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Gift to Be Simple

James M. Rohner | August 2014

    Sometimes a simple idea can be the most powerful. Music teachers everywhere complain that students do not practice as much as they should. With over-programmed schedules and electronic distractions, many kids do not take much time to work on their music alone. The problem is often worse in the summer.
    About two years ago we included a small practice idea in our children’s magazine, Piano Explorer, called the 100 Day Practice Challenge. For students who practiced for 100 days straight, we would print their names in the magazine. The response was unexpectedly overwhelming. Practice sheets from around the world continue to pour in with over 1,100 names published so far. Students as young as 5 and as old as 81 have participated, and even some teachers were inspired to try it as well. Seeing the names in the magazine encourages more students to participate. One of the most exciting parts of the project has been the reports from teachers about the benefits they have seen. Here is a sampling of the enthusiastic mail.

“I can verify that my student…practiced 100 days. For seven of those days her parents took her on a trip to Paris. I suggested that on each day she was without a piano, she compose a piece. And she did! She came home with compositions, one of which we plan to submit to Piano Explorer.”

“Here is my second group of students. One has completed a second 100 days of practice. She wasn’t a very interested or good student until this challenge. 200 days has made a difference.”

“Several of my students have practiced 200 days and will hopefully comlete another challenge. The challenge has been the greatest motivator to practice in my entire teaching career of over 40 years.”

    We continue to marvel at the strength of this small (and not original) idea. A good idea does not need to be complicated.
    I have spent part of my summer learning to keep things simple by working on a children’s book. After spending most of my working days on articles for adults, I had never attempted to write for very young children. Then I met a particularly engaging young boy who takes regular field trips with his pre-school class. Every couple of days, he marches off to school with a blue backpack filled with supplies. He returns home with entertaining stories about the places he and his backpack have gone. I decided to transform his trips into an elaborate and fantastic adventure.
    I quickly discovered the difficulty of my task. I was attempting to create a story that would engage children to read on their own without straining the patience of the adults required to read it (with any luck, nightly). I was reminded of the adage that grade 1 music can be the hardest to write.
    I ended up breaking all the rules that I thought applied to this type of writing. I went longer than expected, topping out at 2,500 words. I resisted the urge to cut out every fancy word in the story. I decided that a four-year-old need not understand the word “astonishment” to feel it at the end of a good story.
    I enlisted my talented niece, Beth Callis, to draw original artwork for the story. I would send early chapters to her and received back charming, inventive drawings to look at via text. All of a sudden the project became a collaboration and no longer belonged just to me. We grew just a bit closer by putting a new artistic creation into the world.
    My self-published book went to press at about the same time as this issue of The Instrumentalist. I don’t think it will become the next Harry Potter, but I learned how to keep things simple and say what I really mean. It was an invaluable way to spend my summer. Good luck in the new school year!