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It was the same story year after year. After six or seven months of hard-fought educational opportunities and hard-won learning, spring would come and my students' eyes would glaze over. Anticipation of summer break consumed them and the capacity of their little brains reached the full line. Teaching took on the characteristics of a grudge match around that time of the year. What made it worse was the knowledge that within a few months they would walk out the door and spend two-and-a-half months letting their knowledge of theory, melody, and harmony atrophy inside their sun-addled heads.
When they walked back in the door the following year, it would be a grueling one-and-a-half to two months of agonizing review to get them back to where we were at the end of last year. There's no telling how many performances and hours of pure learning and music advancement they missed because of it, not to mention the salt and pepper it scattered through my hair and beard. After five years of seeing this progression and dealing with its consequences, I realized it was not a fluke that would go away and I had to find a solution-other than permanently revoking summer vacation-if I wanted to break this pattern.
Through recommendations made by colleagues and others in the know about such matters I was led to the Hal Leonard Play Along Series. Over 50 successful years of instrument method and curriculum publishing have given Hal Leonard tremendous insight into what does-and does not-work.
In the 1970s Hal Leonard was the first company to develop and champion book/audio music education products, and the division soon outgrew all the other divisions of Hal Leonard combined! Obviously, this is a method that students and musicians respond to quite well, and one that Hal Leonard has perfected in the 30-plus years hence.
The Play Along Series is the culmination of all that audio education intimacy and each collection reinforces important musical concepts covered in the basic curriculum of most music classes. The focus is on getting students busy playing using songs and styles with instant appeal according to age group and musical predisposition. The Play Along Series simply recognizes the fact that students are twice as likely to practice and develop their skills if they're working on music that they can enjoy.
The CDs provide concrete, well-played examples of each selection and enable your students to practice anytime they want, not just at school. The very well-produced audio tracks are not just cheap synth tracks warbling through the melody. Diverse instrumentation and real percussion tracks make this practice with some kick.
It's all very relevant, though; you're not going to hear a screaming lead guitar sound on the Disney Movie Themes collection and likewise the Rock Jams CD has a real rock punch and vibe. Your students, especially listening through headphones, get the feel and vibe of what it's like to play in an ensemble. Of course, this ensemble isn't going to be out of tune or lose time, so maybe it's not completely true to life-but it gives them the experience they need playing within an arrangement and collaborating with other musicians.
The tracks are mixed with their final usage in mind too. The melody line of each song is played through the right channel only, represented by a xylophone-type tone that is easy to hear. The purpose of this is twofold and reinforces a few essential elements for students playing in a band setting. First of all, it makes it very easy for most students to follow along while wearing headphones, giving them guidance in playing the melody of the song and also melodic and musical variations to the theme. Having the melody line in only the right channel also makes it easy to simply pan out the melody line and have your students play with just the backing track, which is excellent for practice in holding the melody and improvising with it in a group setting.
So what happens if you give your students free rein to practice and play when they actually like the music? They keep playing! Not only do they enjoy it, but they practice more often on their own, ask more questions in class, and are generally more involved and interested. As a result, the overall level of progress ratchets upward too, and the funny thing is it takes less teaching to do it.
I'd like to tell you that every single member of my class is now an avid musician and loves to practice, but that would be a fib. There are inevitably those children whose parents are making them learn an instrument or who simply don't have the aptitude. But for the children who are even mildly interested and/or focused, a selection from the Play Along Series is a huge boost to their musical development.