Welcome to our blog about music education

Recitals – Why all the fuss?

Admittedly, this information was previously posted but it definitely bears repeating as we approach yet another recital series.

Recitals are good for students both in the short and long term, relevant to music lessons, academics, personal life and career. When students express a hesitation to attend recitals it might seem simple to acquiesce and cross one more thing off of your busy calendars but take a moment to consider all of the facets of this lost opportunity before caving in. The joy of performing in front of an audience and learning to overcome stage fright, the lifelong memories and gained confidence from a fun and successful recital are only the beginning.

The beneficial lessons learned from recital participation translate into real life lessons,whether students are on a musical career path or not. Recitals offer the satisfaction realized from the opportunity to shine which in turn boosts confidence. Overcoming natural stage fright takes courage which builds character. And still, there is so much more.

Recitals teach discipline. Whether preparing to perform a piece now, preparing for exams in school, working on a thesis at college, preparing a presentation for work, preparing to discuss a diagnosis and treatment options with a patient or presenting a case in court, discipline is required. Discipline leads to mastery and instilling that concept at a young age is immeasurably valuable.

Recitals teach us how to manage our time and work with deadlines. I would argue that responsible time management skills may be the most valuable tool we can provide in the process of guiding our children toward independence. The ability to work with deadlines transcend all areas of life – personal, home and career. The successful time manager will conduct themselves in such a way as to minimize stress in their lives. Breaking tasks down into manageable parts and accomplishing them in an orderly manner teaches students how to be prepared ahead of the actual deadline so that they are comfortable with the repertoire. That level of preparedness can mean no more cramming for exams, never again suffering the consequences of leaving the grocery shopping or bill paying until the last minute or having to work late to complete what could have been accomplished during regular business hours.

Recitals help students to delve into the music they are playing. They will become aware of the fact that the music they are playing is constructed in an orderly and structured way. Gaining an awareness of those patterns and their subtle changes is both emotionally satisfying (we all crave order) and essential to completing any task; cooking a meal, writing a resume, building a home or creating new software. Being able to recognize the significance of patterns helps us to gain a more meaningful understanding of how things work and how they and we are interconnected. This also leads to the tendency to pay closer attention to detail which can lead to giving any task we are attempting more focused attention, therefore attaining more complex goals.

Recitals teach us how to deal with mistakes. We are human. We make mistakes. We can learn to minimize mistakes but not avoid them. Learning to accept our mistakes and work with them early in life is obviously an ability that surpasses almost everything else brought to light in this article. Becoming aware of this tendency can create compassion and understanding on so many levels.

Recitals provide immediate feedback as well. You know immediately if you did well and you know what you could have done better. Recitals provide a safe platform with an audience that wants to see you in the best light and will reward you for doing the best that you can do. Reflecting back on your successes and recognizing any weak areas are essential to progress. There is always another recital, another essay, another presentation.

Recitals and performance are their own teacher. We are constantly faced with performing in addition to and not necessarily pertinent to music. Whether we are giving a presentation at school or work, making a toast at a wedding, getting up to bat at a baseball game with the score tied at the bottom of the last inning, teaching, or introducing yourself to potential customers, clients or employees, our lives are full of performance opportunities. Recital performance offers a concentrated dose of experience that goes a long way toward helping to develop the calm focus and attention needed in any performance situation we find ourselves in. Student recitals offer the additional benefit of safety, providing a nurturing environment yet holding an intensely effective preparation in the development of performance growth.

This is just an excerpt of one of three articles originally posted between April 14 and May 5, 2015. If you would like to read the entire series please scroll down to those posts.  Looking forward to seeing you at our Fall 2016 Recital Series.



Healthy Instrument Practice Habits

Professional musicians and music students aspiring to be professional musicians know the importance of healthy practice habits in helping to avoid performance related injuries. Most adult students do not aspire to such goals and don’t practice for excessively long periods of time but still might benefit from some of these helpful tips to help us to relax and get the most out of the time we do spend with our instruments.

If you have ever felt achy and/or tired after practicing for a short time, or too tense to effectively perform a new skill, or if you find it very difficult to play very fast passages, etc. then this information might be very helpful. You might not think of playing an instrument as a physically demanding pursuit but it is. The risk of most adult students falling victim to performance related injury is very low but the benefits of healthy practice habits should not be overlooked.

Start by warming up. A couple of minutes of aerobic activity and stretching are very effective. Next empty your mind of distractions and move your thoughts toward playing music.Begin playing a slow and simple passage rather than jumping into the more difficult techniques. Focus on how you are sitting and how the muscles in your hands feel. Practice a variety of skills in your first few minutes and be mindful of how you feel as you proceed.

Practice a variety of repertoire and techniques. This helps to avoid taxing any one group of muscles. Drilling difficult passages is fine but do it for a predetermined length of time. Stop at the end of that time and continue at the next session.  Endless repetition can become mindless and ineffective , reinforcing bad habits. You might try dividing up physical tasks, working on one at a time. For instance one hand on the piano, or just focusing on your bow arm or your embouchure. Practice small sections of your music so that you can enjoy some immediate success. Celebrating little victories can help build confidence, momentum and enjoyment.

Short breaks can be helpful. If you are lucky enough to have a full hour to practice consider taking a 5 minute break in the middle of your session. Get a drink of water or stand up, move around a bit, or just stretch. Do whatever it takes to keep your body and mind fresh. Avoid longer breaks that might require you to warm up again.

We can’t overemphasize the importance of consistent practice. A consistent 30 minutes or an hour a day is more productive and safer for your body than skipping days and then launching into marathon sessions. Quality is better than quantity, and it’s easier to have quality practice time in shorter spurts than trying to force your body and mind to cooperate for a longer periods of time.

Gradually increase your playing time. Start slowly and gradually and incrementally increase the time you spend playing your instrument. You need to build endurance.

Stop if you feel pain or tension. Never play through pain. If your muscles are tense it might be the perfect time for a short break or to go back to your warm up routine before continuing.

Practice mindfully. Start a mindful session by identifying goals and developing a practice plan. Pay attention to your posture throughout and notice when you need breaks. Take time to practice away from your instrument and to develop your knowledge of the music. Practice deliberately and think through everything that you do.

Cool down at the end of your practice session. Spend the last few minutes of your time practicing, returning to slow and simple passages allowing your muscles to relax and to recover faster. Playing something that you already know and enjoy helps confirm the effectiveness of what you are doing to reach your goals. Playing music is truly a life long pursuit and finding ways to enjoy the process and the journey are as important as the end result. Finally, walk away from your instrument and stretch to minimize lactic acid buildup in your muscles at the end of the session.

If you would like more depth and insight into this subject there are many books that we can recommend. These two are both very good.
The Art of Practicing –  Madeline Bruser
The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

Playing music and creativity

How does playing music contribute to creativity in the rest of our lives? What is creativity? Commonly we think of creativity as the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work. However the use of imagination and creativity transcend the arts spilling over into all aspects of our lives. Music can help stimulate our imagination, one of the key components of the creative process.

Every child possesses the innate ability to be creative. It is one of the key attributes that sets us apart from other living beings. We talk a great deal about the benefits of music lessons in terms of brain development and education. Despite the validity of those claims we shouldn’t overlook another truth, which is that music encourages creativity and creativity and imagination are what make us human. To paraphrase composer, Vincent Persichetti, music (creativity and imagination) helps us to be more human, to recognize beauty, to be closer to the infinite beyond this world, to have something to cling to, to be more compassionate, more gentle, more loving and to be more alive.

Knowing that we are all born with creative aptitude, the question then isn’t what fosters creativity but why isn’t everyone creative? Where is the creative potential being lost? How was it crippled? A good question might be not why do people create, but rather, why do people not create?

Ken Robinson, education specialist blames our current early education practices for killing creativity citing such things as our attitudes toward making mistakes and about acting or being different. The system often emphasizes imitation, memorization and fixed rules and formulas, all which do little to encourage creativity. Children raised in an atmosphere of primarily replicating what they see and participating in coordinated group activities lack the framework to do the more challenging task of coming up with new ideas, mastering self expression and finding innovative ways to solve problems.

Beethoven might go through over 50 variations of a musical idea before choosing the one he liked. Despite his numerous failures in trying to create the light bulb, Thomas Edison is commonly believed to have said, “I never failed once. It just happened to be a 2,000-step process.”

Since 1990, creativity scores for school children in America been been steadily declining. It is certainly no coincidence that that is right around the time that music and arts programs began being cut from our public schools. This is tragic as we face enormous challenges in the 21st century that will require highly creative solutions.

Parag Chordia, Director of the Music Intelligence Lab at Georgia Tech, presents convincing  evidence that music is a significant, if not essential contributor, to the development and cultivation of creativity.  “To be a great engineer; to really produce innovative products and to advance the frontiers of science, you have to be creative. It’s not just that music is a diversion or an extracurricular, but it’s actually something that’s fundamental.” Based on this insight it isn’t surprising that the foremost technical designers and engineers in Silicon Valley are almost all practicing musicians.

Because music stimulates creativity and can help contribute to the development of a more creative mind, learning to play music is as relevant now as it ever has been. The three basic components of creativity are: problem solving, self-expression, and imagination; with imagination being the wellspring of creativity. It takes courage and confidence to imagine and that is exactly what helps those who we call to creative to question the status quo and push the boundaries of possibility!

Playing music, especially improvisation and music composition, are highly engaging processes that activate multiple areas of the brain and help us to develop greater creative capacity. Simply listening to music can help relax us, and relaxation is key to creativity. When our minds are at ease we’re more likely to direct our attention inward. In contrast, when we are focused our attention tends to be directed outward.

Creativity is one of the most essential tools for a child to develop if they want to be successful later in life. Creative development in children can be directly correlated to their future success in all kinds of careers including scientists, physicians and entrepreneurs.




What Music Students Need to Stay Motivated

Over time I have written a great deal about the need for practice and today’s post is not going to contradict that. All students do need to set up a practice routine, to learn to practice effectively and to practice regularly. Students need the guidance of their teachers to determine how to practice and the support of their parents (the younger they are the more support they need) to get it done.

Most students are excited to meet their teacher and to begin lessons. They see the prospect of learning to play their instruments as a fun-filled adventure. That means that in most cases they will start out wanting to do whatever assignments they are given, they will actually want to practice, to learn, to please the teacher and impress their family and friends. What music students need from their parents is encouragement; the kind of positive reinforcement that helps to maintain and sustain that initial excitement over time.

While gently reminding students to practice might be necessary from time to time it is important not to get to the point where you create a power struggle about practicing  which as you know is guaranteed to produce the exact opposite effect from the one you intended.

The ultimate goal is to support and encourage the student while allowing them to own responsibility for their efforts and for their own learning. The desire to practice has to be developed in a holistic and intrinsic manner if the student is ever going to internalize the music lesson experience. Once they do, they are hooked and your job as parents is simply to continue supporting them.

Inherently, children begin by wanting to please their teachers and their parents so the goal is to keep them wanting to behave in a favorable manner over time.Here are some suggestions on ways to keep that initial excitement alive and to keep children practicing without having to nag them. If you would like to share your own suggestions and success stories I would be delighted to pass them on to others, so please feel free to do so.

  1. Offer simple descriptions such as, “If you don’t practice you won’t be prepared for your next lesson”.
  2. Any time you catch the child practicing without parental intervention, express your appreciation, “Thank you for practicing without being asked”.
  3. On occasion take yourself out of the equation and allow the child to make the mistake of not practicing so that they realize the consequences at their next lesson.
  4. Let things slide once in a while. Daily practice is an ideal but not one that can be realized on a consistent basis.
  5. Avoid repetitive catch phrases such as “Good job” when praising, instead describe what you liked, “Your new piece makes me feel happy”, or “I love to hear you playing the piano while I am cooking dinner”.
  6. Focus on the effort once in a while, “Wow, you are really concentrating on those scales”.
  7. Invite your child to describe what they did with a question, “How did you figure out how to play all of those tricky notes?”

Finally, trust the teacher to know how often and how long the student needs to practice and rely on the teacher to provide appropriate feedback relieving you the parent of at least a bit of responsibility.


Suggestions for keeping your child interested and excited about their lessons

The idea of playing a musical instrument can be very enticing – whether it is the allure of strumming among your friends, performing on stage or just unwinding at the end of a busy day while playing your favorite melodies on the piano, most of us have been tempted to learn play an instrument. We see the act of signing up for lessons as the start to fulfilling our musical dreams and aspirations; it is very exciting to take that first step. The disconnect can happen with the realization that learning to play an instrument requires time, practice and dedication; learning to play an instrument involves some hard work.

The question that arises is how to keep that initial interest and excitement alive. There are as many answers to this query as there are students, methodologies and teachers. Students respond as individuals to the many tactics that teachers and parents can and do employ. Perhaps the first thing to look for is a teacher who is focused on the student; one who notices and is responsive to what works for you or your child. A teacher who follows the same lesson plan with each and every student will only connect with a limited number of students. Most teachers have many tricks up their sleeves for keeping students interested during the actual lesson time. They will also offer many enticements for the student to practice but most of that responsibility will fall on the student and in the case of a child, it will fall on the parent or caregiver; in general the younger the student the greater the parental involvement necessary.

First and foremost, I cannot say enough about the importance of keeping lessons consistent. We know you are busy and that conflicts will arise which is why we have a make up policy. If you can’t get to your regularly scheduled lesson try your best to take advantage of any other available lessons that might be offered during that same week. Consistency makes learning easier and helps to keep the student moving forward in their studies, both make lessons and learning less frustrating and therefore more enjoyable.

While on the subject of the actual lesson, if you don’t sit in on your child’s lesson while it is in progress (and that doesn’t imply that you should on a constant basis), do make an effort to check in with the teacher at the end of the lesson. For young beginners, this should be a weekly occurrence. For those who are older and more experienced at lessons, checking in with the teacher can be done less frequently but should still not be ignored. While talking with the teacher you will want to discuss progress, the current assignment and helpful tips for keeping the student on track, and if the thrill of that first lesson is waning, what to do to keep the fun and excitement in the learning process. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions either. You know your child best. While learning the fundamentals are necessary, there are certainly plenty of very elementary collections of simple and familiar melodies available for young beginners to play and enjoy. These collections can be used to supplement lessons and reward young students for their efforts.

This seems like a perfect time to mention that participating in recitals and other periodic community events gives students something to work toward. Performance is an excellent way to keep lessons both exciting and relevant. Working toward a short term foreseeable goal offers something to look forward to. Recitals are a special event and an opportunity for students to shine and to receive reinforcement, encouragement and positive feedback from family and friends.   In addition, recitals are very motivational as they allow the younger students to hear what the more experienced students are playing.

Effective practice is truly the key element in learning to play an instrument and the most difficult to keep consistent. Here are some suggestions for making daily practice at home more pleasant. Begin by creating a consistent time, of an appropriate duration for a daily practice to occur. Keep the practice environment pleasant and free of distractions. For young beginners it is often best to spend the practice session together. If you were present at the lesson you might want to follow the teacher’s lead in terms of encouragement, or you can ask the teacher for suggestions. Singing, clapping rhythms and counting along can be fun as is listening to recordings of the piece that is being worked on. In some situations, where the parent is able, it can be enjoyable to play together, to echo one another or to create a challenge (I can play that three times in a row, can you?). Time spent with the student will evolve as the student progresses and certainly at some point your participation will no longer be necessary but helping to set the foundation is essential for creating good practice habits which serve to keep the learning process satisfying. As an added bonus, one of the very valuable benefits of learning those good practice habits is that the concept transfers to all other aspects of education by virtue of introducing the discipline of spending consistent time on one subject while working toward a long term goal.

After a couple of lessons and then as frequently as practical, create a block of this for a little family concert. What better way to satisfy the age old, “Mommy/Daddy, look what I can do!”. That sets the stage to have the young music students in your family perform at larger gatherings as well, birthday parties, barbecues and holiday events are always made more festive by the addition a little live music. Planning for this kind of event adds it’s own excitement to the preparatory practice sessions.

Music is everywhere but often it is simply background sound. Becoming cognizant of that music and bringing it to the attention of a young music student can help them to focus on all of the listening opportunities that exist and help them to identify what they like to listen to and what they’d like to play. The simple act of familiarizing ourselves with the wide range of musical styles that we are surrounded with and recognizing the genres that we identify with can go a long way toward motivating us to set goals and to keep learning. Whether we are moved by classical, rock, pop, hip hop, jazz, musical theater, background movie or video game music, it is reasonable to patiently and determinedly work toward the day when we can play what we love.






How long does it take to learn to play the…?

One of the most difficult questions that we are asked at the music school is, “How long does it take to learn to play the  ______ (fill in the blank) ?” Difficult because the correct answer is not the one you were hoping for and in fact there is no correct answer. There are simply too many variables. What instrument are you interested in? What do you think your goal is? Will that change over time? Will your expectations change over time? How much time and focus will you dedicate to practice? I can go on but I think you’ve gotten the point.

One valid answer is that the study of music is a life long endeavor; it is about the journey not the destination. We are of course a very goal oriented society. We tend to think in terms of fixed formulas where measurable actions lead to definitive results, most of which are not based on reality. No two students will finish their identical 45 minute homework assignments in the same amount of time because we are each programmed differently. No two trips to identical destinations using the same route and means of transportation, will take the same amount of time  on two consecutive days due to a plethora of variable, uncontrollable factors including traffic, weather, mechanical and personal issues. The time to cook the same recipe on different occasions by the same chef, in the same kitchen will vary based on things such as freshness of ingredients, heat convection, human error and in baking, variations in air temperature, humidity and air pressure. No two students studying music will progress at the same rate even if they are learning the same instrument with the same teacher and following identical practice methods. We each bring our own strengths and challenges to everything we undertake. Those differences should be honored, accepted and embraced as part of who we are and the process we have chosen to engage in.

Because the study of music is a life long journey it is far more important to find joy in that journey and in each milestone reached. Every step of the journey leads to small accomplishments which accumulate and then change our expectations, nourishing and motivating us to greater goals; but all in small increments which can but should not be measured in hours, days or weeks. It is far more reasonable and enriching to stay focused on the tasks prescribed by your teacher and on very short term goals.

Rather than asking how long it will take to learn to “play” your instrument, begin by asking yourself how much time you will set aside each week to  work on your instrument. Remember it is not reasonable to take lessons if you don’t have at least some time to dedicate to practice each week. Ideally you might aim to practice about 30 minutes a day, seven days a week. However, practically speaking the minimum time you will need to dedicate to your instrument is 30 minutes, four days a week. Anything less than that will not bear the desired results. Obviously the more time you spend practicing the faster you will learn. Another consideration is that it is far more effective to practice in several small increments than one longer session – in other words as a beginner, it is better to practice 30 minutes on four separate occasions than on one day for two hours. Of course, the more you practice and play the quicker you will learn. As you accumulate more knowledge that understanding will help inform your continued learning, so forth and so on.

Once you have determined how much time you have to practice, discuss that with your teacher and work it into your lesson plan. With that information you can set your first mini goal; learning to read music or learning to create a sound on your instrument or learning to find individual notes on your instrument, etc. Give yourself time to achieve that first goal before setting the second goal and time to achieve the second before the third. In this fashion you will learn how to gauge additional reasonable goals each of which should be enjoyed and appreciated for the accomplishment that it is.

In defining what we mean when we talk about learning to play is another ambiguity. Each person has their own idea of what it is that will bring them to that place of feeling as though they know how to play their instrument. I think a reasonable goal for any student is to strive to become competent and confident in their playing. Competence will follow you in all stages of your playing and confidence will help to get you there. Effective practicing and patience builds both. Don’t set unrealistic goals which will only serve to frustrate you and don’t compare yourself to others; everyone learns differently. Expect to make mistakes and to struggle a bit. If you keep at it, you will learn to play your instrument in your own time and to your own liking.

Finally, remember that NO ONE can play everything.  What I am referring to is not only the fact that most great artists specialize in one instrument but that even then they don’t necessarily cross over into “all” genres or styles of music. They spend so much time perfecting their craft that at some point they have needed to quite purposefully hone in on certain aspects of the instrument and chosen or been forced to ignore others. The famous musician you follow, the pianist/guitarist/violinist/vocalist, etc. you so admired at that party, and your teacher have one thing in common, they have all spent many years learning to play their instruments and most if asked, will say they are still learning.






Passively vs. Actively Listening to Music

Listening and hearing are two very different things. Hearing is actually an involuntary reflex performed by the auditory function of the brain. Passive listening is very similar to hearing; sound is encountered and is initially or even sporadically heard but  your mind drifts, the sounds become background noise and you may think you are listening but actually the sounds are simply going past you though not on a meaningful level. While listening passively you can be thinking about everything but what you are hearing so it does not require much effort. Listening actively is listening with a purpose; you are engaged with what you are hearing, paying attention to sounds, expressions, intonation and questioning what you don’t understand. You listen actively to gain information and solve problems. When you listen actively you are emotionally effected by what you are hearing. Active listening uses more energy than speaking as you must receive and interpret sound. Active listening can be seen as a two-way communication. Passive listening is a one-way communication. Basically, it’s all about relationships.

How does this information apply to music? Passive music listening is selectively listening to music while you are actively doing something else. The listening is secondary to your primary activity. Many people listen to music passively most of the time. The business that began as Muzak created an industry that has taken over the retail environment to “enhance the customer experience”. Background music is everywhere; at malls, in restaurants, at the dentist office, it’s part of the movies you watch and it’s even part of the video games you play. It is so pervasive that we have conditioned ourselves to specifically not listen to it. We tune it out like noise pollution or the other sounds that are part of our environment. People who live in cities don’t hear the traffic sounds around them, people who live near airports are oblivious to the sound of flights going by, etc. Though we are not listening to any of those sounds we would become very aware of their absence if they stopped.

Active listening implies closeness, intimacy, a deep understanding. You are fully present in the music one hundred percent of the time. You are immersed, preoccupied with it and therefore interacting with it. The more time you spend actively engaged  in the music, the closer your relationship with it will be. The closeness of the relationship built will be determined by both the quantity and quality of time spent actively listening. It is important to realize that active listening is a skill and if we want to become better listeners, we have to practice listening. It takes dedicated time, focus and critical thinking to get to the level of intimacy that leads to understanding and appreciation. Learning active listening skills can enrich and improve your life and your relationship with music.

If you are interested in learning to actively listen to music here are some suggestions. There is the cerebral approach and/or the meditative approach.  If you are so inclined you might like to do a bit of research before beginning to listen. You can determine what genre best fits the music, who composed it, what time period and country it comes from and historically, what was going on at that time, in that place and for that composer? Then set a goal to listen without distractions for about ten minutes. In addition or instead you can take a more meditative approach to learning to actively listen. Begin by sitting comfortably, turning off your phone and other distractions; let go of the stresses of the day and perhaps even turn off the lights. Next relax, close your eyes and slow your breathing. Closing your eyes helps keep you focused and heightens your auditory senses. Take the music in with your breath and note where it resonates in your body. You can try placing one hand on your heart and another on your diaphragm. Engage other senses. How does the music move you emotionally? Tune into those feelings. Do any images or colors come to mind? Let the music engage your imagination. Pay attention to details in the music like melodic contour, musical form, harmonies, instrumentation and dynamics. This is called critical listening and can be a good exercise for the brain and for helping you to stay focused. It is important however, not to become judgmental or let your critical mind take away from the joy of listening. Finally, take a few moments at the end of the music, before opening your eyes, to let your system fully process the experience.

There are many other aspects that can be explored as well. If you are studying an instrument with a teacher you can delve deeper into the music by discussing such things as key signatures, rhythm, harmony, pitch, consonance and dissonance and dynamics. Once you dedicate yourself to sitting down with a piece of music and becoming actively involved with it you will realize the rewards of focused listening and there are many rewards. I am sure you have heard about all of the health and educational benefits of listening to music, the Mozart Effect for instance which claims that music has a cognitive effect on the brain of listeners. Unfortunately passive listening does not convey all of those benefits in the same way that active listening does. Active music listening, taking formal lessons, learning and practicing an instrument produces substantive positive changes in the brains of both children and adults. Much has been written about this subject in prior posts to this blog. Active listening will improve brain function and it will also improve your overall musical enjoyment. The more closely you listen, the more you engage the different areas of our brain. The more you engage and the more senses you activate, the more strength a piece of music will have in positively affecting your physical, emotional and mental states, especially when you return to that same piece of music later.

Of course, different people want different things from their music and different artists appeal to different types of listeners. Some listeners want something deep out of their music and others are just looking for background sound as they go through their busy days. There’s nothing wrong with passive listening but much to be gained by active listening.