Music Teacher's Helper Blog

musical path for students

It’s fall just now, a nice time to take a hike and see the candy-colored leaves before they drift to earth and turn crispy underfoot. You step over tree roots and rocks, smell the fresh air, notice a fallen tree, glimpse a vista through a clearing.

Then comes the fork in the road. The trail diverges and we have to make a choice. Once we’re on the new path, though, we once again step over rocks, sniff the air, chat with a friend.

Playing a piece of music is a little like following a trail through the scenery. Our footsteps are the beats. We follow a trail through the notes. And often we play notes that follow the same path we’ve followed before–until we come to the fork in the road.

Familiar note patterns–whether from other phrases in the piece, other pieces we know, or from scales and arpeggios we’ve practiced–are very helpful in learning and performing music. But our fingers can also be duped by them. The fingers may happily follow a familiar trail as we busily watch all the scenery–intonation, tone, dynamics–only to find ourselves suddenly fumbling through the woods because we got off the trail.

Instead of being frustrated that we messed up, it may be that we just need to find exactly where we missed the fork in the road that was supposed to take us someplace new–and usually the fork is located between one note we know and the following note we’re unsure of.

It might be, for example, that because we’ve played F# A E three times before, our fingers want to do it again, even though we’re supposed to play F# A F# this time, followed by a new musical phrase. We have to have some sympathy for our poor fingers if they mess up that new phrase. If they don’t start down the right path, they can’t follow it. Drilling them mercilessly may not always be the answer when they have good reason to be confused!

Most problem spots can be blamed on that one note that separates the familiar from the new. That’s the moment that gets the fingers onto the right path, and the rest of the passage may then follow more easily than expected. Once we’ve chosen the correct fork in the road, we can get back to enjoying the scenery.

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In addition to sending out email reminders to your students for upcoming scheduled lessons, Music Teacher’s Helper can now also send reminders for upcoming cancelled lessons! This can help cut down on students showing up for a lesson if they forgot it had been cancelled.

This option is turned off by default, but if you’d like reminders to be sent about cancelled lessons, you can enable this feature by going to the “Calendar” menu, and clicking “Event Reminders”. Then just put a check in the box that says, “Remind my students of cancelled lessons”.

However, it’s important to note that lesson reminders, whether scheduled or cancelled, will still use the same email template. So if you’re sending emails for cancelled lessons too, you’ll want to customize your lesson reminder email so it shows the status of the event (scheduled or cancelled). To edit your lesson reminder email, click “Email Templates” on the “Home” menu. Then click “Lesson Reminder.”  You can add the line about the event status by typing something like:

“This lesson is {$Attendance}”

(The word {$Attendance} will be replaced by “Scheduled” or “Cancelled” when the email goes out. You can also select the word {$Attendance} from the list of variables if you don’t want to type it.

Now in addition to cutting down on “no-shows”, you’re also cutting down on “oops-shows”. 🙂
Have a great day!

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music student stage freight

Do teachers contribute to stagefright? Can we help students avoid it?

Stagefright seems to happen when performers focus too much on themselves–what people think, whether they’ll get through a tricky spot, whether some unforeseen problem will throw them off, whether they’re deserving of being out on stage.

It seems to me that when the focus is on the music, rather than the performer–when a performer has something musical he or she really wants to say–there’s much less of a chance for stagefright to take hold.

Some teachers are anxious to impress upon students the gravity of their practicing and performing responsibilities. They sometimes use lessons to put students through the ringer, essentially making students feel chronically underpracticed, underprepared, and liable to make a mistake at any moment. Performance can be portrayed as extremely serious, requiring the proper dress, the proper entrance, the proper demeanor.

Few students could get through lessons like that without feeling fearful of performing. For some, that fear becomes stagefright; for others, with courage and determination, it doesn’t.

But what happens when a teacher helps a student become invested in the musicality of a piece, the feeling behind it, the composer’s intent, and even the background of how and why it was written and used? Then the student can offer listeners something more meaningful than whether a certain passage was rendered perfectly.

Those who strive for technical perfection only to impress people or win them over are focused on themselves. Mistakes can be painful and humiliating for them, as if their fingers betrayed them.

A student personally involved in the musicality of a piece, rather than its virtuosity, is probably better equipped to put mistakes in perspective, and not be afraid of them in performance. This student may be more motivated to work on technique in order to make a piece music effective and compelling, rather than to make the performance perfect.

It’s fun to encourage students at all levels to experiment with musical phrasing. They can discover why the composer or editor wrote in certain dynamic markings–or perhaps find a new but convincing musical presentation. They can create a storyline and think of their music as its soundtrack.

We can also help students put mistakes in perspective. One basic way is to appreciate a student for getting what we are asking for, even if something else didn’t work. It’s great to be able to focus on a problem and solve it; it’s a bit daunting to focus on one problem but still get yelled at if you didn’t also happen to solve all the other problems at the same time!

Maybe in a future blog I’ll list some ways I like to help students explore musicality, and keep their mistakes in perspective. If you have some ideas you’d like to share, I’m sure we’d all like to read your comments!

Fear isn’t a very healthy motivator, nor does it have much connection to making music. I suspect that stagefright is one proof of this, and we teachers can do something about it.

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