practice

 

Welcome to the beginning of the rest of your life.  

At this time of the year, most people are fresh off the holidays and have set goals or are still setting them.  The thing is, many people over estimate what they can accomplish in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in three.  If you haven’t done your goal setting, here’s a great process from one of my mentors.

In today’s article, I want to help guide you to making this your best year ever.

So how do you make your goals and dreams come true?

How do we stay the course through all the stresses, worries, distractions, problems and stuff which just gets in the way?  

Finite Resources

It’s now known we have a finite amount of mental focus.  So in reality, it’s the freedom to focus on what’s important which will exponentially change our lives.
I’ve battled this my whole life.  I’ve used all kinds of goal-setting workshops, techniques, books, planners and apps.  What was missing in my experience of all of these tools?

Focus 

My focus tended to waver.  I would get excited by the next shiny object and jump.  Actually, any planning system, whether it’s old school paper, or a modern digital app will work.  It’s all about sticking with it.  

Chet Holmes describes it as “pigheaded discipline and determination.”  Chet was a fantastic sales guy, author, mentor, coach and a martial artist.  And what is martial arts?  A few moves repeated and perfected until effectiveness is through the roof.  


As legendary kung fu master Bruce Lee says,

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

So let’s talk about how to focus on your goals.   

This is what you are teaching to your music students everyday!  Through showing, modeling and breaking down the art of practice, you are teaching the skills of focus.  So now let’s apply this to your life and business of teaching.

Let’s say you have a goal to increase your student roster by 10 students by the end of the year.  

Okay, now you have to decide what actions to take to achieve this.  You have to figure out what to focus on.  

The Power of Questions

The most powerful tool to focus the mind is questions.  

Questions cause your mind to focus wherever the question leads.  Ask a great questions, you are led to great answers.  Ask a poor question, then you get the same results.  So it’s all about the quality, not the quantity of your questions.

Novice Zen Buddhist monks are given a question they live with for weeks, months, years.  These questions or koans are logically unanswerable.  But the focus created by the constant searching creates a pearl of wisdom and leads to enlightenment.

The quality of your life ultimately is based on the quality of your questions.  Over the years, I’ve become better in my lines of questioning.  

But one tool which has helped me greatly is the mindmap.  The mindmap has also been called a cluster by some.  It’s basically a way of accessing non-linear thinking the way the mind really works.  In computer terms, they call this RAM, or random-access memory.  

An old VHS videotape is linear and sequential.  You cannot easily jump from one part of the tape to the other.  A DVD however is random-access.  You can jump from one chapter to the last chapter to the middle of a film instantly.  The human brain is non-linear.

Here’s an exercise

Write the phrase “How to get more students?” in the center of a blank piece of paper.  

Circle it.  

Now, as quickly as possible, and without any editing, write down as many ideas as you can and draw spokes from the center outward.

I’ve been using an online tool called Mindmeister.  It  creates mindmaps I’ve grown to love.  It allows me to move things around, edit and reorganize which I couldn’t do on paper.

 

Here’s an example of a mindmap you can download at Mindmeister.

How to get more students mindmap

The trick is to get past the 5 or 6 obvious ideas and really push to get at least 10.  Or try to go for 20 ideas.  That would be a great stretch!

Make sure to put down even the most ridiculous and unrealistic ideas.  These may not be doable, but they may open the door to other ideas.  I call these stepping stone ideas.  You step over them to really great ones.

Even better, do this exercise with a friend.  Your friend’s ideas may be so far out they lead you to an unexpected gem.

You can learn more about mindmaps from the great books by Tony Buzan.  Just Google mindmapping and lateral thinking.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the personal development coach Tony Robbins.

“Most people fail in life because they major in minor things.”

So make sure you’re majoring in the major things of your life!  Otherwise, at this time next year it will be just the same ol’, same ol’.

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music student focus

There is a common enemy among music teachers, heck, all teachers!

It’s the battle for the attention and focus of our students!

If you teach children, you know there is a problem of focus that is just not part of teaching teens or adults.  Young children have shorter attention spans and are easily distracted!

Tips for Battling the Distraction

Steps can be taken to keep the distraction at bay.  Some of these things may seem obvious, but you must look out for them

  • Limit clutter in the teaching space
  • Remove potentially attention-grabbing toys or objects
  • Have  a policy that  phones must be set on vibrate
  • Limit the seating to discourage too many siblings in the space
  • Don’t allow eating in the studio
  • Limit or remove pets
  • Use music notation that is visually clear and clutter-free

As so much of our visual attention is placed on reading music notation, the following can greatly assist in attaining focus.

When presented with traditional music notation, students are often overwhelmed by how complicated it all looks.  And it is complicated!

Reading music is a high-level skill.  It takes a long time and a lot of practice  to understand all the symbolic language and the nuances.   

In the first few stages of our Musicolor Notation, students begin to learn structure.   They begin to notice the patterns of the entire piece as a whole and which parts are slightly different but mostly the same.  Then we dive into the smaller details.

With traditional music notation, we do the same.  But so often, students still feel overwhelmed by all the abstract symbols on the page.  

To help with this, we developed a Focus Window.  

What’s a Focus Window?

A Focus Window is a way of directing the student’s attention to a specific portion of the page.  You can use a Focus Window for not only  reading music but also for teaching reading words to young children or to place attention only on a portion of a large picture, graph, map or chart.  

By using a Focus Window, students can work on a smaller area  than they would naturally reach for.   It limits the information overload.

Constructing the Focus Window

There are a few ways you can construct a Focus Window.  

Originally we tried to use flashlights by focusing light beams on  certain areas of the sheet music.  That didn’t work too well with young students.  The dark room was too extreme and all sorts of hilarious screaming ensued!

Paper and cardboard cutout windows were mildly successful.  

Our favorite and simplest method of constructing a Focus Window involves Post-It notes.  These wonderful little 3” by 3” yellow squares of paper with the light adhesive made by 3M have been an essential part of our studio for years.

By using the Post-Its to block certain areas of the page, you can quickly create an area in the middle that is the Focus Window.  

Here’s an example of how to block out a small Focus Window from a larger piece of music.

A Focus Window for music

Only play what’s inside the window

Too often, students try to play an entire phrase which it too much for them to  hold in their mental desktop.  By making that phrase smaller, (much smaller!) and only showing a small portion visually, we can control their focus.

The benefit of using removable Post-It notes is that you can quickly resize the Focus Window or even move it as your student progresses through the piece.

Some Focus Windows are quite large and are made by covering up all the extraneous information many method book publishers clutter the page with.

So often there are instructions meant to be read by a teacher or parent but not the student.  This type of text is very overwhelming for young children.  The same is true of the small duet parts often printed below the student part.

Also, many times there are beautiful illustrations and graphics on the page.  These can be charming and helpful.   For pre-literate children, the illustrations can be the way they remember which song is which as they can’t read the titles.

But the graphics should be limited as they do pull away focus.

We also teach the parents of our students how to do this at home.  It allows us to send home lesson notes that say, “Work on the one measure in the Focus Window and then enlarge it to include 2 measures.”

Learning how to practice is a skill that affects a student’s life forever.  By teaching students  how to effectively practice by limiting data and concentrating repetitively on small parts at a time, we can teach mastery skills.

The Itch of Curiosity

By using a Focus Window we limit the data.  We obscure parts of the whole.  This can be used to our benefit.  It triggers a universal psychological effect known as the information or knowledge gap.  

In the 1990’s, Carnegie-Mellon researcher George Lowenstein put forth the “Information Gap Theory of Curiosity.”

“It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.” (Wired magazine)

If you tell your students “you can’t peek under this until next week,” you have effectively created some curiosity.  Many of them will actually look just to see what’s there.   

Some have even “figured it out themselves.”

Others have practiced even more to make sure they get to “open the window.”

The Hidden Answer Window

The inverse of a Focus Window is a Hidden Answer Window.

Do you remember those interactive children’s books that have hidden flaps that allow a child to discover more content?  These were fun and engaging because of the curiosity invoked by hiding answers or parts of the story.

You can do this with music too.

Sometimes students are just not ready to work on certain phrases or maybe a left hand piano part is too tricky right now and you want them to work only on the right hand.  

Hidden Answer Windows in music

No peeking!

By covering the tricky bits with a little Post-It flap, you create a Hidden Answer Window.  They remind us that there is still unfinished business on this page, but we will discover it  together in future lessons.  

This  lowers the stress level of students who are desperately trying to seek your approval by playing everything perfectly.  It lets them off the hook.

It’s funny how some simple things can transform a lesson from drudgery and pain to effortless progress.

I have a few more practice and focus tips in a free download, 10 Tips To Make Practice Easy, Effective + Fun!

 

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getting students to practice piano

I often get calls from students that want to start piano lessons, but they don’t have a piano yet. Maybe the best thing for my wallet would be to tell them, “No problem. Let’s get you started!” But that really wouldn’t be the most ethical approach. As we all know practice is the most important part of lessons. Regardless of how good of a teacher you are, your students will absolutely never learn music well without practice. So they obviously need an instrument to practice on throughout the week.

Even though as teachers we know that practice is the most important part of lessons, for some reason most teachers tend to just say “Practice this.” Then they proceed to assign a bunch of measures that the student is supposed to “practice” throughout the week. Don’t be that teacher.

HOW You Practice is More Important than How LONG You Practice

Playing and practicing are two different things. If you just tell a student to practice some section, without instruction, they will no doubt play the section, not practice it. Playing is reading through a piece of music with no goal in mind other than reading through it. Practicing is focused with a goal. You practice what you cannot play well. If you can play a section well already, it doesn’t need practice.

Spend Your Lessons Teaching Practicing

For at least the first few months that I teach a student, I focus in on HOW to practice. These explanations often take up the majority of the lesson, but it is time well spent. Once my student practices correctly they progress unbelievable fast. The students that don’t apply these principals rarely get much better.

Memory

When a student is practicing memorizing a piece of music they should understand how their brains store information. They should have an understanding about how short-term/working memory and long-term memory work.

They should understand how long they last. They should understand how to move information from their short term memory to their long-term memory. If you need a refresher, or you were never taught how this works, this article on memorizing will put you in the right direction.

I’ve explained how the brain memorizes information to students as young as 5. Sometimes it takes a few lessons of repeating for them to understand fully. But don’t give up, or not try, just because you don’t think a student can handle the information.

Small Sections

As a teacher, we need to make sure that students aren’t “practicing” a piece of music from playing from the beginning over and over and over. Students will typically want to practice what sounds good. That means they are playing the parts they know over and over as well.

A better way to practice is to take a small section, sometimes a measure, sometimes just a couple of beats. The student would then play that small section through multiple times until it starts to feel comfortable. Then the student would move on.

One small section should end where the next section begins. Then once two sections are finished they should be played together, which helps avoid any breaks in playing. Once connected, a new section should be started. The key here is to take super small sections. Small enough that the student can focus in on every small detail and not repeat them correctly multiple times in a row. Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, everything should be added at the beginning of this stage.

Don’t Over Practice

I have no problem with students practicing hours and hours every day. Many teachers might disagree, but I think with a few exceptions the more practice the better. But it has to be effective practice. The key to not over practicing is not to limit your overall practice time, but to limit your practice time on any one section. Our brain needs sleep to learn. Very often students reach the limit of what they can learn in one sitting on one particular section and they continue to pound away.

We need to teach our students to practice a small section for a small amount of time. When it starts to get frustrating, they’ve practiced it too much. At that point, they would need to move on to something else and come back to it the next day. The secret to having extremely long effective practice sessions is working on a lot of different music, or at least a lot of different sections.

Sleep is the best practice aid out there.

Get the Parents Involved

When it comes to teaching young children, we just cannot expect them to practice as focused as we need them to on their own. Maybe some older students, and some particularly prodigious younger students can practice the way we tell them to, but most children just won’t be able to.

They may understand the process, but understanding and doing are two very different things. As a teacher, you’ve likely spent thousands of hours in a practice room, so you should know better than anyone how difficult it is for even a seasoned professional to stay focused, how can we expect this from a 7-year-old?

I personally believe that having parents sit in on the lessons is a good way to go. When the parent listens they get a clear understanding about what you are asking their child to do during practice. Then the parent would ideally sit with them and make sure practice went the way it was supposed to.

Some teachers are understandably hesitant about this. If you’re one of those teachers, then think about recording exactly how you want the student to practice and sending the recording to the students parents. This way you can have the best of both worlds, no parent in the lesson, but they still understand what is expected of them and their child.

Conclusion

Of all the things you can teach your students, how to practice really is the most important. We can’t be there all the time, but what we teach them can. The more you focus in on having them practice correctly, the better your students will get, and the more enjoyable lessons will be for everyone.

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