music student focus

There is a common enemy among music teachers, heck, all teachers!

It’s the battle for the attention and focus of our students!

If you teach children, you know there is a problem of focus that is just not part of teaching teens or adults.  Young children have shorter attention spans and are easily distracted!

Tips for Battling the Distraction

Steps can be taken to keep the distraction at bay.  Some of these things may seem obvious, but you must look out for them

  • Limit clutter in the teaching space
  • Remove potentially attention-grabbing toys or objects
  • Have  a policy that  phones must be set on vibrate
  • Limit the seating to discourage too many siblings in the space
  • Don’t allow eating in the studio
  • Limit or remove pets
  • Use music notation that is visually clear and clutter-free

As so much of our visual attention is placed on reading music notation, the following can greatly assist in attaining focus.

When presented with traditional music notation, students are often overwhelmed by how complicated it all looks.  And it is complicated!

Reading music is a high-level skill.  It takes a long time and a lot of practice  to understand all the symbolic language and the nuances.   

In the first few stages of our Musicolor Notation, students begin to learn structure.   They begin to notice the patterns of the entire piece as a whole and which parts are slightly different but mostly the same.  Then we dive into the smaller details.

With traditional music notation, we do the same.  But so often, students still feel overwhelmed by all the abstract symbols on the page.  

To help with this, we developed a Focus Window.  

What’s a Focus Window?

A Focus Window is a way of directing the student’s attention to a specific portion of the page.  You can use a Focus Window for not only  reading music but also for teaching reading words to young children or to place attention only on a portion of a large picture, graph, map or chart.  

By using a Focus Window, students can work on a smaller area  than they would naturally reach for.   It limits the information overload.

Constructing the Focus Window

There are a few ways you can construct a Focus Window.  

Originally we tried to use flashlights by focusing light beams on  certain areas of the sheet music.  That didn’t work too well with young students.  The dark room was too extreme and all sorts of hilarious screaming ensued!

Paper and cardboard cutout windows were mildly successful.  

Our favorite and simplest method of constructing a Focus Window involves Post-It notes.  These wonderful little 3” by 3” yellow squares of paper with the light adhesive made by 3M have been an essential part of our studio for years.

By using the Post-Its to block certain areas of the page, you can quickly create an area in the middle that is the Focus Window.  

Here’s an example of how to block out a small Focus Window from a larger piece of music.

A Focus Window for music

Only play what’s inside the window

Too often, students try to play an entire phrase which it too much for them to  hold in their mental desktop.  By making that phrase smaller, (much smaller!) and only showing a small portion visually, we can control their focus.

The benefit of using removable Post-It notes is that you can quickly resize the Focus Window or even move it as your student progresses through the piece.

Some Focus Windows are quite large and are made by covering up all the extraneous information many method book publishers clutter the page with.

So often there are instructions meant to be read by a teacher or parent but not the student.  This type of text is very overwhelming for young children.  The same is true of the small duet parts often printed below the student part.

Also, many times there are beautiful illustrations and graphics on the page.  These can be charming and helpful.   For pre-literate children, the illustrations can be the way they remember which song is which as they can’t read the titles.

But the graphics should be limited as they do pull away focus.

We also teach the parents of our students how to do this at home.  It allows us to send home lesson notes that say, “Work on the one measure in the Focus Window and then enlarge it to include 2 measures.”

Learning how to practice is a skill that affects a student’s life forever.  By teaching students  how to effectively practice by limiting data and concentrating repetitively on small parts at a time, we can teach mastery skills.

The Itch of Curiosity

By using a Focus Window we limit the data.  We obscure parts of the whole.  This can be used to our benefit.  It triggers a universal psychological effect known as the information or knowledge gap.  

In the 1990’s, Carnegie-Mellon researcher George Lowenstein put forth the “Information Gap Theory of Curiosity.”

“It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.” (Wired magazine)

If you tell your students “you can’t peek under this until next week,” you have effectively created some curiosity.  Many of them will actually look just to see what’s there.   

Some have even “figured it out themselves.”

Others have practiced even more to make sure they get to “open the window.”

The Hidden Answer Window

The inverse of a Focus Window is a Hidden Answer Window.

Do you remember those interactive children’s books that have hidden flaps that allow a child to discover more content?  These were fun and engaging because of the curiosity invoked by hiding answers or parts of the story.

You can do this with music too.

Sometimes students are just not ready to work on certain phrases or maybe a left hand piano part is too tricky right now and you want them to work only on the right hand.  

Hidden Answer Windows in music

No peeking!

By covering the tricky bits with a little Post-It flap, you create a Hidden Answer Window.  They remind us that there is still unfinished business on this page, but we will discover it  together in future lessons.  

This  lowers the stress level of students who are desperately trying to seek your approval by playing everything perfectly.  It lets them off the hook.

It’s funny how some simple things can transform a lesson from drudgery and pain to effortless progress.

I have a few more practice and focus tips in a free download, 10 Tips To Make Practice Easy, Effective + Fun!

 

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Ed Pearlman

Provocative Expression

December 5th, 2016 by

girl-1488518_640

In talking about musical expression at a higher level, as we’re going to do here, I just have one caution to suggest first:  one of the biggest mistakes teachers and students make about musical expression is to imagine that it’s icing on the cake, that it takes place after all the technical hurdles are passed.  On the contrary, expression is not the reward for having technique — it’s the reason for developing technique!  It needs to be part and parcel of the learning process, from day one, or at least from very early on.

There is a good reason why stage actors hyper-exaggerate every movement or sound they make.  They have to not only express an emotional gesture, but they have to make you notice it.

Two stories about making you notice an emotional idea:  one story about a touring musician I heard and wished I could give a lesson to, and one about a series of drawings that I once made.
Read more…

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

Reuben Vincent

Theory Terminator!

November 7th, 2016 by

terminator

A game of “Terminator” in full swing! From left to right, Lauren, Amanda (Mom) and Alisha Adams

Let’s be honest! Who enjoys learning a long list of Italian terms for their music theory exam? Not many! Here’s an idea for making learning music terms fun! Enter “Terminator!”

Giving the activity an exciting name is half the battle. The two girls pictured are currently preparing for their grade 2 theory exam so we called the game “Terminator 2.” Lauren and Alisha have downloaded free buzzer apps onto their phones and their Mom, Amanda, has really embraced the role of game host giving the girls a fun way of learning their terms several nights a week between lessons in the lead up to their exam.

There are lots of ways of calling the Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Teaching Tempo

One fundamental question that lurks in the mind of students is:  “How am I ever going to play this music up to tempo?”

Many teachers have standard methods for speeding up a student’s playing, but there are several interesting ideas to consider on this subject, and they reflect different priorities about how to play music.

Perhaps the most common method for learning to play at tempo is to first learn the notes solidly at a comfortable tempo.  Then practice the music at slowly increasing metronome settings so as to arrive eventually at the correct tempo.

While I think this approach is valid, its weakness is that it sets the highest priority on getting all the notes right.

Tempo is not about the notes but about the beat.  One way to learn to play up to tempo might be to understand the beat first, and then fill in the beats with the correct notes.

Placing a high priority on understanding the beat means physically moving to the beat, which could involve the knee, the foot, swaying, breathing, and for string players requires a strong focus on good and consistent bowing.
Instead of reading the music as if every note was as important as every other, the student who focuses on beat notes would single out those beat notes for awareness and emphasis.

A good exercise for the student to try is to learn the beat notes for a passage of music, and then to invent ways of arriving at those beat notes on time.  If the student has heard the piece a number of times, the chances are good that their ears will guide them to actually play the correct notes.  But even if they are unsure, they can learn a great deal from finding their own pathways from one beat note to the next.

At heart, this is improvising, but it doesn’t really matter what we call it.  The learning process is that after inventing their own ways to get from one beat note to the other, they will appreciate better the choices the composer made, and will remember the music better because they will understand it from the inside, instead of merely memorizing what the music tells them to play.

Of course, the problem of playing the correct notes up to tempo still requires learning the notes.  But learning them in the context of arriving at the next beat note, and within the structure of a phrase, makes it far easier to learn the notes.

A good comparison can be made with speech.  It is far easier, quicker and longer-lasting to learn to say the phrase, “I like this music up to tempo,” than to learn the sequence, “i-l-i-k-e-t-h-i-s-m-u-s-i-c-u-p-t-o-t-e-m-p-o.”  Placing the notes within the beats, right from the start and engages the ears and the muscle memory of the fingers.

Special note:  A corollary to this discussion is that as much as we may want to get every note right, some notes are more important than others.  The beat notes are clearly the top priority for hearing music correctly.  This means we can relax a little about non-beat notes and trust students and ourselves to nail them down during the learning process, rather than panic about mistakes.  This too has a correlation to speech.  Our brains understand sentences that are misspelled if the first and last letters, and length of the word, are correct.  For example, we can understand, “I lkie tihs misuc up to tmepo” much more easily than if the initial letters were wrong:  “I klie to aply umsci up to etmpo.”

Cognitive studies have shown that drilling the same thing over and over fatigues the brain and yields diminishing returns.  Practicing something in different ways, trying new ideas, and playing games with learning, have been shown to allow for endless attention from the brain.

Learning notes as written and then drilling a passage at increasing speeds can be quite tiring and may have to be repeated many times to get lasting results.

But thinking a little bigger, placing the priority on learning the beat notes, improvising pathways between beats, then finding out the composer’s choices and learning them, noticing patterns within beats such as scales and arpeggios that lead to the next beat note, or even learning manageable bits of the music, such as phrases or half-phrases, up to tempo immediately rather than gradually — these are all intriguing games that allow a student to play up to tempo while gaining a greater understanding and appreciation for the construction of the music.  They’ll build in more musicality while arriving more quickly at their goal of playing up to tempo.

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Lang Lang

Musicians are divided it seems – There are those who would be lost without their sheet music and there are those that play beautifully “by ear.”

Which is the correct method for playing music? What a question! I’m sure both camps will have good arguments to justify their preferred method. Personally, I sit in the middle seeing the pros and cons of both methods!

When teaching beginners, I like to start by teaching them basic music reading skills. At a point when they are successfully reading to a sufficient standard and maintaining those skills on a regular basis, I like to introduce the world of memory to them. Why? Here are some of my reasons:

• Learning to play by memory is practical – you can play for others at the drop of a hat when you don’t have your music.

• Playing from memory encourages the student to focus more on a musical performance.

• Encouraging memory skills allows for a more holistic approach to learning and music making.

• Older adult students love to work on memory techniques as they are often keen to try to keep their brains working!

Right from the beginning we can lay the foundation as we teach our students a simple scale by memory. We might build on that with more complex figures like arpeggios or broken chords. The main thing for the student to start recognizing are the patterns in music. Simple tunes are often littered with sequences (melodic figures that are repeated slightly higher or lower). As we help our students to decipher the building blocks of the song in question, it gives us, the teacher, the opportunity to incorporate theory and composition techniques.

For some, learning to play by memory may feel very daunting. They will need constant encouragement but the rewards can be phenomenal! I’ve seen many a metamorphosis – a timid performer turn into an expressive and confident musician because they have discovered the empowering magic of playing by memory.

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

piano-926851_640

It seems there is a secret that is right in front of our noses. It is the secret of effective practice.

How I Learned The Secret of Effective Practice

When I was a young college student at NYU in a double major program of music education and jazz performance on guitar, I spent many hours on the 9th floor of the old SEHNAP building. It was called SEHNAP at the time because of the crazy acronym for a school that just seemed to be thrown together: the School of Health, Nursing, and Arts Professions. Today it’s called the Steinhardt building after a patron.

The 9th Floor

Anyway, the 9th floor was where the practice rooms were. These were small rooms with upright pianos and a small double pane glass window to peek in or out. There was just barely enough room for one person to sit and practice at the piano or stand and play sax or violin or any other instrument with a single music stand. The rooms were soundproof which also meant they were pretty air tight. After spending an hour or more in a room, you would start to feel the stuffiness of low oxygen and the heat of your own breath filling the room and you had to take a break for risk of fainting! And yet, these rooms were packed most of the week. Weekends, you could possibly find a room when lunch rolled around. But these rooms were coveted. It was where all the work happened.

Woodshedding

Jazz players call this woodshedding and it involved a story of Charlie Parker (or maybe some other jazz legend) hiding out in a woodshed to practice for hours and hours a day. In fact practice became known as “woodshedding” or “shedding” for short. I figure I spent my first two years of college “shedding” anywhere from 2 to 4 hours a day. This was less than in high school when there was really nothing else to do and I could spend up to 9 hours a day practicing. But it wasn’t all that productive. A lot of it was just repeatedly playing the same songs and licks and exercises over and over again with marginal improvement.

Victor’s Epiphany

It was on one of these long shedding days on the 9th floor when Victor, a guitar player of amazing abilities in his 3rd year, came stumbling out of a practice room with a euphoric look on his face. A bunch of us were taking a break from practice sitting on the floor near the elevators and we looked up expectantly.

“I just realized the most amazing thing!” Victor looked like he was high or something.

“What’s up Vic?” Ben called out.

“You don’t practice what you ALREADY know! You practice WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW!”

Victor stumbled back to his practice room and shut the door. The group of us on the floor just sat there like a bomb had gone off. In fact it was a bomb…in our minds. It blew away all the old conceptions of what practice was. It’s a moment I will never forget because it was like a complete shift in my thinking.

Practice What You Don’t Know

This is something that is hard for young students to realize on their own. Many of my lessons are spent actually in practice mode with them. I think of it like a soccer coach practicing goal kicks with my players. In fact, most kids playing soccer are not going to be practicing on their own, they are getting the practice with the coach.

Practicing in the Lesson

As a music teacher, it can be similar. Many students have poor practice skills or do not practice at home at all! The lessons then become about practicing and teaching them how to practice.

Smoothing Over

The biggest tip at improving is having the student work on the part that is giving them the most trouble, and repeating it several times. Then, running the whole song becomes a much better experience. At home, the student is now able to enjoy creating these sounds because that trouble spot has been “smoothed over.”

The game of practice is a book about encouraging and motivating children to practice their music instrument

You can teach kids the vital life skill of practice

The Game of Practice

This is an excerpt from my new book, The Game of Practice, with 53 tips to make practice fun! 

It’s a book for music teachers and parents of music students.  It has essays, like this one, about mindset and then 53 individual tips and tricks to make practice much less overwhelming and more game-like along with stories from my studio and my own personal parenting experiences.  You can get it for free for a limited time at Amazon.  If you find it helpful, I would greatly appreciate a kind review.

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Ed Pearlman

Music for Healing

June 12th, 2016 by

flute-1427649_640

Music heals.  It is widely used in therapy, it soothes the moods of people round the world, and the act of playing music generates endorphins that make a player feel better.

Music therapy has been used for many years for its multi-sensory expression.  Studies about neurological development support its use to draw out feelings and concerns of patients.  It was found to be particularly effective with traumatized children after World War II.  Therapists use many methods to work with people, including moving to music, listening, playing on instruments, body percussion, singing, and songwriting.

In the 1930s, my mother studied piano from a man named Moissaye Boguslawski, who had grand notions of what music could do to heal people.  He believed, ahead of his times, that music could cure antisocial behavior and treat memory loss.  A prominent concert pianist with various symphonies, he insisted on playing regular piano concerts at the Cook County Hospital for the Insane, a place in Chicago commonly called Dunning, which doubled as an insane asylum and a poorhouse.  Boguslawski was convinced that music had healing effects on people suffering in that institution.  He is respected for his work, including articles in leading publications on the psychological and therapeutic effects of music, but Time magazine wrote a 1936 profile of him which took a decidedly cynical and bemused view of his opinions and projects.

Times have certainly changed since then.  The healing effects of music are well accepted, and music therapy is a common health care career.

But music also heals the musician.  A study done by Oxford researchers found that active performers had an increased pain threshold after performing than before.  This included three groups of participants: churchgoers who actively sang and clapped versus those who sang politely in their pews; dancers who performed as compared to musicians who were frequently interrupted during rehearsal; and musicians in a drumming circle, versus those who sat and listened to music.

The increase of the pain threshold was used as an indication that endorphins were being generated by the performance activities.

The key researcher pointed out that “It is probably the uninhibited flow or continuity of action that is important: if the music is frequently interrupted (as in rehearsals), any effect is markedly reduced (if not obliterated).”

Practice and rehearsal might be very careful and nonflowing — but hopefully only to prepare for a performance that flows effortlessly.

There might be a lesson here for teachers, however — too much interruption, criticism, fear of mistakes, lack of continuity, can prevent a sense of flow and a sense of joy in playing music.  While some of that careful thought and practice can be necessary for developing skills, it is also essential to practice allowing continuity, rehearsing the feeling of flow, permitting enjoyment, and striving for effortlessness, even if in small segments.  You are what you practice, and if your practice is grim, halting, and fearful, the performance is unlikely to rise above the practice.

Making sure there is a goodly percentage of flow in practice sets the stage for a flowing performance, and unless the listeners are dancing along, the musicians in such a performance are likely to feel healthier and happier than their audience by the time the show is over!

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fitness for musicians

By Robin Steinweg

It’s obvious. Physical fitness helps us be better vocalists, pianists, guitarists, whateverists. We grow more fit as we practice our instruments. This is probably especially true for voice or wind instruments. And it probably goes without saying. But teachers can also encourage students to great physical fitness during lessons.

Fitness by-products of playing or singing

  • Better posture
  • Breathing more deeply and breath control
  • Endurance/stamina
  • Better eating habits—especially stressed in vocal lessons, I suspect
  • Better hydration—I offer water to all students, not only vocalists
  • Greater body awareness
  • Emotional health

I recall one of my voice instructors telling me that if I were to sing correctly I’d probably never need to do crunches! It’s true that vigorous practice or performances can be taxing. But over time, they also build us up and energize us.

12 fun ways to encourage fitness during lessons or practice

(use some of these as practice challenges—get parents, siblings or grandparents to join in!)

  • Sit on an exercise ball during lessons or practice http://ow.ly/rRdc300JTeK
  • Stand to play, even at the piano
  • Walk around the room while playing or singing
  • March in place while playing
  • Practice vocal scales as you trot up and down the stairs
  • Dance the rhythm of your piece
  • If syncopated, add handclaps
  • Bounce a ball in rhythm while walking and playing (try it with a partner)
  • Jump on the rests
  • Listen to a recording of your piece—choreograph with steps and arm swings—like aerobic dance
  • If you have a trampoline, young students could practice bouncing in time to you or a recording
  • Set up a gentle obstacle course (chairs, cones, folders, stairs) and walk it while playing or singing

Note: check with parents before engaging students in activities (wouldn’t want to bring on an asthma attack or anything!).

How do you promote physical fitness as a music teacher?

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image

Let me tell you about a little secret I’ve been keeping!

All my pupils love it! It’s been handy for helping them learn new songs, especially tricky bits! It’s helped them improve their music reading skills! It’s encouraged a deeper understanding of theory! And best of all it’s free!

So what’s the big secret? Drum roll please…. Noteflight!?!

What does Noteflight do?

Noteflight is easy to use software with which you can create, listen and print out high-quality sheet music notation. And it’s brilliant!!!

Is there a catch?

Not really. Most of my students use the basic version which is free. You can pay a monthly or yearly subscription for extra features but the free version is Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Music News, Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

It’s a common problem among parents and music teachers; sometimes kids just don’t want to practice! So when your old methods aren’t working, it’s time to try some new tactics to encourage a child student to practice. TakeLessons.com put together an infographic that includes tips from bloggers, music teachers, and experts.

Use some of these tips to assist parents with home practice. What are your proven tips for practice motivation? Let us know in the comments!

Source: http://takelessons.com/blog/motivate-your-child-to-practice-music-z15

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