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.

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.

Start small

Welcome to our first musical challenge of 2016!

We have just started back at school and music lessons for the year, and a lot of the problem can be regaining momentum.

I have often come back from a break and expected myself to do 3 hours’ practice on my first day back.

Sometimes I succeed.

But often it takes longer than one day to rebuild a habit.

 

So today, I encourage you to start slowly.

Sit down at the piano (or get out your instrument) and practise for 5 or 10 minutes. Or decide to practise during an ad break (if you’re allowed to watch TV during the week! I often have done this and become so absorbed that I never get back to the TV show.)

Don’t try to play the whole piece immediately, but break it into smaller portions – look at a page, or a line or one bar.

Start slowly, playing one hand at a time. Or if singing, don’t use words initially, but sing through on a vowel. If playing another instrument, perhaps play through all slurred, or all tongued.

Play slowly enough that you don’t need to pause to think or read the next note; always reading ahead as you go.

Repeat a few times, then move on to the next bar or line.

Each day add a little more, and keep working, and persevering, as you continue to learn more of each new piece and work towards mastering each one!

 

 

 

Welcome back

Welcome back to our first full week of lessons at Stellar Music School!

I am trialling an exciting new programme this year, in which I will offer a free private lesson each fortnight to one lucky student!

How can you win this private lesson?

 

I will upload a video on YouTube every fortnight, on Monday, and in it I will be approaching a musical concept or practice challenge on one of my instruments – the piano, pipe organ or carillon.

I will explain the challenge, and give practical tips for how to approach this concept, and then I encourage my students to upload their own video in response, in which they demonstrate some slow and careful practise in the manner I have suggested.
I will watch all videos and announce a winner each fortnight.

Easy!

 

On Monday 15th February I will send through the first challenge, and I hope to be inundated with responses!

 

I hope to prove that passion for music, combined with practice and perseverance, can lead to excellent performances.

Happy practising!

 

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.

 

 

Practice: Stay focussed

In truth, I often can find it difficult to inspire my students to practice, as I cannot remember a time when I had trouble being motivated to practice. Now that practice is such a part of my life, and I have so many gigs, it’s almost a matter of needing to stop myself, rather than find ways to get started and push past procrastination.

However, with my writing, I can (and do) find anything to distract me from getting started.

“To work on my novel” is such a vast goal that it is easy to put off, due to the size of the task.

“To write for half an hour” is a much more achievable goal and easier to face and tackle.

It is keeping this fact in mind that I share my new favourite app!

“Forest app: Stay focussed” was free for my Android but is $1.29 for iPhone. I would consider it a very well spent $1.29.

The idea is that you grow a forest, one tree at a time. You commit 30 minutes to grow each individual tree, but the tree dies if you close the window (to check FaceBook, fiddle on other sites etc). Each time you touch the phone there is another message –

Leave me alone

Stop phubbing!

Go back to your work

Hang in there!

What you plant now you will harvest later

Leave me alone!

Stay focussed!

 

I have it on now.

The child in me loves this concept; even if it is a glorified timer. I will be suggesting this for all my students, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we are competing to see whose forest is the largest.

 

What apps or other tricks have helped with keeping you focussed on practice or work?

 

Whatever it takes!

This blog is to inspire and hopefully to share some clues about what works in motivating students to practise, and to work on the skills necessary to learn and play music.

This post is a quick one, but it worked for one family, so I’m sharing it!

 

5 minutes’ practice = 10 minutes of Minecraft.

That simple.

 

This child hasn’t played his trombone so much in months, if not in years.

 

If bribery works for you, then feel free to rework this model, substituting whatever has currency for your child.

 

 

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.

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.