Music Theory

We all have felt it before a performance: the jitters, the knocking knees, the slight panic that sets in prior to walking out on stage. Whether with a group or solo, musicians feel nervous before performances to varying degrees, and this is especially true of students. As instructors, directors, and teachers know all too well, some students can pull it together and appear calm, cool, and collected – even at an early age. Others, however, are just the opposite and start sweating, pacing, panicking, and can even experience heart palpitations and shortness of breath because of pre-performance anxiety.

As teachers and mentors, it is our obligation to help students calm down and regain their composure before a performance. Encouraging effective coping mechanisms can make a world of difference not just in how they feel pre-performance, but also during the performance and long afterwards, too. Following are some of the best tips we can use to help students ease anxiety before performances at any age:

The importance of practice

1. You know the importance of practice, but does your student? Seriously, think about it for a minute. Teachers tell students that practicing is important, but do your students realize that with practice, not only will they become better players, but they will also become better musicians and face much less stress before performances? Have you told them that the more they practice, the better they’ll be able to recover if they make a mistake, and the fewer jitters they’ll have beforehand? If they practice enough to almost play it in their sleep, students will feel more confident and less nervous. Encourage students to run through their pieces a few times each day before a performance.

Arrive early

2. Encourage your students to arrive early to the venue whenever there is a performance. The last thing a performer needs is to take on additional stress from running behind schedule on performance day. When your student has time to prepare and can take his or her time tuning and warming up, frazzled nerves will be calmed and jitters can more easily be soothed. Having to rush can cause undue stress on top of a lot of stress that is already present.

Visualization techniques

3. Many teachers find that teaching their students visualization techniques, which have been proven to help with performance anxiety in many ways, is one of the best ways to help with performance nerves. Professional performers use these techniques in a variety of applications, from public speakers to athletes to musicians. This is a type of meditation that has students visualizing his or her perfect performance. The more details that the student can include in the visualization, the better. They should visualize their breaths, the notes they will play, the audience, and their fingers moving. They can consider visualization as mental rehearsal, which over time can improve performances because the brain won’t tell the difference between the visualization and the real thing.

The importance of breathing

4. Breathing techniques involve controlled breathing that is a natural, effective way to reduce stress and anxiety. Students can sit in a comfortable position, whatever they may choose. With their chin pointed down as close to the chest as possible, they should close their eyes and inhale to a count of five, then exhale for five. Then, the chin movement should be repeated but this time, the count both times should be extended to 10. Many students find it helpful if they also visualize something positive, like the audience giving them a standing ovation or a peaceful waterfall.

Anxiety? get help.

5. Some students may continue to struggle with anxiety on performance day despite trying these techniques. If your student continues to suffer from a level of anxiety that is strong enough to consider further intervention, it may be best to instruct him or her to talk to their doctor. He or she might be able to begin taking a natural supplement, over-the-counter medication, or prescription drug to help, although the risk of side effects from medications may pose additional issues.

Your students will be able to overcome their jittery nerves before performances with your guidance, encouragement, and instruction. Mental rehearsals, controlled breathing, making good time, and conscientious preparation are all healthy ways for the student to cope and if all else fails, his or her doctor may be able to assist further; your student will be able to cope with various levels of stress in a variety of settings and circumstances, with your help.

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So you want to explain a music theory concept simply and then give your student an exercise to help reenforce the point. Enter the website musictheory.net. This is a fabulous resource for teachers and students alike. Best of all it’s free!

Lessons

Here are a series of diagrams laid out logically with little animations to explain various topics of music theory. Although there is accompanying text for self-study, these resources are flexible enough for a music teacher to give their own customised commentary. Using the forward and back arrows, it is easy to navigate through the presentations.

Exercises

This has definitely been a very useful area of the website for my students over the years. There are a great many exercises to test theory concepts. What I’ve appreciated about the design of these tests is that there is no time pressure, which is helpful for allowing some thinking time to the student grappling with a new concept. The best thing about this area is, right towards the bottom of the list, under the heading “FOR TEACHERS” is a page called “Exercise Customizer.” Here you can go to town very easily perfecting the test for the individual needs of your student and then you can copy and paste the unique link to share with them via email or another messaging service. Some of the tests are generic to all instruments and others are specific to keyboards and guitars.

Tools

There are some handy utilities under this section like “Tempo Tapper” which very quickly analyses the speed of your tapping and generates a metronome figure in beats per minute. This is useful for discreetly working out how fast or slow a student is playing their piece compared with what tempo it should be. “Staff Paper Generator” quickly produces manuscript paper you can print for free. “Pop-up Piano” is useful to play or mark notes on a virtual piano keyboard.

Products

The man who has provided this wonderful website for free, helps fund the project from the sales of his two apps for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. One is called “Theory Lessons” and the other “Tenuto” which are basically enhanced and offline versions of his website materials. The quality of these two apps is outstanding and make a nice progression if you wish to support his work.

This website is a gem of a find and infinitely useful. If you haven’t already done so, I would strongly recommend you take a look at musictheory.net

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Music theory is a passion of mine. As a composer as well as a music teacher, I realise that teaching music theory provides the building blocks of a more complete musician. Put simply, “knowledge is power.”

So it was with great interest that I have noticed that the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), who lead the way in music examinations in the world, was having a major overhaul in the way they test music theory, starting from January 2018.

Why the change? What will be different? Are there any resources to help with the change?

Why the change

A need to modernise their exams and react to feedback from teachers and students has brought on these recent changes. Looking at the new specimen papers, you get a feeling that the tests are less ambiguous than in times past.

Differences

The changes will only affect grades 1-5 at the moment. The rhythm-writing in early grades is being replaced. This used to provide a nice little introduction to the basics of composing but I would imagine that the quality of preparation for this question would have varied greatly from teacher to teacher depending on their own skills or imagination. At the grade 4, there used to be the option of the word-setting question. That has now been axed as well as the option of writing a complete melody at grade 5. How will students cope with the transition into grade 6-8 where composing is a large portion of the assessment? I think that step will be harder for candidates from now on. I have long thought that, although the exams for grade 6-8 are excellent, the resources and support material for these higher grades are appalling and desperately need revamping by the ABRSM. But that’s a subject of another blog.

Gone are the SATB open and short score converting question which was extremely time-consuming. I really like the use of multiple choice questions for the meaning of performance directions. Generally, the exam looks a lot more inviting, modern, clean which is very welcome.

Resources

At the start of 2019, the old exams papers for 2018 will be posted as a preparation booklet but that is quite some time away. In the meantime, the ABRSM has published on their website two sets of sample exam papers as a free download.

I really like a free quiz page that you can share with students to give them practice with the new multiple choice question. That will continue to be a very useful resource do-doubt.

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