A few months ago, my wife hired a theater instructor, who specializes in improv, to come give a workshop for some legal mediators. One exercise he had them do has had a wonderful impact on my music students.
All students struggle, in fact all musicians do, if truth be told. Every musician at every level is trying to raise his or her own ceiling and get just a bit better than before. However, there are some students who regularly do better than they will admit. Their ambition to do well is great, but sometimes, if they demand too much perfection, they taint all their progress with a bad taste. Nothing is good enough. They simply get in their own way.
Jane, for example, would focus on getting all the notes right but her sound was meek and tentative. We worked on that for a while and she made great progress quickly. I complimented her on this, and encouraged her to keep it up and to value her new skill.
But all she could do was frown and look at me as if I was crazy. She pointed out each of the notes she’d missed, especially the one that was way out of tune. She talked as if I was either deaf or lying in order to make her feel better than she should. It was very difficult to convince her that she had made an important step forward in her music making, regardless of a few sour notes.
This is when, finally, the lesson I heard about from the improv instructor paid off. In one of his exercises, he had the students pair off and Read more…
Learning and practicing scales at the keyboard can be relatively easy and enjoyable with the aid of some simple visual aids. Yet music students often feel daunted with the learning of scales, chords and arpeggios, thinking that they are either difficult, unnecessary, time-consuming or irrelevant.
Difficulties for students are most often seen when first trying to cross fingers over/under for piano scales and especially when playing both hands together, trying to remember which fingers to use and which white/black notes and more.
Practising scales plays an essential part in developing skills with the sense of key and pattern acquired through familiarity, speeding up the learning of new pieces, developing aural awareness and increasing familiarity with the geography of the instrument.
From my perspective and personal background, I have always felt that scales, chords and arpeggios are very important for finger dexterity and a better understanding of analysis of musical compositions, particularly with regard to modern music. Yet some teachers put technical exercises somewhat in Read more…
“I didn’t practice as much as I’d like” is a pretty common refrain at music lessons. But “I didn’t touch it since last time” is not so easy to confess to.
There are many reasons why a student didn’t practice. I think it’s important not to lump them all together, but to take care to understand what happened in each individual case, in order to have an effective response.
Perhaps the foremost excuse for not practicing is Read more…
How can I impress on my students that music is for life? Few sports can be played into later years. But music is for life. A job might be fulfilling until retirement. Music is for life.
I’ve started a master class series in which I’ll invite elderly musicians to share their music and their stories.
Martha Nelson shares why music is for life
The first was Martha Nelson, a drummer/singer/pianist/accordion player who entertained in all-girl bands in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Martha practicing accordion
Martha sang weekly on the Jerry Blake Show for Madison, Wisconsin’s WKOW TV its first year on the air.
Martha Nelson about to sing on WKOW-TV Madison, WI in the 1950s
She passed her music on to her daughters, who are both working musicians (and one of whom is yours truly). She drummed for our family’s dance band through the 1980s.
Martha played several pieces for my students (including the Glenn Miller hit “In the Mood”), and shared the story of how she got her start. She went all the way back to her mother. Grandma planned to travel to the U.S. from Sweden to join her husband. She was booked to sail on the Titanic. But her first-born, my Aunt Vicky, got sick, and they had to wait. Mom told my students their teacher wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that.
She taught herself piano. One of ten children, her dad brought a drum home one day, handed it to her, and told her that would be her instrument.
Now at 89, she still plays piano and sings. And one can often see her foot going or hear her fingers tapping in true drummer fashion.A year ago she joined me singing in a coffee shop—and I gotta tell you, she’s still got it! Her voice hasn’t really aged. Music helps keep her young.
Yeah, play it!
After Martha’s presentation, my students entertained her. The final song, by Chris, was—“My Heart Will Go On”—the theme from the movie Titanic!
Dane & Chris
Ava, Sam & Sara, seated
Music is good for many things: for background, for relaxing, for accompaniment to shopping or working,
for inspiration, entertainment, making a living,
passing on to another generation,
Passing the gift of music on to the next generation and the next…
and enjoying—from the womb till one’s final breath and into eternal life.
Written by Doug Hanvey, a private piano teacher from Portland, Oregon.
These tips are oriented towards teachers and adult students, but a creative teacher will be able to translate these principles for their younger students.
In our increasingly complex and frenetic world there seem to be endless tasks and distractions that keep us from the things that really matter to us. If one of the things that matter is learning the piano, it would be worthwhile to occasionally reflect on how we choose to spend our time.
Endless Information and Techno-Distractions
Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize winner, said: “A wealth of information means a scarcity of whatever that information consumes. What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information,” said Simon, “creates a poverty of attention.”
There’s more information to digest than ever before. Every day, most of us spend hours watching TV, catching up on email (many of which are a waste of time), sending texts, playing computer games, surfing the web, or some combination of these.
Our capacity and availability for giving attention is no less critical to learning the piano than it ever was, despite the fact that we live in such an attention-impoverished time.
Start an Information Diet
So what can we do? If you’re serious about becoming a better pianist, and feel that you never have enough time to practice, consider an information diet. Meaning: kill your TV. And Facebook. And Twitter. And 80% of your email. Stop mindless web surfing. And computer games.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
––Robert Frost, from The Road Not Taken
Ten years from now, would you rather have taken the road of practicing for 5,000 more hours or have spent those 5,000 hours mindlessly surfing the web and watching TV?
Which road would lead to a more fulfilling life, so that on your last day you would be able to say “I gave it my all. I chose to spend my time on what really mattered.”
You know the answer. And you know it’s up to you.
Every “Yes” Is A “No”
Have you ever realized that each time you say yes to something, you are simultaneously saying no to something else?
Each time you log on to Facebook or spend half an hour roaming the Internet, you are saying no to something that might be more productive and valuable, if you were consciously aware of your values and used them to organize your time.
In his book The 4-Hour Workweek, author Timothy Ferriss pointed out that most media is “time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, or outside of your sphere of influence.” Ferriss challenged his readers to look at what they’ve read or watched today and deny that it wasn’t one or more of these things.
For the sake of mastering your instrument, I challenge you to do the same.
Here’s a brief exercise to help you decide if an information diet could be useful to you. For our purposes, “media” means any combination of TV, Internet use (web surfing, emailing, instant messaging or chatting), talk radio, newspapers, magazines, books and audio books, computer games, and use of numerous other portable electronic devices (unfortunately, ways to become media-spellbound expand daily).
I purposely kept “listening to music” off the above list, but in all fairness, while it’s something every music student should be doing regularly, it too can become a distraction from actually playing. Balance is the key.
You can do this exercise by mindfully reflecting on the questions, or by writing in your journal:
Which kinds of technology and media do I consume the most?
How many minutes or hours on average do I consume media or use technology as a distraction (i.e. not for work)?
Why do I use the technology and consume the media that I consume? Is it a conscious choice or a habit?
Am I trying to avoid something by distracting myself with media? What?
Do I crave using technology or consuming media? Might I even be addicted?
Is my use of technology and media related to the sense that I don’t have enough time to practice my instrument?
How do I feel and behave after exposure to various types of media? (For example, studies indicate people usually feel more depressed after watching TV; and higher levels of Internet use have been associated with adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.)
Could reducing my use of technology and consumption of media enhance my progress as a musician?
6 Practical Tips
If you think you could benefit from reducing your reliance on technology and consumption of media, here are a few practical tips, courtesy of Ferriss:
Ask yourself about any information you are about to consume: “Will I use this information for something immediate and important?” If your intake of information is not both immediate and important, then don’t consume it. Just say no.
Practice “the art of non-finishing.” Starting to consume an information source does not justify finishing it.
Always ask: Am I being productive or just active?
Always ask: If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?
Never check email first thing in the morning. Get something important done first.
Try an indefinite media fast. No newspapers, magazines, audiobooks, or nonmusic radio. (Music is permitted). No news websites. No television. No web surfing at the desk unless it’s necessary to complete a work task that day.
More than a century ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There are many things of which a wise person might wish to be ignorant.” These days, his advice seems more relevant than ever. What might be worth ignoring and saying “no” to, so you can start saying “yes” to that which is more important?
Doug Hanvey offers piano lessons in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of 88 Keys to the Blues, a method which helps students master fundamental piano technique and musical skills while learning basic stylistic elements of the blues. The course builds a strong foundation for playing and improvising in blues, jazz, rock, and other popular piano styles.
‘Tis the season of preparing students for upcoming contests, festivals and recitals. Here are four performance-enhancing apps that promise to help you help your students to do their best.
The Camera simulates the presence of a real audience more than you, the teacher, can provide during a lesson. Once that camera starts rolling, students move into a performance zone and are forced to commit to seeing the piece through with musicality and as few errors as possible. The beauty of the camera is that musicians can see and hear the instant replay, make self-assessments and learn from their mistakes. It’s like a digital mirror that reflects EVERYTHING you may be trying to reinforce at lessons. Bonus? It comes free with any smart phone or tablet!
Mmm! Lots of keen sports people randomly running around for 90 minutes?!
And yet, how easy it would be for our music students to be drifting along aimlessly without any real direction. And maybe even us too as their teacher!
So what is the secret to motivating our pupils (and ourselves)?
I’m sure you would agree that we need to set a combination of achievable short and long term goals. Goals give students and teachers focus. Short term goals act as “stepping stones” to the bigger ones.
And the best goals of all? Those are the goals set by the student. When they take “ownership” of their goals, they really do make great progress!
So this month, consider four small goals to encourage pupils to set. Hopefully, the bigger goals will naturally follow…
1st Goal – Let them choose the pieces (songs)
Pupils are far more motivated if they’ve chosen the song. Here’s an old trick of mine. If they are preparing for a concert or an exam, why not give them a Read more…
“I can’t do it!” “I won’t do it!” “It’s too hard!”
Have you ever heard this from a student? One minute you have a sunny, happy child sitting at their instrument. The next, storm clouds and even threat of waterworks. And all you did was to place a new piece of music in front of them. Or remind them of a technique on which they’ve been working.
You want me to do WHAT?
If distraction doesn’t work , and neither do our words of reassurance or encouragement, how can we help them get past the tunnel vision that comes with feeling overwhelmed? How can we empower them to see solutions instead of the pessimism of believing they are bound to fail? (try this iPad tool for a distraction technique: Piano Maestro)
Dane shows how he’d look if he felt overwhelmed
Here are 5 ways to help a student get past “It’s too hard!”
1. Pull out a piece you know the student will love. Maybe it’s a little beyond her level, but she has a passionfor this piece.
2. Wait—don’t show the new song to her yet. Copy the piece. Cut apart the treble and bass lines. Start with either one. Place Post-its over every measure but one. Reveal only one measure at a time. If necessary, re-cover the ones she’s already done.
3. Stay low-key. Be blasé. Act as if it doesn’t really matter to you—she can play it or not, it’s up to her. The reward is the look on her face when she recognizes the song.
4. If the problem is the stress students feel when they hear themselves flubbing up, have them try out a measure on their lap. Then they’ll have gotten through it pain-free before trying it on their instrument.
5. Use humor. Example: a piano student got stressed about lightening up a heavy hand. I’d tried images of a bird lighting, a feather floating down on the keys… those only caused frustration. But when I said to imagine a hippo plummeting to the keys, he found it hilarious, and the problem was solved! Now all I have to do is sketch a hippo head on the page (or use hippo stickers) and his hands are balanced and light.
Next time you hear “It’s too hard!” give one (or all) of these a try.
This post is about the effectiveness of positive vs negative teaching.
What exactly do I want to get across to this student? Where do I want to take him/her, and what’s going to be the most effective way to get there? Any engaged teacher will regularly consider these questions. And one way to sharpen our awareness of these questions is to think about positive vs negative communication.
The first thing I do on a positive note with a student is to listen to them play. Even if they are playing badly, I like for them to play long enough for me to have time to catalog in my mind all the basics that are being done WELL. For example, the music may sound awful because of being all out of tune, but their timing might be good, or the sequence of phrases correct, and hand position may be good. I can start with this list as a foundation of good things to build upon. It’s certainly preferable to build than to tear down.
Try an experiment: Take note of each time you say “no” to a student. Notice each time you tell them they did something wrong.
It’s easy to say “no, don’t do that.” It’s easy to point out a mistake or problem. Why? Because teaching is all about getting a student from Point A to Point B, and identifying the obstacles is the first step to overcoming them. The big question is whether we focus on the obstacles or on the solutions.
When I tried the “no” experiment, I found Read more…
Do you have students who constantly feel ‘the need to look’ at their hands when sight reading and learning music on the piano? Perhaps they try to memorise the music quickly before they have learnt it sufficiently, then make many mistakes when playing it because they have forgotten what is actually in the music?
Do these students also regularly lose their place in the music and therefore get annoyed with their playing? The answer would be “Oh yes they do” in my experience.
I needed a solution that works well for me and my students in order to stop ‘the need to look’ at their hands.