I’m not a psychologist, but…

I am not trained as a psychologist, but I often feel like I should have some training.

Today one lesson stalled when my student kept making mistakes then saying, “I’m an idiot. I’m stupid.”

We both know that this is not true.

He is an intelligent and talented boy, who perhaps has a bit too much on his plate.

But today’s lesson was not a good one, due to his attitude.

 

I have discovered over years of teaching, that the student’s attitude in the lesson may have nothing to do with me, but more to do with what else has happened during their day.

So today I asked my student if his day was bad prior to our lesson.

No. In this case things had gone downhill since I appeared in the playground.

Next step then is to work on the attitude.

Our minds are incredibly powerful. We have much more power than we realise, with our thoughts shaping our lives. Of course a child whose internal monologue is “I’m stupid, I’m hopeless” is not going to perform at the best of their ability.

Our beliefs and words are enormously powerful in shaping our destinies.

If we say “Bad things always happen to me, I’m such a mess,” then life tends to agree with us.

If we say the opposite, life can look very different.

 

I often say that I feel like a mind-reader.

If a student makes a mistake, I can generally tell that it has been preceded by them thinking to themselves “Oh no, here’s the bad bit,” or “I bet I’ll mess this up again.”

Which then happens.

 

I’m not sure if today’s student skipped back to class because he was delighted to be leaving me, or because he listened when I assured him that he is an able student and the only things stopping him achieving better results are his attitude and of course his commitment to practising regularly.

 

 

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.

Note-reading problems

A common problem with music lessons seems to be that the child can play at a different level than they can read.

I have many students who can pick out a nursery rhyme or popular song, play it hundreds of times for fun until it is very fast, and then perform it endlessly.  However, if I put a simple piece of music with an unfamiliar tune in front of them, they struggle to recognise the notes and stab at any note, guessing, until they hopefully hit the correct one.

We use note-reading apps, regularly practise sight-reading, play with flash-cards, and use the old fashioned “ALL COWS EAT GRASS”, “EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FRUIT/FUDGE/FOOTBALL/FERRARIS” memory rhymes to aid in learning where the notes go on the staves.  And still, many of these students (and many of them boys, whose aural skills are so much sharper than their visual) continue to struggle with simple note-reading.

I don’t have the answer, so please feel free to comment if you have a strategy or idea that you have found helpful!

Get inspired!

Ideally, a holiday will provide rest, relaxation, and for me, inspiration.

I was in Prague last week and experienced a few moments that certainly inspired and sparked excitement.

Firstly, I trekked up Letna Hill to view what is possibly the world’s largest metronome.  Generally the astronomical clock is a must-see in Prague, but this sight really piqued my interest!

We are always encouraging students to make use of their metronomes in an attempt to follow some kind of regular beat.  It was fascinating for me to see a metronome with an arm more than 75 feet long.  I’m not sure if it is because of the sheer size, but this metronome beats an extremely slow and steady beat.

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Secondly, I was fortunate to be able to play on an organ which resides in the Hall of Mirrors in Prague’s Clementinum.

It is not known for certain, but it is said that Mozart himself played this organ.

My fingertips tingle still as I type this – what a concept that I may have touched a keyboard also played by one of the greatest composers of all time.

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It is important that amidst the daily grind of work, school, life and practice, that we find moments which can inspire us on our journeys and keep our eyes lifted on what can be achieved, and what thrills are in store.

Many schools have wonderful programs and organisations such as Musica Viva help to bring music alive for our children.

Another of my goals as a music teacher is that I too may inspire and give ideas of what possibilities lie in front of us and what doors might open thanks to our music training.

I do not spend much time on YouTube, but there are some wonderful videos of musicians doing incredibly creative things, and while I am not sure I will encourage students to do this on our school’s grand piano, I show the video as a way of opening their eyes and stirring up creativity.

And then there’s bribery….

Ideally of course a child will practise because they love it, but more often than not, it depends on the energy of the parent to enforce practice.

My mother made me practise, and there was never any thought of reward.  The only benefit that I ever experienced was that I could be excused from washing or wiping dishes after dinner if I did my practice.  That was a great motivator, and one which made me very unpopular with my siblings!

These days I have students who have been ‘encouraged’ to practise by means of gifts, trips, money and even a mini iPad.

At Stellar Music School we have just instigated a “PRACTICE STAR OF THE WEEK” poster in the waiting room which features a photo of each week’s most industrious student.

One parent promised their child an incentive if they got their picture on the board.  I have to admit that this child’s performance in her class the following week was extremely impressive!

As a music teacher, it is my hope that one day our students will sit down at the piano or get out their instrument because the enjoyment derived from practising and then playing is so great, but in the meantime, we continue to labour to inspire, and to show that the end result and enjoyment is worth the hard work.

A family who plays together….

Parents continue to ask advice about how to inspire their children to continue practising.

I am not yet a parent, so I cannot answer from the parent’s perspective.

My perspective is from childhood – my mother forced me to practise, and now I have a career!

One thing that has happened recently in our school, is that a number of families have had success with inspiring children to practise when mum and/or dad also have some musical endeavours.  That is to say, the culture at home is one of music learning and appreciation.
The families where music is enjoyed and learnt by at least one parent are the families in which there is no argument (or not as much!) about the necessity of practising, as it is clear by the parent’s behaviour that this is a part of life.
Particularly encouraging for children is when mum or dad start learning a new instrument, or restart an old one.
One family have found that a little healthy competition is a winner: dad set himself a personal goal, and one boy was so inspired that he finished learning dad’s song before dad did.

Maybe the family can form an ensemble – children play a duet, or ask dad to accompany on the guitar, or have another sibling sing the words.

One of the things I loved about my visit to friends’ families in Colombia, was that music making was more natural of an evening than all sitting around the television, or disappearing into separate rooms with separate computers or iDevices.  I played keyboards while my friend played viola; a family friend played mandolin, and everyone else played drums, percussion, sang or danced.

What a wonderful idea and way to enjoy family time and model that music making is natural, communal and fun.

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More basics

It is the beginning of Term 2, and fortunately the two week holiday has not seemed to break our momentum too much.

However, a few reminders about effective practice are always timely.

  • While it is good to play songs through completely, this should not be the only way you practise.
  • If you make a mistake, make a note of it and come back to work on it.
  • Play the tricky bit 5 – 10 times until it is correct, then a few times to check that it stays correct.
  • In this repetitive practice time, speed is not at all important.  Slow down so that you can get it right.
  • Gradually increase the speed every few repetitions.
  • When you have played the section correctly a few times, try incorporating it smoothly back into the piece.
  • You may need to practise the transitions slowly to make sure they are smooth.

This kind of sensible and disciplined practice will always be more fruitful than playing once through your pieces and ignoring all the mistakes.

If there are consistently many mistakes, or places where you have to stop and correct yourself, you are probably trying to play too fast, or maybe you should even go back to playing hands separately.

Well done for aiming for excellence!  Disciplined application will always lead to success, and is the means by which a  more musical performance will be the result.

Mind games

The more I teach, the more I realise that my job is about more than just teaching piano.

I am not a psychologist, but I am realising more and more that music (and indeed life itself) is often governed by one’s mindset.

Why is it that for those who complain “These things always seem to happen to me” or “I’m such a clutz; I’m always injuring myself“, that these words do tend to come true?

Why is it that some people are more resilient?  Some more about to cope with life’s little speed-bumps?  Some get completely bogged down by the past?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but more and more I am realising that my thought life does have some bearing on my reality.

I am also realising that while I am not psychic, I can clearly see my student’s thoughts affecting their ability to play.

A student who sighs and decides before they start playing that they are no good at this piece, will probably not play well.

Increasingly as I listen to mistakes and then ask later what the student was thinking, the response is “That I was coming up to the hard bit that I can’t do“, or “That this was so much better before the lesson“.

Another part of learning to play music is learning to gain discipline over our thought life.  I am terrible at this myself, and can find myself during my own recital, daydreaming about what I am having for dinner.  Thus part of the discipline required is to stay on task, in the moment.

Another part of the required discipline is practising positivity.

I don’t allow the word “can’t” in my studio, because if you say you can’t, I believe that you are defeated before you begin.

It is important to reframe our thoughts, and I encourage students to say “This is a tricky bit, but I am going to give it my best effort“.

Today I asked my colleague (composer, musician, lecturer and teacher) Richard Percival what was his antidote to mental weakness, and as he pointed out, there is no substitute for preparation and sufficient practice.  If the student has done good, quality, sustained practice, then there is no reason for any mental insecurities.  (For more about Richard, see http://www.teacherontap.com/)

Above and beyond

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I was an extremely literal child, so it shouldn’t surprise me when my students are the same.

When I ask them to try playing the first line hands together, that is generally exactly what they do.

When I write in their homework books “Practise the first page hands separately”, that is usually what they do, even when the first page ends abruptly in the middle of a phrase.  (In fact, “Practise the first page hands separately” to a child generally seems to mean only do the right hand because it is easier!)

Over the last few weeks, a handful of students have seen how a little extra application can result in an extremely happy teacher!  (Congratulations, Sophie, Adam, John, Margie and any other students who come in and practise with headphones on while they are waiting for their lesson.)

Of course the children who follow my instructions to the letter are completely correct, but how I appreciate it when a student wants to excel.

I have outlawed the shrug in my studio, along with the word ‘whatever’, as I try to teach that near enough is not good enough!

Of course I am not imposing an unrealistic ideal of perfection upon my students, but paying attention to notation and observing the correct rhythm is not optional in music.  The composer used the language of music to notate their exact wishes, and it is up to us teachers to teach the meanings and to encourage students to respect the authority of the score.

So again I congratulate my students who are respectful of the music, and approach their studies with enthusiasm and care, and who do more preparation than I specifically asked.

Surely this will also help in life, as excellent preparation and effort bring success and a higher level of achievement than just trying to scrape by with the bare minimum.

Back to the basics

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It is a new year and most of my students have not touched their instruments for six to eight weeks.  It usually takes up to a month to create momentum again and help encourage routine and regular practice.

I suggest that when tackling something new, it is best to be realistic and to set oneself reasonable goals.

  • Break tasks into achievable portions in starting something new.  When starting a new piece, learn hands separately first.
  • Try to master the piece in sections – either hands separately, or a page or phrase at a time.
  • When practising hands separately, remember to think about phrasing and dynamics.  (It is a much better use of your time to put these in from the beginning, rather than having to add them later.  It is also much more musical, even playing with only one hand, to play thoughtfully rather than just banging out the notes).
  • Start in small ways.  If you haven’t practised in months, then try not to expect 1 hours’ practice the first time back.  Be realistic and work on achieving small goals first.
  • Work incrementally.  Not much in life happens immediately, first attempt.  Concentrate on mastering a small portion, then gradually increase.  However, do not always start at the beginning and only work on the first 8 bars or so.  Sometimes start from the end or the middle.
  • Practise in rhythms.  Practise staccato/legato.  Practise in a different octave on the keyboard.
  • Enjoy, and reward yourself as each small goal is achieved!

As I’ve said before, most things in life take work and commitment.  Jobs, school, university, relationships.  These all require perseverance and studying a musical instrument is no different.

But what a joy to be able to start to succeed.  And when the job/school/Uni/relationship is difficult, we are able to express ourselves and process problems by playing music.  What fantastic therapy and what a blessing.