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.

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Dynamics

Let’s talk about dynamics!

Dynamics is a funny word which basically refers to the intensity or volume of the music you are playing.

From almost the beginning of our lessons, when we have started to build our technique, and don’t have to think so hard about finger shape or embouchure or breath, we are then introduced to dynamics.

Usually the instructions are given in Italian, and look like this: or p.

Sometimes my students decide to learn a piece, reading the notes and practising them first, then at some later stage they will put in the dynamics.

This is a mistake, because then they are missing dozens or scores or hundreds (depending on how much they practice!) of times when they can play the dynamics. They will be committing a piece to memory and making muscle and audial memories that miss half the picture if they omit the dynamics.

I would encourage that dynamics are always observed from the very beginning of learning new repertoire, and slow, careful practice is the most effective way to do this.

Holiday homework

I’m sorry to disappoint my students, but I don’t see holidays as an opportunity to rest; I see it as an opportunity to practice without the problem of school taking up so many hours of each day.

My suggestion in making holiday practice more fun, is to mix things up a little. Try different repertoire, try different technical exercises or scales and arpeggios. If you’re an instrumentalist, take your instrument into a different practice room for a change.

Do your siblings learn music? Try forming a duo or a trio. See if you can make an arrangement of a song you all know and like.

See how creative you can be. Maybe write your own song.

And in the other extra time you have, try to see a live show, or a concert. It’s always inspiring to see professionals play.

Enjoy the time off school, and mix things up a little with your music during the break!

 

Start small

Welcome to our first musical challenge of 2016!

We have just started back at school and music lessons for the year, and a lot of the problem can be regaining momentum.

I have often come back from a break and expected myself to do 3 hours’ practice on my first day back.

Sometimes I succeed.

But often it takes longer than one day to rebuild a habit.

 

So today, I encourage you to start slowly.

Sit down at the piano (or get out your instrument) and practise for 5 or 10 minutes. Or decide to practise during an ad break (if you’re allowed to watch TV during the week! I often have done this and become so absorbed that I never get back to the TV show.)

Don’t try to play the whole piece immediately, but break it into smaller portions – look at a page, or a line or one bar.

Start slowly, playing one hand at a time. Or if singing, don’t use words initially, but sing through on a vowel. If playing another instrument, perhaps play through all slurred, or all tongued.

Play slowly enough that you don’t need to pause to think or read the next note; always reading ahead as you go.

Repeat a few times, then move on to the next bar or line.

Each day add a little more, and keep working, and persevering, as you continue to learn more of each new piece and work towards mastering each one!

 

 

 

Welcome back

Welcome back to our first full week of lessons at Stellar Music School!

I am trialling an exciting new programme this year, in which I will offer a free private lesson each fortnight to one lucky student!

How can you win this private lesson?

 

I will upload a video on YouTube every fortnight, on Monday, and in it I will be approaching a musical concept or practice challenge on one of my instruments – the piano, pipe organ or carillon.

I will explain the challenge, and give practical tips for how to approach this concept, and then I encourage my students to upload their own video in response, in which they demonstrate some slow and careful practise in the manner I have suggested.
I will watch all videos and announce a winner each fortnight.

Easy!

 

On Monday 15th February I will send through the first challenge, and I hope to be inundated with responses!

 

I hope to prove that passion for music, combined with practice and perseverance, can lead to excellent performances.

Happy practising!

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Practice: Stay focussed

In truth, I often can find it difficult to inspire my students to practice, as I cannot remember a time when I had trouble being motivated to practice. Now that practice is such a part of my life, and I have so many gigs, it’s almost a matter of needing to stop myself, rather than find ways to get started and push past procrastination.

However, with my writing, I can (and do) find anything to distract me from getting started.

“To work on my novel” is such a vast goal that it is easy to put off, due to the size of the task.

“To write for half an hour” is a much more achievable goal and easier to face and tackle.

It is keeping this fact in mind that I share my new favourite app!

“Forest app: Stay focussed” was free for my Android but is $1.29 for iPhone. I would consider it a very well spent $1.29.

The idea is that you grow a forest, one tree at a time. You commit 30 minutes to grow each individual tree, but the tree dies if you close the window (to check FaceBook, fiddle on other sites etc). Each time you touch the phone there is another message –

Leave me alone

Stop phubbing!

Go back to your work

Hang in there!

What you plant now you will harvest later

Leave me alone!

Stay focussed!

 

I have it on now.

The child in me loves this concept; even if it is a glorified timer. I will be suggesting this for all my students, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we are competing to see whose forest is the largest.

 

What apps or other tricks have helped with keeping you focussed on practice or work?

 

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.

 

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.

How long to practise?

It is so important to be clear to students about one’s practice expectations.

The problem is, that these can and do change.

Most of my students remember hearing me tell them to practise five or ten minutes daily.  This is indeed what I say, when they are beginners!

The problem occurs two, three or five years later, when the student believes that this is still true.

Unfortunately, with increasing skill and level of difficulty, comes increasing practice commitment.  The teacher expects it, and only sometimes remembers to communicate it to the student.

Even last week, when I was reiterating the need for more practice to a student, he still only heard what he wanted to hear.  I said “twenty to thirty minutes” and he told his mother that I said “twenty minutes”.

So what is reasonable, and what is practical?

It is difficult to say in these busy times, when students probably learn at least two instruments, have several sporting commitments, and also have the lure of the internet, X-box and TV.

I have students attempting higher grades who cannot manage much more than half an hour’s practice most days.  In the olden days when I was learning, this was a laughable amount.  I got up at 5:30am every day of my life, aged 11 to 18, and did at least an hour’s practice before breakfast.  When preparing for exams, the amount increased to anything from four to eight hours.

So I am finding again and again, that I must educate my students both in music, and in how to acquire music.  And the acquisition of musical skills and mastery does not happen without considerable time and effort.

But in so many ways, my discipline to music training has had a flow on effect in my life and taught me so much about perseverance, commitment and work.  I really do believe that anything worthwhile requires effort, and it is part of my job to share this outlook with my students, and to endeavour to inspire this in them.