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.

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.

 

 

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!

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

Never lose the wonder!

Another busy term is drawing to a close.

At Stellar Music School we are gearing up for our Semester 1 concerts, and an opportunity to share our pieces with an appreciative audience.

It has been a great term of new classes, continuing lessons and examination goals.

 

And for those classes who are moving along, making slow but continuous progress, how do we maintain the magic?

 

Fun, humour and passion are hallmarks of our tuition. We love to learn and we learn together.

We mix it up in our classes, doing aural exercises, playing bingo, drawing music notes on the whiteboard, and also doing scale drills.

We also have a collection of other instruments – a cajon, an accordion, rain sticks, ukuleles, and more percussion instruments.

We sing, we dance, and we play other instruments.

I am delighted to hear of any musical adventures my students have elsewhere in life, even when it means they feel the need to bring their recorders to show off in their lesson!

 

I hope that I will also always be learning and finding new musical things to wonder at and to inspire my students with.

Surely life will be more rich if we all greet each day as an opportunity to make new discoveries and find new adventures!

 

Potential

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.

 

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.