Back to the beginning: Part 2

Well, it is a fabulous experience to once again be a beginner.

I am fortunate that since I am a Pipe Organist, playing on a pedal-board with my feet is not unusual.  However, to play with my fists instead of my finger tips is a new experience.
What is a surprise, however, is how many things I do which so drive me to distraction when my own students do them!

  • I play much faster than necessary (to show off to my teacher)
  • As soon as my teacher says “Good,” I stumble and make a mistake
  • I attempt to do more than my skills allow

After writing this blog for several years, in an effort to communicate simple truths about practice and preparation, I am humbled to realise that as a beginner, I am falling into such similar patterns as my students.

AND I SHOULD KNOW BETTER!

I KNOW that 15 minutes’ practice daily is more useful than 1 hour’s practice the day before the lesson, and yet that is exactly what I do.  (In my defence, though, may I point out that my instrument only exists in one place in Sydney, so there is a travel requirement!)

 

It is helpful to go through this experience on my journey, as it helps me to understand life from the stool, and hopefully will once again give me more patience when students exhibit any of these tendencies.

Back to the beginning

Well, I did promise to report back on my experience as a beginner.  I have now had two carillon lessons, and it has been fascinating to see how I fall into all the habits that drive me to distraction in my own students!

  • I play everything better alone; when the teacher is listening, mistakes happen.  (Even worse, if I’m playing well and my teacher says, “Good,” then I immediately stumble!)
  • I play much faster than necessary.  I know that the chances of success are much higher if one starts slowly, but I want to show off for my teacher, and I want to sound good.
  • I try pieces all hands and feet together, when I know that my chances of success are greatly improved if I learn things hands/feet separately first and then slowly add a component.
  • I know that practising 15 minutes a day is preferable to doing 1 hour’s practice the day before the lesson, and yet this is what I do (although in my defence, I have to make a journey to the carillon, so it is more difficult that picking up an instrument at home).

 

Already, this experience is giving me more insight into my students, and hopefully it will increase my patience when students exhibit any of the above tendencies!

Carillon selfie

Me at the Sydney University practice Carillon…. am I the only one who thinks that it looks a little like a medieval instrument of torture?!

HOLIDAYS!!!!

Well, it’s almost that time again – the end of term is only days away and the combined delight and exhaustion of teachers and students alike is almost palpable.

Last school holidays saw me head off to Montreal International Jazz Festival, then Cuba for some conga lessons and Ritmo Mozambique, followed by heaps of culture in New York City, ending with the Katy Perry concert at Madison Square Garden.

The trip was so inspiring for me.  To hear music at such an elite level gave me so much joy and reminded me of what is possible with music.
These holidays, however, are almost completely devoid of music.  A few days up the coast with the children, an afternoon at a city spa, and catching up with friends are on the agenda.

The only musical adventure will be my first proper carillon lesson on Sydney University’s Carillon.

I continue to love developing my craft as well as exploring new ways to express music, so I’m sure that this will inspire me and hopefully in turn I will be able to inspire my students.  I’m sure it will also be helpful to be reminded of how it feels to be a beginner again.

 

I look forward to reporting back, but in the meantime, Happy Holidays!

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.

Exams: pros and cons

This week marks an exciting time for Stellar Music School, when members of two classes will be sitting for their first AMEB piano exams.  Most of these children began with the school, and have now reached the Preliminary level.

We specialise in classes at Stellar Music School, as we feel that music should be a shared experience, quite apart from the healthy competition which can be a great motivator in inducing practice!

Exams are not compulsory at our school.  I love it when parents agree that no formal goals are necessary; and that their children should learn for pleasure.  A weakness of the exam system and the unmotivated student can however mean that a student only learns three pieces a year.  This can prove quite soul-destroying for the passionate teacher!

However, I must comment on the fact that my exam students have achieved more than I would have thought possible in the last few weeks!  Their pieces have been fine-tuned to a higher than usual degree.

It remains to be seen how we all perform next Saturday, but already I am extremely proud of these students and their achievement!

Katy Perry – a review

I guess one of the perks of having a blog is that I can write about whatever I please.
And one of the perks of making a musical living and teaching music is that I am constantly educating myself in ways such as last night attending the New York leg of Katy Perry’s Prismatic tour.

I felt a little misplaced among the tweens and teens in their blue wigs, purple wigs, cat ears, tutus, and brand new Prismatic T-shirts (one teen couldn’t, it appeared, wait for a rest room, but stripped off her old t-shirt to put on her new Prismatic T right on the concourse of the Garden).

However, once seated, I didn’t feel too out of place amongst many mums, dads, reluctant boyfriends and of course thousands of girls.

Mostly what I know about Katy Perry involves her romantic partners and her songs that many of our Stellar students like to sing.

Ms Perry certainly put on a spectacular show; skipping, running on a travellator, dancing, twerking, flying or swinging through the air, all while singing, for over two hours.

She sure can write a hit. I recognised and enjoyed all of her anthemic hit songs, accompanied by acrobatics, dancers, and floating inflatable props.

I expected to sing and dance, but I didn’t expect to cry.

Katy spoke honestly about past difficult seasons in her life, and how often it was the tweets or instagrams of fans (she even named one handle) which inspired her to get out of bed.
She dedicated several songs to her fans, and also did a “pinkie promise” with the audience that she did love us unconditionally, before going on to sing the song of that name.

Considering her audience, I thought it unnecessary that she and both her opening acts used the f-word.

However, apart from that, Ms Perry’s show was completely inspirational. Her lyrics are often about life’s possibilities, and she promised from the stage that this is America, and that any of the audience may one day stand on this very stage.

All in all, I loved the evening and am blessed to have experienced such a fine performance, and to be able to bring this knowledge and inspiration back to our Stellar singing students.

Bribery or compulsory?

Obviously an important part of learning an instrument is spending time practising.

For most children, this can be an onerous task.  As an ex-child myself, and a professional procrastinator, I do know that having to sit down and practise every day can be less than appealing.

But it is necessary.

And doing it every day is much more effective than doing it only on the day before the lesson, or even two or three times a week.

Many children don’t even practise on the day of the lesson (since they had to practise during the lesson) but this is a mistake.  One of the most useful practise sessions would be immediately after the lesson, while everything is still fresh.  Surely part of the reason for procrastination is not remembering the exact notes of the music, which could be remedied by practising while content is still fresh in the mind.

It is ideal that the instrument is practised on most days, to further maximise the lesson time.  How much better it is to spend the lesson in interpretation and musicality, than picking out (and guessing) notes which have not been learnt.

My dream is that I phase myself out – I dream of producing students who don’t need my help to read notes; but who can independently read music.  This is surely the key to becoming a young musician – being able to read the music oneself, and apply musical interpretation to the score.
So, music practise is necessary, but how to convince a child of this fact?

My most successful students are the ones for whom practice is a non-negotiable.  It is simply something that must be done every day.  I just knew that each day I would complete an hour’s practice before leaving for school.  And that was even on the days when I had an early morning rehearsal before school.

There are, however, other ways to help motivate.  One student recently revealed that her reward for practice is canteen money.  Others only get their pocket money if they complete their practice.  And still others have a star chart, where a certain number of practice sessions will add up to a special reward.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but these are a few ideas.

Feel free to share any other ideas that have worked for you!

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.

Talent…

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!