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.

 

 

 

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Be kind to yourself

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I have had several students in tears recently and it wasn’t my doing!

These children were so frustrated with themselves that they were furious at not having reached a certain goal in an impossible amount of time.

It’s interesting because I am a perfectionist, but I need to start modelling to my students that the journey is also important.  It has taken me years to appreciate the journey, and to realise the important place that it has in the formation of a performance.

I am writing this blog to encourage and equip students in practising effectively, but I also need students to know that while practise does succeed, it still takes time.

The students who have been frustrated have been practising and achieving small goals, but have had expectations out of measure with their level of experience or length of tuition.

I’ve had experiences where I might be practising for 2 or 3 hours daily for months, and not much progress appears to be occurring, but then, with perseverance, there is a breakthrough and the piece goes to another level.  I have had to learn to be gentle with myself and sometimes my expectations need to be adjusted.  Sometimes, I just need a day off!  (Although I am not sure that this is such a problem for children who do 10 minutes’ practice a day!)

As I have said before, anything worthwhile does take time and effort.  However, as part of this process, we do need to learn to be kind to ourselves and as I said last month, celebrate the wins along the way.  Even if the journey takes longer than we might expect, I do not think that anything is wasted, but can be part of the learning process and can enrich the final product.

Celebrate the wins!

Practice can be a hard slog, and sometimes progress can be slow, so do pause to celebrate the wins!

Sometimes a piece can take much longer than expected to master.  Or while you can easily play hands separately, combining the two seems impossible.  Or the different rhythms required in each hand baffle you.  Or it seems as if you will never be able to achieve that elusive balance between the hands (melody line singing above the softer accompanying harmonies).

So day by day, or week by week, make sure to look out for and savour each little achievement.

This week at Stellar Music School, we have celebrated many of these small milestones.

Sophie began the daunting task of using the pedal.  For the first week or two, it was so difficult for her to coordinate hands and the right foot, and there was often silence or a break where she wasn’t able to correctly add the pedal.  After a few weeks, however, she has persevered and she is now pedalling with assurance, and her pieces are sounding beautiful and mature with the addition of the sustain pedal.

Adam had been working for months on hands separate scales, but to play two octaves hands together (with the correct fingering!) had so far eluded him.  One concentrated practice session last week, after months of preparation, and he has now succeeded and time after time can play hands together two octave scales with the correct fingering.  Of course, now that he has ‘cracked the code’ he is able to play almost any scale as most of the white note scales have the same fingering.

The girls in my Thursday class had suddenly stalled when their new pieces called for playing hands together, but different notes in each hand, simultaneously.  We persevered, for weeks continuing on hands separate work and then duets, where half the class played right hand and the other half played the left hand part.  Then eventually, success!

These are all wins, and should be celebrated.  As in life, months of work generally precede a breakthrough, and each milestone and achievement should be recognized and appreciated.

Just start!

Practice is work, and work is rarely fun.

Who of us desperately looks forward to doing their income taxes, cleaning the toilet or paying bills?

I remember so many times procrastinating so as not to start writing an essay or studying for an exam and then generally becoming quite enthusiastic once the task was underway.  I even remember wondering why I had put off starting for so long.

Daily music practice can evoke these same feelings.

It is a chore, but there is such satisfaction in achieving goals and making progress.

Just start!

One of the reasons that I delay starting to practise, is that I have set an unrealistic goal.  If my minimum requirement is that I do 4 hours’ practice, then as the day begins to pass, I feel panic at how little time is left and how I probably won’t now reach that goal.

In the same way, if half an hour seems like too great an amount, then perhaps the student should divide the amount into two 15 minute sessions, separated by a reward.  Or maybe practise briefly in the morning then again at night.

What is achievable in the context of your household?  (How many other children have music practice to do?  How much energy does mum or dad have to enforce practice?  Do mum or dad have time to sit and supervise?)  Perhaps there are so many other before and after school activities that 15 minutes’ daily practice is all that is possible.  This is better than nothing!

But remember: small amounts of daily practice are more beneficial than to do an hour’s desperate practice the day before the lesson.

 

Experiencing

There are a myriad of opportunities to experience music in other ways than a private or small group lesson.

Most schools have visiting performers who come round to share an experience or show.  Many councils have holiday programs; professional orchestras (and even community orchestras) tend to have children’s programmes.  These days most suburbs seem to have a holiday “Rock School”.

There is much to be gained (as well as generating more enthusiasm for your child’s instrument, and for music in general) by providing extra-curricular opportunities.  The occasional trip to a ballet, orchestra concert or rock concert will inspire, and investing in some sort of holiday programme will also round out your child’s musical experiences.

There are many options available, and at Stellar we are also offering various courses to excite and enthuse: see http://www.stellarmusicschool.com.au/holiday-workshops

There are many studies showing that music education has a flow-on effect in other areas of learning, with a Wikipedia article on music lessons saying that “a recent Rockefeller Foundation Study found that music majors have the highest rate of admittance to medical schools, followed by biochemistry and the humanities.”

I’m practising what I preach and will be off to Hobart at the end of next week to take part in some concerts and workshops at the Festival of Voices (http://www.festivalofvoices.com/).  I particularly need to stay fresh and learn more if I am to inspire the next generation and be the best educator I can.

Above all, keep having fun!  Enjoy making music with siblings or friends.