Hannah Cameron at piano

Now, go home and practice!

Much of the learning of an instrument takes place at home, between lessons. The more productive the home practice is, the better the progress. Below is a handout I once gave to my students to put in their binders as a reference for when they were not sure what to work on next. The instructions were to chose a category, then work on 3-5 items from the list. The lists are a little random, and many more points could be included, but it is a starting point. I have also used practice card decks, and even made Andrea Dow’s “popsicle sticks in a cup” as a group lesson activity, in which students write practice ideas on popsicle sticks, then place the sticks in plastic drinking cup and set it on their piano. They draw out sticks when practice inspiration is needed. This coming year I would like to make an entire “home practice kit” for each student. I’ll write a blog about it once it comes together!

Practice Helps

1. tempo, beat, rhythm

  • check the time signature, look for any variations
  • establish a steady beat at a manageable tempo
  • tap out or clap the rhythm hands separately counting out loud
  • use the metronome
  • try tapping the right hand melody rhythmically while tapping the beat with your left hand, and visa versa
  • find the underlying “felt” beat in the music
  • try counting using the smallest note value as your beat
  • in complicated sections draw a vertical line connecting the right- and left-hand notes that belong on the same beat

2. fingering, chord patterns and intervals

  • slowly play each hand separately while checking for exact fingering
  • if any changes are needed in fingering, carefully re-mark the score
  • highlight or note any places where the hand changes position for a new fingering pattern
  • practice, in isolation, any hard fingering passages, then connect them to the surrounding phrases
  • figure out what key the music is in and play the primary chords for that key
  • look for chords in your music, in blocked or broken patterns
  • look for intervals in the melody and harmony to help you find new notes and assist in fingering
  • if a passage has very difficult fingering, try memorizing it
  • try playing a passage slowly with your eyes closed, just by touch, without looking at the music or the keys
  • make a difficult passage into a fun exercise by playing it over and over moving up a whole step each time

3. posture, relaxation, body alignment

  • check to make sure you are sitting on your “sitting bones” and your back is tall, neither slouched nor over-curved inward, practice shifting your balance from one hip to the other
  • make sure your shoulders are relaxed and your arms are hanging freely
  • with your arm hanging loosely, find your natural, relaxed hand position for each hand and carefully bring your hand up to the piano
  • be sure your bench is positioned properly, top knuckles just touch the fall board while leaning ever-so-slightly forward, forearm is parallel with the floor
  • make sure your feet are properly supported and are properly supporting your body
  • be sure your head feels well balanced and weightless on top of your shoulders
  • quickly check your relaxation and posture every so often as you play
  • keep your wrists level and relaxed and your arms aligned with your hands
  • lean back slightly when playing directly in front of your body

4. articulation, phrasing, clarity

  • find all the phrases in your music and mark them according to how they should be shaped
  • make sure each finger is playing all the way to the bottom of the key and the weight of your arm follows the fingers and stays behind each note as it is played
  • practice a legato passage staccato, and a staccato passage legato for a change
  • practice the two and three note slurs to get a proper pattern of dropping and lifting
  • practice lifting at the end of each phrase and dropping into the new phrase
  • try playing the piece at half the normal tempo and keep all the dynamics and phrasing correct
  • find the loudest note in each phrase and then add the other notes at the right loudness to properly shape the phrase
  • use Mary Gae George’s “Thermometer of Dynamics to mark detailed shaping to the phrases

5. expression, emotion, feeling

  • try to determine the mood of your piece:
  • look at the title and the words (if any)
  • look at the dynamic markings
  • look at the rhythm patterns
  • is it fast or slow, accented, legato or staccato, etc?
  • determine if it is in a major or a minor key
  • play through the piece and ask yourself how it makes you feel; look through your list of descriptive words
  • get a picture or a story in your mind that matches how the music makes you feel
  • sing the song with emotion and feeling and match that expression in your playing
  • dance to the song
  • record yourself playing and listen critically
  • listen to a high quality You-tube version of your piece, if available
  • over-emphasize the emotion, without worrying about accuracy for the time being

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Posted in Practicing, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

tractor and trailer

Now I must explain from the outset that I have absolutely no farming experience whatsoever! Completely zilch!

But I do know that a trailer will go nowhere without a tractor to guide it!

So how can we help young Jenny conquer that awkward phrase in her song?

How can we help old Mary Williams to master the art of rubato?

How can little Jonny play that scale with flair?

Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm

The answer is simple – us! It all starts with Read more…

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Robin Steinweg

Music for Life

May 28th, 2015 by

A Master Class Series by Robin Steinweg

Music for Life

Music for Life

My second Music for Life Master Class—a success.

I started this series with plans to invite senior musicians. I’ll expand it to include musicians of all ages. Music for Life could end up defining my studio.

A master class series like this can enhance and promote your studio as well as inspire and bless your students. (Be sure to schedule it on your MTH calendar, and have reminders sent automatically!)

As students arrived, I directed them to the dining room for cheese, crackers, lemonade and sweet tea. Things go better with an after-school snack, don’t you think?  Snacks 5-20-15

Char Monette came as our featured local musician and piano teacher. I invited students and parents/grandparents to attend. We had good attendance in spite of busy May schedules.

Char shared musical moments and wisdom for about twenty minutes.

At age 8 her family moved to Japan when her dad was called up to fight in the Korean War. They couldn’t have a piano because he was only a lieutenant. But her classmate’s dad had a higher rank, and owned a piano. She walked home from school with Edward every day and practiced half an hour. Her teacher spoke no English, and she no Japanese. Music was their common language. She practiced very hard to earn a pat on the shoulder, and avoid mistakes which elicited a “No-no-no-no!” or worse, a rap on the knuckles with a pencil.

She began to teach in 1977 when another musician in town told her she must. This is good for us to remember! We can encourage musical gifts in others.

Ava, Amy Jorgenson, Sam, Char Monette, Bethie              Char Monette speaks to my students

Char said:

“Music is a gift from God. To think that your fingers can move on the keys, and music comes out… that is a gift from God.”

“I don’t often sit and listen to music. I would rather make music.”

I asked, “Char, what has music meant to you throughout your life?”

She responded, “You know, I don’t really think about it. I breathe, but I don’t think about that either. Breathing is pretty important. Music is just like that.”

She played “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” from her John Thompson Third Grade Level book.

Char's book, 1938 copyright

My students played for her. Some played their own compositions or their own arrangements of pieces. Some played my arrangements. They all gave a gift of music back to Char to thank her for coming to show them Music for Life!

You might like to read about my first guest in this series: professional drummer, vocalist and pianist Martha Nelson: Music Is for Life    …and here are a few of my students…

Sarah Wruck plays her own Key to My Heart     Sam plays Purple People Eater

Leanna plays Phantom of the Opera Dane plays In the Hall of the Mtn King

Chris plays Theme from Titanic   Ava plays Big Brass Band

Malea Niesen

 

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Posted in Music History & Facts, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio

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.
happysad
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…

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

Keyboard Ruler

Getting Creative – My Students’ Rulers

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…

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Posted in Music Theory, Practicing, Teaching Tips, Uncategorized

“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.
practice chart
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…

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

Robin Steinweg

Music is for Life

March 27th, 2015 by

By Robin Steinweg

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 musicians to share their music and their stories.

Martha Nelson shares why music is for life

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 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

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.

Mom, daughter master class 2-11-15

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.

Martha master class 2-11-15 Guest artist Martha Nelson 2-11-15

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

Dane & Chris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah

Sarah

Ava, Sam & Sara, seated

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...

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.

Music is for life!

 

 

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Posted in Financial Business, Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Promoting Your Studio

Written by Doug Hanvey, a private piano teacher from Portland, Oregon. 

Find Time To Practice Music

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.

8 Questions

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:

  1. Which kinds of technology and media do I consume the most?
  2. How many minutes or hours on average do I consume media or use technology as a distraction (i.e. not for work)?
  3. Why do I use the technology and consume the media that I consume? Is it a conscious choice or a habit?
  4. Am I trying to avoid something by distracting myself with media? What?
  5. Do I crave using technology or consuming media? Might I even be addicted?
  6. Is my use of technology and media related to the sense that I don’t have enough time to practice my instrument?
  7. 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.)
  8. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Practice “the art of non-finishing.” Starting to consume an information source does not justify finishing it.
  3. Always ask: Am I being productive or just active?
  4. Always ask: If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?
  5. Never check email first thing in the morning. Get something important done first.
  6. 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.

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

‘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.

 

Camera-series

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!

 

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Posted in Music & Technology, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

Reuben Vincent

4 Goals to Score!

February 6th, 2015 by

Stepping Stones

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s a game of football without goals?

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…

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Posted in Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips