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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Performance practice

It’s that time of the year, and our end of year concerts are weeks away.

What advice can I give to our students as they prepare?

  • Work on perfecting the concert song – make sure that all dynamics are observed (louds and softs) and that any different articulations are attended to (staccato/legato/accents/tenuto)
  • Make sure phrasing is thoughtful – watch how the melody flows, and try to have a rise and fall in each phrase (generally each four to eight bars)
  • PRACTISE THE BAD BITS – I cannot emphasise this enough – playing a piece through time and again tends to make the good bits better while the bad bits stay bad.  Please spend time and concerted energy on any sections which are challenging.  It may take awhile the first time, but with each successive playing, the trouble part should become stronger and more confident.
  • Practise performing – over the coming weeks, take any opportunity to practise in front of class members, family and friends, and neighbours, so that when the concert arrives, it is not such a big deal
  • Lastly, ENJOY!  Our concerts are very friendly and supportive and the audience is always delighted to share in your learning and encourage your performance.  Remember to smile and acknowledge their encouragement with a bow or curtsey.

All your family, friends and teachers at Stellar Music School look forward to cheering you on during our concerts on Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th December.  Keep working and keep loving your music!

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.