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.







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.


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?


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.

Why we’re different

Music teachers are a special bunch, and here at Stellar Music School we look for especially wonderful teachers.

I believe that the teacher can often be a major factor in a student continuing with their musical studies.  Who of us doesn’t remember a particular school teacher who believed in us when others didn’t, or who gave us special responsibilities when others might not have, or who we loved just because?

At Stellar Music School we make sure that all of our teachers are great professionals who are active performers in the musical world, but we also look for tutors who are inspiring, fun and dedicated.  We believe that music lessons are about teaching music elements, of course, but they are also about the relationship between the student and the teacher.

And that is why we treat each student as a whole person.

Last week I had a small student who was being quite naughty and disobedient, but who had never given me trouble before.  She was briefly separated from the rest of the class to cool down, but then I thought to ask what was going on for her.  Turns out that she was rebelling about having to come to piano lessons.  Someone had recently visited her school and played the violin for the class, and my little student was now wanting to play violin, and not piano.

Sometimes bad behaviour is simply because afternoon tea involved unaccustomed (and from my perspective, unwelcome) consumption of chocolate.

Other times it is explained by knowing that a family member is currently fighting cancer, or knowing that the family is dealing with a death.

Generally we know about all of these factors, and are able to adjust the lesson accordingly.

We also know which students need to be pushed or encouraged to reach higher, and which children might need to just talk and cry for one lesson.  We are there to teach piano (or violin, or clarinet, or singing) but we appreciate that we are dealing with a human being who might have significant other things going on in their lives.

We do believe in discipline, hard work and perseverance, and we need to teach a generation who are coming to believe in instant achievement that many worthwhile pursuits take time to achieve.

But we teach individuals, and we meet each student as a unique, interesting, special, individual.


I’ve chosen a potentially controversial topic for my first post of the year.

My holiday reading was a massive pile of books relating to education, brain science, neuro-plasticity, music and talent.

The reading list was in part compiled last year when I had attended the ASME Conference (Australian Society for Music Education) in Canberra.

I have been saying for some time now that I’m not sure whether I believe in talent, since over the years that I have been teaching, I have seen precociously ‘talented’ children drop out and less ‘talented’ children improve and succeed over a long period of time.

I always find it difficult to answer parents when they ask about the child’s potential, since on many occasions I have seen a child who I may not have considered particularly able, slog away and keep coming back year after year and eventually start to play musically and gain increasingly high grades in exams.

I am finding support for this very concept in the work of Dr Carol Dweck, in her book “MINDSET” which is subtitled ‘The New Psychology of Success’.

My first opinion was that the book looks like a jargonish self-help book, but once I started reading, this belief was dispelled.

The book is based on scientific research, and it only backs up the ideas that I have been pondering.

I am a positive thinker (for the most part, anyway) and I believe that an important part of my job is to instil confidence and self-belief into my students.  I truly believe that anything is possible, with effort and diligence, and this fits with Dr Dweck’s research.

There are apparently two main mindsets – fixed and growth.

Fixed mindset people tend to think that we have finite talent and abilities, while in the growth mindset people see that improvement, change and transformation are possible.  For the fixed mindset, failure is catastrophic, since it can destroy all sense of self and success, while those with the growth mindset always see the opportunity for future growth.

What gives me hope is knowing that I definitely used to have a fixed mindset.  I spent my childhood needing to be the best, and feeling distraught if that didn’t happen.  It was always preferable not to try and blitz a test, than to work really hard and get a mediocre mark.

I have no idea when the change occurred, but I am now very much of the growth mindset, although not in all areas of my life.  Reflecting on all of this, I still believe that I am not very sporty or coordinated.  So my challenge to myself is to extend the growth mindset to all areas of my life.  I definitely believe that I have changed and can continue to, intellectually, spiritually, musically, relationally, so my next challenge is pertaining to physical skills.

And how does this relate to music?

To me, this just proves that no education is ever wasted.  Perhaps we will not all end up concert musicians, but certainly these skills will improve our coordination, intellect and quality of life.  The joy of playing music, whether alone, but particularly in ensemble, can only enrich our lives.

And one more thing the neuroscience is teaching us is that music creates more pathways in the brain, so here’s another reason to keep up the lessons and practise!

Another P-word… PASSION!

One of the joys of my life and work is the opportunity to daily speak into young people’s lives.

I love hearing my students’ dreams and hopes for the future.  Sometimes they are musical, sometimes not.

There is one family in which I teach both boys.  They come tearing in every Monday, words tumbling over each other as they rush to tell me of their successes (and rare failures) on the cricket pitch the day before.

I love how much it means to them to share this part of their lives with me.  I have no clue about cricket, but I feel that reciprocity is important in our relationship – I share my love of music; they share their love of sport.

Occasionally our passions intercept.

I think that all of those reality/talent shows (Australia’s Got Talent/The Voice/X-Factor etc etc etc) have a lot to answer for, but they can be useful in igniting children’s passion for achieving musical goals.

I love it when my students see a certain act and say “I could do that!”  Then it is my job to impart the skills and help them to achieve that goal.

What an honour, that a young person can share their dream with me, and I can say “Fantastic!  What do we need to do to make that happen?”  Often in my life, I have achieved a goal because someone I cared about didn’t think that I could.  How much more exciting that my students might one day remember that from the beginning, I believed that they could do anything that they set their minds to and worked for.  (Ahh, there are those other P-words again – PRACTISE and PERSEVERANCE!)

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.

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.