Essay: Practice, the Best Homework

Essay: Practice, the Best Homework

“Practice is homework,” proclaimed the tall, wiry professor leading Music 256, a required class for elementary education majors at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (UICC). It was the first day of the quarter in January 1979, and the words of Euana Gangware, a professional harpist as well as a professor at UICC, seemed colder than the wind chill factor.

As I read the syllabus, terror coursed through my veins. In ten weeks, besides covering rudimentary course readings, we’d have to be able to play 20 songs, transpose music and pass a comprehensive written exam. Across the classroom, other emotions registered as well. Students who had studied music since childhood looked calm, if not dismissive, while those of us who only knew “Chopsticks” were mortified. Professor Gangware had no time for excuses about individual competencies in music: failure wasn’t an option. Euana never issued “incompletes.”

I was used to breezing through my courses and was just two classes shy of finishing all course requirements, but now I thought seriously about dropping out of college. No way could I compete with peers who’d had years of piano lessons or a strong music theory background. But I plowed on, only to have things get worse: my father was diagnosed with cancer. The grief of knowing I was losing him while coping with a teacher like Professor Gangware—it was overwhelming. So I summoned the courage to talk to her and poured out my soul. She listened patiently and responded: “Practice is homework. Practice will be good for you.” I left her office, bit my lip and cried.

Euana Gangware knew I could master a new skill. She knew I’d be a better teacher if I could feel like a struggling student, if I could relate to that sense of defeat and helplessness. She checked routinely to be sure I was putting forth the effort to learn the required piano pieces. When she strolled by or peeked through the glass window of the practice room, the temptation to stop playing in mid-stream tugged at my sleeves, but sheer nerves and fright kept my fingers on the keys. That soundproof space became my sanctum sanctorum. I practiced daily while balancing other coursework, a weekend job at a bank and visits to my father on the oncology ward. At the end of that quarter he passed away. But I kept going, and I survived Music 256.

Years later I discovered that Professor Gangware had authored several articles in music education journals on civil rights and equality. Imagine that! Euana Gangware, a superb harpist and college professor, was also a civil rights activist who gave voice to underrepresented students in the public schools. She helped ensure that each music practicum student’s tour of duty included practice-teaching children from the Cabrini Green housing projects on the Near North Side of Chicago. She was a foot soldier in the revolution of establishing public education policies, a drum major for justice—advocating for arts integration to achieve educational equity.

Euana Gangware knew that revolutions don’t have to begin with a loud roar. For combating civil rights issues, her weapons of choice were her harp, her passion for teaching and her voice at the table with other committed music educators.

Only after I became a teacher and then principal of economically and culturally diverse elementary schools did I begin to understand the impact this great woman had on me. Thanks to her, I know what arts involvement can do for students from diverse communities. Now my journey comes full circle as I observe Kenwood students sitting side by side, learning and practicing on electronic keyboards in the piano lab. This lab is testament to this community’s appreciation of music and its commitment to integrate the arts through reading, math, science and social studies. Practice in the lab reinforces skills—whether for novices recognizing middle C for the first time or advanced students preparing for a recital in a conservatory.

Every September I begin my opening address with those same three words: “Practice is homework.” Professor Gangware’s Music 256 taught me that music practice produces discipline, resilience and self-confidence. It is the first step in transforming many students’ lives—and the foundation for achieving excellence in just about any task in life.

Aura Wharton-Beck

Aura Wharton-Beck, principal of Kenwood Elementary School, can now close her eyes, see the score and anticipate the next measure of music when she hears familiar works, a skill she particularly enjoys when listening to her 20-year-old son practice his cello. She’s encouraged—and knows Euana Gangware would be proud—to see the great strides made by students who follow her “Practice is homework” mantra. This year she plans to sit next to a student in the keyboard lab, take direction from the music teacher and practice something new.