Music Teacher's Helper Blog

I live in California, and the biggest, most well-known music examination program here is called the Certificate of Merit. It is run by the Music Teachers Association of California, and approximately 30,000 students from all instrumental disciplines participate annually. For my town, the exam is held in early March, so the month of February is final count-down time for my students.

I am writing this post, because as I help my students with their exam preparations, I notice a common thread: what is obvious to us is not always so obvious for the students! Here are some common areas of concern:

1. Memorization. Most exams require students to memorize their music. To do this, we all know that we need to practice with the score in order to consolidate our memory. Very obvious right?! Students do not always know this! Once they think they have more or less memorized their pieces, they often practice from memory at home, and as such, their memory collapses. Even when told to use their music to practice, they often just put it on the music stand, and their eyes are not actually looking at the music, but at their hands and fingers instead. Everyday I have to remind someone to practice with their music, instead of from their not-so-reliable memory! Students often think they have memorized the notes, but they fail to memorize other details such as phrasing and dynamics.

2. Practice hands separately. Again very obvious right? Many students do not do this. They feel it is too boring, and they are “good enough” to not have to do something as basic as this!

3. Practice slowly. It is painful to play slowly. Students do not like it! “But the piece says Allegro”, I often hear, or “I heard someone play this fast on YouTube!” It takes so much patience to practice slowly, and we all know how important this is in order to consolidate technique, not to mention solidify the memory. Students do not know this, or they often forget to do it!

4. Practice with the metronome. In order to practice slowly, and keep the tempo slow, we need something to keep us steady – the metronome! I have a saying in my studio – the metronome does not lie! Students often get faster and faster and they do not realize it. Metronome practice requires discipline and patience – very important skills!

What are some of the things you have discovered that are so shockingly obvious to you, but you find your students forgetting to do? If you are also preparing students for exams, good luck!

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1. Choices

When teaching music students, it is tempting to prescribe a piece of music that we feel that they will benefit from learning. However, if the student gets to choose the piece, they will be far more motivated to make the effort to learn it. I remember a student of mine from many years ago who could be extremely hard to get to practice when I selected the piece for him. One day I did an experiment! I showed him two pieces that I knew would have the same outcome and told him to take his pick. Suddenly he was taking ownership of the decision and it worked a treat. He enthusiastically made his decision and the progress he had made by the following week was outstanding. What a lesson for me! Letting our students take some ownership of their learning journey is a very powerful motivator indeed.

2. Less is More

How much work should you assign a student for the week? Sometimes I have made the mistake of how much they learn at home being open-ended, giving them a song and letting them “see how far they can go”! However, that approach never often reaps the desired effect. Much better to draw a line with a pencil to show the amount of work that you expect them to achieve during the week. With clear boundaries, the student knows what is expected and rises to the challenge. Not having too much material to cover often results in far higher standards of progress being met. Sometimes less is more!

3. Fun!

As humans, most of us want to happy so try and bring a little fun into each music lesson. Smiling and telling the odd cheesy joke can do much to relax the student and motivate them to work harder. Taking an appropriate interest in the student, their family and their other hobbies has always been an effective method for me to gain the respect of my pupils resulting in more progress. If you have a lesson formula, why not mix it up and even do something completely different from time to time. Bringing in a little technology can help the modern student have more fun. I had one boy that refused to practice his scales but as soon as I found him a scales app, he was away! I also find that keeping the lessons fast-paced and energetic really helps make the lesson time go quickly and enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Let’s call it music lesson “circuit training!”

4. End-goal

What’s a game of football without goals? A concert to prepare for, an exam, a competition, a family gathering, a studio get-together. Whatever the occasion, an event can provide much-needed focus to motivate the student to extra practice. Just well deserved commendation for their efforts each week is a must, spurring them on to try even harder the following week.

What is your secret to motivating students?

 

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I carried on for a while not fully realizing how much I didn’t enjoy my music anymore.

Music was the money-maker that put me on planes to sing, record, and perform in Hawaii, New York, and almost every state in between. I had an enviable life in the eyes of many.  

(If you missed the first part of Stacey’s story, click here for part 1)

Opportunities seemed to fall in my lap — and they would occasionally reignite the flame of my music:

  • Recording for two projects on EMI records
  • Getting to work with Celine Dion
  • Getting to fly to the town where the President (at that time) lived as we performed a concert there with other amazing artists

Those were the firework times of excitement — but mostly, I was restless with discontent and all the technicolor living I had been doing seemed to fade to grey tones when I looked at my life.

I was this woman who, as a little girl spent all her extra time on the piano; and now I was resentful of sitting down at it. All those days and nights as a kid in New Jersey with my big, puffy headphones on listening to my 8-track, and then in Connecticut as a teen with cassettes, and eventually California as a young adult with CDs full of my favorite artists — all of those were traded for talk radio or silence as I drove the 405 freeway up to Los Angeles for another gig.

I guess when you’re looking for a change, sometimes life brings you an unexpected one.

At the age of 27, I ended up pretty ill. The doctors couldn’t figure out why, but after a scrillion tests and a year and half later, they told me to get my affairs in order (because they thought I was dying), and that if I did live that I’d never have children.

I stopped everything and examined my life.

The nitty, gritty.

The “what was driving me?” kind of questions.

Not questions about music, but about me. What was going on, on the inside of me?

The answers came back in my introspection. How I was driven by Fear, by performing for others in relationships as “the good girl”, “the hard-working, responsible girl”… as a way to be worthy of their love.

I realized that I was working so much because I didn’t want to stop and rest. Because when I did stop… when I did rest, the noise in my head was non-stop criticism of me. The voice that lived in my head wasn’t a kind one that told me how proud it was of me. Nope. It was negative, judgmental, always looking for my faults instead of my goodness. When I kept moving, working, and the music turned on then, I couldn’t hear my inner static and angst.

Slowing down, being sick while aiming to be healthy meant evaluating my life those next couple of years. In that reflective time, I was able to see that I had lost my love, not only for my music, but for me.

I also realized that my love for music needed a certain environment to be in: It needed to have a certain trust and hope that life was good and everything was going to be okay.

I didn’t feel that way and so, I used music — not as an expression of my joy anymore — but to provide safety for my life that I didn’t feel in other places.

I know it’s really heavy and deep but there’s something that I’ve learned:

That it’s hard to feel joy when you don’t feel safe.

My lack of joy in my music was to me, a signpost that I didn’t feel safe.

It was partly because of how I was raised in my crazy home and some of those after-effects and realities were catching up to me in my 20’s. It was partly some crappy spirituality that sent fear-based messages that made me live like I was being chased by a bear, only it was called “God.” It was partly because of my marriage that was not a balanced partnership and I was more committed to people thinking we were okay than I was to letting myself be known in my pain.

Different things contributed to it but it was basically me not able to find my joy again.

Music is an expression of the heart. We can’t live the passion of the music without the connection back to the heart of who we are.

In all my fear and messy stuff in my head and life, I had lost touch with heart of the music because the heart of the music doesn’t just live in the song, it lives in me.

That was my journey… to get back to the heart of me.

There’s so much more to the story… about the healing my mind and heart experienced. The healing my spirituality experienced. The healing my body experienced. The healing my marriage experienced. All of those were the long and winding road stories that I write about in my books. I knew that as I was healing — that something was shifting.

After having two boys (that the doctor’s said I’d never have) we moved to upstate New York for a two-year stint, working at a church.

It was another rainy day, something we had often like my New Jersey childhood but unlike my Southern California experience. At the same time, it was a different day for me. It was a marker moment when I could see that my life had healed to a different place of safety and reconnection to my heart.

I was ready. I could tell.

I asked my husband if I could have my iPod back. He had been borrowing it since I had zero interest in anything other than the music I had to do for my work for a few years. On this particularly different day, I gave him a piece of paper with one song on it.  He smiled and disappeared into the room for about 5 minutes and came back and handed my iPod to me.

I looked at him with gratitude, put my earbuds in, stepped out the front door into the drizzle that was falling and looked up. I didn’t care about the conditions, I was on a mission…

I walked up and down the street, on the crooked sidewalks, with the skies opening up as Natasha Bedingfield was in my head singing, “Unwritten”:


“I break tradition,
Sometimes my tries
Are outside the lines
We’ve been conditioned to not make mistakes,
But I can’t live that way, no…

Feel the rain on your skin.
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in.
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips.
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still Unwritten.”

 

What a powerful moment.

Because it wasn’t just a moment when I was reconnecting to the music that I was starting to love again, it was reconnecting to my life — my soul… my heart… where the music lived in me.




Feeling Burnout? I totally get it! Here are some valuable questions and tips to get you back:

Valuable Questions:

  • Why am I a music teacher? What inspired me?
  • What other things in life inspire me?
  • Do I feel like I’m making enough money to feel safe or do I feel like I’m just squeaking by and every month is a stress?
  • Do I feel safe and happy in the other parts of my life that matter? My health, my spirituality and my key relationships?
  • Do I feel like I’m being honored in my work? (Remembering that honor comes first from us toward us and then, is reflected in our work relationships. People don’t honor you in their attitude, dollars, or time if you don’t honor yourself in those areas.)
  • Does my life have a good balance of the ratio between work and play?
  • Is there something I’m afraid to tackle in my business that is taking all the fun out it?
  • Is there a part of my business that I dread that I can either be equipped and trained in or that I can outsource? (That’s part of why Music Teacher’s Helper exists — to take the burdensome parts out of our hands so that we can focus our energy on teaching.)

 

Valuable Tips:

  • Taking the advice of the Shaman’s to make sure that each day is filled with singing, dancing, playing an instrument… for the sake of joy. This is separate from your work.
  • Read Julia Cameron’s classic: “The Artist’s Way” — In The Artist’s Way, she talks about taking an Artist’s Date each week. Something where you get to enjoy an antique shop, a comedy club, a poet’s reading, a jazz concert, a painting class — something where you’re feeding YOUR soul with what inspires you.
  • Take a day off. Non-stop work can create burnout.
  • Fill in these blanks: “If this ________________ were out of my life/different in my life, THEN, I would be happier.”  And, “If this __________________ were in my life, THEN, I would be happier.”

 

Remember: if there’s something that can make a difference in your experience of life, the most important thing to remember is that you’re in charge of making it.

I’m excited for you to return to the joy that inspired you into this beautiful art form called “Music!”

Keep on as you remember that your joy and your life makes such a difference in the joy and lives of others!

Stacey Robbins

(Here’s the photo of Stacey, her husband, and their boys)

 

 

 

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Photo by Kat Smith from Pexels

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

 

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