Slow and careful practice

Welcome back to Term 3, which will be a busy term holding many exams and concerts!

Today’s blog and is another encouragement on how to practise more effectively.

Many of my students present me with work-in-progress which is extremely disjointed, as they play too fast for their current ability regarding this piece. They play one bar well, then stop, read and fiddle for notes, before playing another bar then pausing again.

The better to way to prepare, is to play so slowly that it is IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE MISTAKES! This takes discipline, but is an excellent way to play so that the student can observe all aspects of the piece at a slower speed, gradually increasing speed over consecutive practices, until they can succeed with no mistakes and no pauses.

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.

 

 

Never lose the wonder!

Another busy term is drawing to a close.

At Stellar Music School we are gearing up for our Semester 1 concerts, and an opportunity to share our pieces with an appreciative audience.

It has been a great term of new classes, continuing lessons and examination goals.

 

And for those classes who are moving along, making slow but continuous progress, how do we maintain the magic?

 

Fun, humour and passion are hallmarks of our tuition. We love to learn and we learn together.

We mix it up in our classes, doing aural exercises, playing bingo, drawing music notes on the whiteboard, and also doing scale drills.

We also have a collection of other instruments – a cajon, an accordion, rain sticks, ukuleles, and more percussion instruments.

We sing, we dance, and we play other instruments.

I am delighted to hear of any musical adventures my students have elsewhere in life, even when it means they feel the need to bring their recorders to show off in their lesson!

 

I hope that I will also always be learning and finding new musical things to wonder at and to inspire my students with.

Surely life will be more rich if we all greet each day as an opportunity to make new discoveries and find new adventures!

 

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.

 

Consistency in achievement

A student just missed out on an opportunity which she had desperately wanted, but was unsuccessful in her audition.

She is smart, talented, and plays with flair, so why in this case was she not successful?

She had put her head down for six weeks leading up to the audition, sometimes having 2 lessons a week, and practising madly in between lessons.

So why did she not succeed?

 

Unfortunately talent and last minute preparation did not make up for months of inactivity.

I have noted over the years that my most talented students are often eclipsed by the ones who have more gumption – that is, the ones who slog away for years, regularly practising and building ability and skill.

 

And increasingly, we see this myth (that last minute application is enough) perpetuated on TV. Many of the reality ‘talent’ shows seem to feed the myth that all you need is your 15 minutes of fame, which will then lead to a record deal.

Those who experience the most success on these shows tend to be the musicians who have been honing their craft for years, who may have already been gigging for decades, but at least, who have applied themselves to their studies and their instruments of choice.

Personality (and often a sob story) will get the audience voting, but once these untrained musicians are put into an arena setting, the technical inconsistencies and weaknesses become evident, as the talent is not supported with the training necessary.

 

So what is the way forward for my student?

I hope that I will be able to convince her to begin to commit to the “boring” exercises such as scales and studies.

I hope that we will be able to incorporate some apps, along with some old-fashioned reading notes off the page, to get her more consistently preparing her own work and learning music at home.

I hope that this may be a life lesson for her, and that she will make it a reason to develop her talent and thus be able to achieve at a much higher level in future.

 

Quantity vs Quality

An age-old question….

One of my students proclaimed yesterday in class that she is practising for an hour each day.

That’s fantastic! Exams are only four weeks away, so more practice is necessary.

However this particular student had completely ignored one important scale, which she was still unable to play.

Another student who apparently was practising an hour a day came to each lesson playing the same mistakes every week. Nothing had ever improved.

Further investigation revealed that her daily hour of practise began at 8pm (she’s 7 years old) as a way of delaying her bedtime.

I love it when my students are practising for good blocks of time.

But if they are practising mistakes, then the good parts of the pieces are becoming better, and the bad bits stay bad.

If they are completely ignoring the difficult sections, then obviously no improvement is ever made.

I love the following quote, by Daniel Goleman in his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence”.

I hope that it can help inspire my students to aim for quality in their daily practice, rather than quality in which nothing is ever improved.

The “10,000-hour rule” — that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field — has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops. The problem: it’s only half true. If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.

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: pros and cons

This week marks an exciting time for Stellar Music School, when members of two classes will be sitting for their first AMEB piano exams.  Most of these children began with the school, and have now reached the Preliminary level.

We specialise in classes at Stellar Music School, as we feel that music should be a shared experience, quite apart from the healthy competition which can be a great motivator in inducing practice!

Exams are not compulsory at our school.  I love it when parents agree that no formal goals are necessary; and that their children should learn for pleasure.  A weakness of the exam system and the unmotivated student can however mean that a student only learns three pieces a year.  This can prove quite soul-destroying for the passionate teacher!

However, I must comment on the fact that my exam students have achieved more than I would have thought possible in the last few weeks!  Their pieces have been fine-tuned to a higher than usual degree.

It remains to be seen how we all perform next Saturday, but already I am extremely proud of these students and their achievement!

Bribery or compulsory?

Obviously an important part of learning an instrument is spending time practising.

For most children, this can be an onerous task.  As an ex-child myself, and a professional procrastinator, I do know that having to sit down and practise every day can be less than appealing.

But it is necessary.

And doing it every day is much more effective than doing it only on the day before the lesson, or even two or three times a week.

Many children don’t even practise on the day of the lesson (since they had to practise during the lesson) but this is a mistake.  One of the most useful practise sessions would be immediately after the lesson, while everything is still fresh.  Surely part of the reason for procrastination is not remembering the exact notes of the music, which could be remedied by practising while content is still fresh in the mind.

It is ideal that the instrument is practised on most days, to further maximise the lesson time.  How much better it is to spend the lesson in interpretation and musicality, than picking out (and guessing) notes which have not been learnt.

My dream is that I phase myself out – I dream of producing students who don’t need my help to read notes; but who can independently read music.  This is surely the key to becoming a young musician – being able to read the music oneself, and apply musical interpretation to the score.
So, music practise is necessary, but how to convince a child of this fact?

My most successful students are the ones for whom practice is a non-negotiable.  It is simply something that must be done every day.  I just knew that each day I would complete an hour’s practice before leaving for school.  And that was even on the days when I had an early morning rehearsal before school.

There are, however, other ways to help motivate.  One student recently revealed that her reward for practice is canteen money.  Others only get their pocket money if they complete their practice.  And still others have a star chart, where a certain number of practice sessions will add up to a special reward.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but these are a few ideas.

Feel free to share any other ideas that have worked for you!

The P-words

From the first lesson, I try to teach children about the importance of PRACTICE.

The other P-word that I introduce to children as young as 5 is PERSEVERANCE.

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of both of these concepts.

Too often in this day and age, children would like to be able to play piano like me, but without putting in the 20 years of practice!

How long can a student persevere?  I am not sure how long parental patience or finances can last, but recently I have had a student who has restored my hope in perseverance.

I have been teaching Esther piano since she was 6.
On many occasions I have had conversations with her parents about whether or not she would continue.  It was not that she did not have talent or ability; it was just that she so rarely practised.

Each year we would slog slowly through the 3 required pieces and the 4 required scales.  In the last month before the exam, I would actually have the odd nightmare of anxiety, while Esther increased her practice (usually bolstered by parental bribery), started enjoying herself, and then breezed through another exam.

This year Esther turned 15 and sat for 5th Grade, the final grade that her parents required her to do before she was allowed to quit.

And this year, something happened.  After breezing through another exam, Esther has suddenly had a real enthusiasm and passion ignited and she is continuing on with piano, both for enjoyment and for her Duke of Edinburgh award skill.

What has changed?  Is it the maturity that comes with age?  Is it that parental pressure has receded?

I don’t have the answers, and I certainly cannot help individual families decide how long to force their children to learn, before the children decide to learn for themselves.

All I can share is my excitement and satisfaction in a student who now has her love of music fully ignited.