productive by implementing Music Study Cycles in teaching ensembles. I am delighted to have the opportunity to share this very successful and proven method with you.