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12.15.16How to Practice: Nailing the Fundamentals with John Burmeister


Burmeister Goes MLS

Had a pretty amazing day in Chicago on Wednesday, talking teaching with a group of (mostly) MLS professional soccer coaches who are enrolled in US Soccer’s new Pro License course. The group includes guys who I admire as coaches and who I followed as players. I was a little bit starstruck… but I got over that fast because the conversation was so rich.

Interestingly, we didn’t watch any footage of soccer training. We watched classroom footage and applied the principles to teaching during training.

The closest we got to watching “practice” was an amazing video of music teacher John Burmeister (who I’ve written about before) wokring with an upstate New York youth orchestra. His session is a master class on having a clear and specific goal and breaking the session up into rounds of progressive challenge, each with a single piece of feedback to focus on and execute.

First here’s the whole video.

Burmeister.CheckforUnderstanding.RoundsofPractice from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

In it you’ll see John do an amazing job of watching carefully, relentlessly for mastery and acting on it when kids don’t get there–Checking for Understanding, that is.  And his tone is outstanding. His expectations are high; he is relentless; but he is totally positive, makes it safe to struggle, and never blames his students. Instead, he gives them small pieces of technical feedback and helps them get better.

We stopped seven times to discuss the clip, so here is the clip again, divided into seven parts with comments about what John is doing and discussion points from our conversation.

Part 1: The Intro

Burmeister.CFU.ROunds.1 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

What John says and does:

“Lots of times, we have this ritardando when we have to get back into the a-tempo. We need to make sure it’s super exact.”

“The ritardando does not start in 25. We have to wait on the waiting… I rebound as I come off. So it’s gonna sound like this. [Models]  My cut off starts the rebound into the downbeat.”


He sets a very clear goal. We’re not just practicing here. We’re focusing on being very exact with ritardando throughout the piece.  He models and explains.  Quickly. He’s fast and then they get to playing while the guidance is still fresh and before the mojo goes.  Just as they start he establishes expectations about attentiveness and focus by scanning the room carefully.

First Round of Practice

Burmeister.CFU.ROunds.2 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

What John says and does:

[Starts at measure 23. Cuts off round before ritardando occurs] “Do it again. Dynamic check. Just because we’re working on ritardando doesn’t mean dynamics don’t matter.”


John Shortens the Loop… that is, he cuts things off when practice doesn’t meet expectations and puts the feedback as close to the antecedent as possible. Smaller feedback closer to the antecedent works better than much bigger or more emphatic feedback. Then he sets expectations about quality and attentiveness to execution. It’s a culture-building moment.

Second and Thirds Rounds of Practice

Burmeister.CFU.ROunds.3 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

What John says and does:

“The downbeat was almost together. Everyone knows that note so there’s no reason to be looking anywhere except right at me.  Again.”  [They practice again.]  “Almost. Better. Just play the downbeat at 28. None of the other notes.” [They play again]


These are excellent examples of Check for Understanding.  He’s watching very carefully for mastery of the specific thing he asked them to focus on-on cue with the ritardondo. When they don’t get it, he tells them how to fix it (they’re mistakenly looking at the music, not the conductor). Then he has them try it again using that feedback right away. They continue to struggle, so he simplifies the task: “Just play that one note.” Coaches noted his relentless focus on quality, but his non-judgmental, supportive tone in the face of mistakes. “His standards are so high but he never gets mad at them for struggling.”

Fourth and Fifth Rounds of Practice

Burmeister.CFU.ROunds.4 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

What John says and does:

He cues them to be ready before they play the key part:  “One note!” One student is off. “Do it again.  One note there.”  They play again. Again he pre-sets them: “One note!” Now some individual accountability: How many notes Alejandro?”  Then: “What I want to do is get that one note really well together.  The violins worked on this in the sectional. They’d work on one measure and one note. That’s really what we’re going after now. We want that precision of getting that downbeat sounding like one instrument.  I don’t want it to sound like 27 instruments. I want it to sound like one instrument. It’s really, really hard. You can totally do it.”


More careful watching. More relentlessness. More patience with his students. As they continue to struggle forward, his tone is positive, he expresses faith in them, he normalizes struggle/error, and he reminds them why it’s important. A bit of motivation: “It’s hard, but you can totally do it.”

Sixth Round of Practice

Burmeister.CFU.ROunds.5 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

What John says and does:

Now they get it right. “That’s it. Do it again. That was something we did. Make it something we do now.”


One of my favorite phrases about practice is: Getting it right is the mid-point of mastery. This is to say that getting it right once is not enough to achieve mastery so practice should not stop at correct execution. Also, helping players identify and replicate it when they do something just right is one of the most important things a coach can do.  John does that here.

Seventh Round of Practice

Burmeister.CFU.ROunds.6 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

What John says and does:

“Good. We need to do that again. Start at [measure] 69.”


Now that they’ve mastered the ritardando in one setting he asks them to take the skill and apply it in a new setting (at measure 69). He’s adding a layer of complexity and building their capacity to generalize the skill.

Eighth Round of Practice

Burmeister.CFU.ROunds.7 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

What John says and does:

Starts at measure 69. “Now you’ve got it. Where you’re really coming in together. Now I believe you.”


After all of his supportive, but honest critical feedback, they believe him when he says, “You got it right.” His praise means something because he is careful not to overuse it.  He can avoid over using it because his constructive feedback, which is not praise, is delivered in such a positive and supportive manner.  He doesn’t need to use the flawed idea of a “praise sandwich” to compensate.

At the end I asked the coaches to identify one thing they wanted to work on.  They were really reflective, but i’ll leave their observations private.  I’d love to hear yours though.


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