helping students to practice

Sight reading

Can you relate to this?

Do you have students who constantly feel ‘the need to look’ at their hands when sight reading and learning music on the piano?  Perhaps they try to memorise the music quickly before they have learnt it sufficiently, then make many mistakes when playing it because they have forgotten what is actually in the music?

Do these students also regularly lose their place in the music and therefore get annoyed with their playing?  The answer would be “Oh yes they do” in my experience.

I needed a solution that works well for me and my students in order to stop ‘the need to look’ at their hands.


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I am currently responsible for the my own practicing, for the practicing of three of my four children, and for assigning the practicing of my more than twenty piano students. As you can imagine, I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out ways to make daily practice palatable for all of us! After all, music and music lessons are supposed to be fun, right?

Well, yes! Of course they are! To that end, I have music dollars they earn to spend at an end of year auction. I offer prizes when they reach goals on their 40 piece challenge charts. We use the iPad and time off the bench to reinforce concepts. They come to group classes and play games and have treats. I am a happy, encouraging cheerleader in their lessons. Their assignment sheets are covered with happy faces next to statements like “Watch out for those flat pinkies!” and “Remember metronome!”

Music is fun! Music lessons are fun! Practicing is fun!

Except, of course, when it’s not.

Are we doing our students and ourselves a disservice when we try to play up the fun and play down the work? I recently came across a quote that has reminded me that sometimes practicing is just plain hard work.

Eliot Butler said:

To learn is hard work. It requires discipline. And there is much drudgery. When I hear someone say that learning is fun, I wonder if that person has never learned or if he has just never had fun. There are moments of excitement in learning: these seem usually to come after long periods of hard work, but not after all long periods of hard work.

In defense of happy learning, I want to say that I love learning. I love the lightbulb that goes off when something suddenly makes sense. I love working on a phrase and finding it fit better and better in my fingers. I love the way the world seems to expand when I learn something about a subject with which I am less familiar. BUT! Getting to the fun of it absolutely does take work.

I love rehearsing with other musicians BUT I would hate it if no one was well-prepared. I love learning new music BUT I would hate it if I hadn’t learned to sightread well over years and years and years of playing my instrument. I love teaching my students BUT it sure is less pleasant when they haven’t done any work on their own.

The life lessons that are taught through music lessons are invaluable: hard work over a long period of time pays off. It’s best to be consistent in your habits to make progress long term. Learning to take a big piece of music and taking it apart to its tiniest parts to learn to perfect it teaches important lessons about how to approach a major project: one step at a time. These are just a few of the things I hope my students and my children learn from their music study.

And along the way, I’m planning for us all to have lots and lots of fun.

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UPDATE 10/3/10:  Zoom has just released their Zoom Q3HD.  Still with only a Hi-Low microphone gain, but with up to 1080p HD capability.  Details here.

This July I got turned on to a new way to record student lessons (by my continual inspiration for my studio, Cynthia Vaughn).  She recommended I use video when recording lessons, instead of recording & saving an mp3 sound file as I had previously been doing.  The camera she recommended is the Zoom Q3, by Samson (CNET review here).

The best thing about this camera is its ease of use.  I have had all my students purchase a 4GB minimum SDHC media card (they’re currently selling for $12-$20).  This allows for 1:23:37 of recording at 48 kHz, 24-bit audio.  At first use, I make sure the student knows that this card needs to be dedicated to voice lessons (warning: don’t let them give you the card out of their digital camera!), as I format the card, and then run the “New Card” program that comes with the camera.  This then places Samson’s “Handy Share” – a super basic video editing/playback program – onto the SD card.  After this one-time setup, all future lessons only require putting the card into the camera & then removing the card at the end of the lesson.  The time that I’ve been taking to save the lesson file onto a USB Flash Drive is completely gone.  My students all feel as if they’ve “gained” time in lessons.

Another completely easy part of the camera is the ease of switching between video and audio.  There is a switch on the side of the camera that toggles between video and solely audio.  There are times where I just want an audio file (such as when recording the notes of a new song), or very quickly video (for speaking a foreign language text where the student can really see what my mouth is doing for articulation).  This ease is AMAZING & well worth the purchase of the camera. [···]

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