Let’s talk about endings

In our recent vlogs, we’ve been looking at beginning to learn a piece, and how to sensibly approach the early stages of practising a new piece.

However, today I would like to focus on endings.

 

Often my students will finish a piece quite abruptly, almost throwing their hands back into their lap and turning expectantly to look at me. Or when I am accompanying, the student will have put down their instrument while I am still playing the last phrase.

Both actions can ruin a piece.

Sometimes it will be appropriate to use a more dramatic movement at the end of a piece which is loud, fast and virtuosic.

But consider a piece where the sound has died away to almost nothing. It can be extremely jarring to suddenly put the instrument down, or move one’s hands away from the keyboard.

 

Watch this week’s video to see how I suggest this is approached, and think about your repertoire, and what ending is appropriate for the mood of each different piece.

 

 

Take a moment

A few times recently, I have been taking a moment with students.

Sometimes they get embarrassed and try to go on to something else.

But I make sure that we stop for a minute to seriously take a moment.

 

What exactly do I mean by taking a moment?

 

In the day to day/week to week routine of music lessons, it is easy to grind on and never appreciate the progress which is being made.

One of my students recently competed in a competition.

When we were debriefing, he said how much he had disliked the experience. Although he had played well, he found the nerves involved made him extremely uncomfortable, and had made the whole day very stressful.

I validated his experience. (I suffered bad nerves for many years, losing my place in the music and panicking, all while my fingers continued to play. An eyelash was stuck in my eye once during a Beethoven sonata performed in London during my Masters; and I continued to play. And to this day I have to take control over my mind during HSC examinations when my mind starts to worry about how important this exam is for the student and how I’d better not mess anything up.)

However, I encouraged my student to take a moment.

Two years ago he wouldn’t have even entered the competition.

Two years ago he was having such anxiety during lessons that tears frequently resulted and he couldn’t continue.

So during his lesson, we stopped to celebrate the progress that he has made. And to appreciate how far he has come.

 

I did it again with an adult student this week.

Being an adult (and perfectionist), she is extremely tough on herself and knows how far she has to go.

But it is important to appreciate each milestone, no matter how small.

 

And with another child yesterday, I pointed out how well she was sight-reading now, when a year ago she would have been immobilised.

I do need to enforce the moment, because often the progress has been so gradual, that the child doesn’t know what I’m talking about and cannot remember the time when this skill was a struggle.

And so we stop, think, and appreciate.

 

In this high-achieving world of instant success, it is so important to track and be grateful for incremental change and progress.

 

 

 

 

 

Potential

Last week I experienced one of those small moments which make it all worthwhile.

Once again it is exam season, and I had extra rehearsals with students who I see once a year, when I accompany them for their instrumental exams.

This particular girl is an able student, but one who has skipped through all her previous exams with the bare minimum of effort required to still pass the exam.

Imagine my delight, then, to discover that this year she is preparing diligently, and not only has mastered the notes, but is now able to spend time on interpretation and musical expression, since she isn’t still stumbling on notes.

And I made sure to tell her how impressed I was.

 

Unrealised potential is surely one of the low points of my job experience.

And I find that this comes in two main ways:

  1. The child who finds everything easy, and so never does more than the bare minimum, and
  2. The child who does too many activities, is good at all of them, but never manages to excel at any.

In fact, time and again, I have so much admiration for the slower student, the student who doesn’t appear to have an extraordinary talent, the student who has to work so much harder to achieve what the other students do so effortlessly.

And yet over time, it is often these students who eclipse the more able, due to their solid and sustained practise and their determination.

 

I commend any student on application, and only hope that all are able to apply themselves and achieve the highest possible level for themselves, and to experience the pride that only comes with working and achieving to the very best of their ability.

 

Is ignoring a problem a valid response?

Well, it’s that time of the year again…. By the end of the week, I will have accompanied over sixty exams in the last 6 days.  Part of the wonderful variety of my job means that I accompany from Preliminary to Grade 8 examinations, accompanying many different instruments – violin, cello, flute, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, euphonium are on the agenda this week.

Once again I am filled with wonder at the level of preparation (and lack thereof ) which I encounter during the rehearsal period.

This time, I am seeing one thing over and over again.  I am not sure if I haven’t noticed it before, but it seems to be particularly prevalent at the moment.

Last week I was rehearsing in my studio with 2 brothers while their mother observed.

At the end of one piece, I said to the elder brother, “That song is mostly ok; you just need to work on the bad bits.  You can’t just pretend they don’t exist.”

His mother laughed uproariously.  “That’s exactly what he does – I’ve just never heard it said so succinctly before!”

 

Over my years of teaching, I have noticed this aspect of human nature: if we are good at something, we tend to do it more, since it makes us feel good about ourselves.  If we are not good at something, we can tend to avoid it (this is how I feel about golf) because our ineptitude makes us feel bad about ourselves.

Time and again, I find myself teaching discipline and hard work in addition to music.

Two weeks ago, I again had 2 brothers and their mother in my studio.  The younger boy was struggling with a particular part of his violin piece.  I got him to do it correctly once, then again, then again.  We spent maybe 5 minutes on 4 bars, but by the end of this short time, his face had brightened, and he didn’t hate the piece so much anymore.

And yesterday, teaching one of my own students, she admitted that she had not really practised one of her pieces over the last week.  The exam is less than 2 weeks away, but she was ignoring one-third of her programme, because it was all too overwhelming.

 

What is my advice?

DO THE BAD BIT!

Facing a problem head-on will actually diminish it.

In fact, like many of the things we procrastinate about, often when we face it, it becomes much less of a problem than we anticipated.

Sure, there may still be some hard work ahead of us, but isn’t it better to just start?  Then break into bite-size pieces: 1 bar, or 1 phrase, then slowly piece it together.

It can be done, but it must be faced and attempted, and the satisfaction that comes with completing the task is the satisfaction of doing something well, and eventually succeeding.

Exams

Over the past few weeks, I have accompanied students for over a dozen HSC music exams, and over forty AMEB instrumental examinations.

As a piano student, I never knew of accompanists or their roles in exams, as my examinations were a solitary affair.
For all other exams though, the student needs accompaniment for several of their pieces, to show that they can play in ensemble, and to more correctly represent the solo with harmonic accompaniment.

When I sat for my 7th Grade piano exam, the examiner actually wrote in my report that I could be a good accompanist.  For years I took this as an insult (along the lines of ‘Those who can’t, teach‘), but now I actually work as an accompanist, a role which I love, and realise that it is a skill which is highly specialised and extremely challenging.

What makes it difficult?
Well, the unexpected is quite stressful!  Students are prone to memory lapses when nervous, and I have had children leave out anything from a few notes to a few pages.
Physical logistics often increase the degree of difficulty, when the student or choir is behind me, or on another floor!  (I have played in churches where the choir is behind me a full storey below, and the closed-circuit TV is not functioning, which makes using my ears and wits all the more important.)

What have I learnt about performing and what pointers can I share?

Enjoy!                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Exams can be extremely stressful, particularly when students are putting themselves under undue pressure to succeed.  After months or years of preparation, there is no more to be done on the day than a last practice, then to try to enjoy the exam, as nothing else can now be changed.

Be in the moment.
If you do make a mistake during the exam (or concert), move on.  Don’t spend the rest of the time punishing yourself or thinking about it, or things could quite easily spiral into more mistakes and memory lapses.  Performance is very much a mental game (why else do elite athletes now come with their own psychologists?) and like sport, can be won or lost in the mind.

Focus on the good.
Once it’s over, nothing can be changed.  Of course it’s helpful to know where improvements might be made, but to obsess over one wrong scale or one missed sharp is to lose sight of the big picture – a lot more went right than went wrong.

Learn what you can change.                                   
What is in your power to change for next time?  Nerves will probably always be a slight factor, but students can practise in performance settings.  If not enough practice was done and the mark reflected this, then do more practice next time!  Try to embrace the experience and celebrate the successes.  A B+ grade is not a fail.  Be proud of your achievements.

I am preaching to myself here too.  Many times I have lost sleep the night after a recital, as I am so angry at myself and disappointed about one mistake.  I have had to learn how to put this in perspective and to remind myself that the mistake maybe took one second in a one hour concert.  This is hardly a failure.

Music is to be enjoyed.  Sure, exams are helpful to provide markers and motivation to succeed and progress, but they should never completely overtake the enjoyment of learning for its own sake.