njschoolofmusicllc

Welcome to our blog about music education

Keeping your musical skills fresh when life gets in the way

This is such a busy time of year that it’s difficult to stay on top of everything. The school year seems to rev up just before it winds down, vacation time is looming, there are proms, graduations and recitals, and finding the time and the focus for productive practicing can become a challenge with all of those distractions. Yet you’ve worked so hard on developing your skills that I am sure you want to protect your investment from the inevitable loss that can occur due to neglect. In short you want to do what you can to keep your skills fresh!

If at all possible, resist the temptation to put your instrument aside or to take a little break. Taking time off is the surest way to have some of that carefully honed skill, technique and newly acquired dexterity deteriorate.  Of course it is always possible to gain back lost proficiency but nobody likes to have to re-do something that they’ve already done if they don’ t have to. As it turns out, there are ways to avoid it.

The first thing to do is to step back and take a breath. Most of the time the situation does not require an all or nothing approach. Of course an hour of daily practice is better than 30 minutes and during an occasional busy time, even 20 minutes a few times a week is better than nothing.

The second most important thing you can do is to keep your instrument visible so that it is always on your mind and  accessible so that the simple act of getting ready to practice does not take up all of the time you have. At the same time, please keep your instrument safe! If your instrument is left out of it’s case be sure that it is not in harms way especially if there are very young children or rambunctious pets in the house.

Most of the students we teach are pursuing music as a hobby, for enrichment, self fulfillment and enjoyment. If you are pursuing music as a career than you are in a different situation that requires you to put a higher priority on making time for serious, daily practice. Either way, keep in mind that stepping away from all of the stresses in your life to play your instrument can actually be therapeutic.

If you have a recital coming up then at the very least sit down and review the piece you are performing.  You are already comfortable with that piece so playing it should be a source of comfort, satisfaction and enjoyment. Reviewing it as often as possible will keep it fresh and actually reduce the stress of worrying about your upcoming performance. A few daily repetitions with a bit of concentration on the remaining rough spots should not take all that long.

Another really nice way to keep fresh is to play scales. They are easy to memorize and to play.  They keep your fingers moving and allow you to maintain your dexterity and practice your technique. Even if you have time for nothing else temporarily, beginning or ending your day with fifteen or more minutes of focused scale practice can actually help you to unwind, relax and feel good about not neglecting your instrument.

The same can be said for any simple etude or other piece that you can play easily. Rather than stress about not moving ahead enjoy the fact that you are at the very least not going backwards. It is satisfying to feel that you are accomplishing something and protecting your investment.

Finally, if for some reason you cannot access your instrument remember that it is actually beneficial to engage in “mental practice” (The Science Behind Practicing, published here on March 10, 2017). Simply put this refers to practicing in your imagination in vivid detail when for one reason or another you must be away from your instrument. Physical motion can be reinforced just by imagining it!

If all else fails, engage in lots of focused listening. Find every opportunity to relax with the music you enjoy. Listen while you drive, while you exercise or while doing chores around the house but most importantly listen while you are doing nothing else but listening. You will find that it is a very different experience. (Passive vs. active listening to music, published here on March 28, 2016)

 

Recitals are not just for kids

Many adult music students will cringe at this statement. Recitals are not just for kids, they are for everyone. Students of all ages benefit immensely from performing early and often. Our recitals are open to students of all ages and abilities. We believe that the only way to get comfortable performing is by doing it. Performing is an integral part of your music education and is sure to help to push you to the next level.

We strongly encourage but do not require our adult students to perform in our twice annual recital series and many do just that. I can assure you that there is nothing childish about recitals. It is true that the majority of our students are youngsters but it is also true that a good percentage of our adult students take advantage of the opportunity to perform at our recitals. As an adult student your performance will not only be good for you but will provide an excellent example to the younger students. We are never too old to learn, to work hard and even to make minor mistakes with poise and grace.

To address the issue of adult students who are reluctant to participate in our regular recital series, some teachers will organize recitals that are designated exclusively for their adult students. These recitals are smaller and can be a bit less intimidating. One model would be for the recital to take place in the studio where regular lessons are held.  The students will gather, relax, chat, share some thoughts and ultimately take turns playing their instrument for one another.

This format is more informal than the standard recital which does not provide time to get to know the other performers and is generally in a larger venue with a larger audience.

Even more intimate are the adult recitals that are organized to be held in the home of one of the teacher’s students. Typically a student will open their home to no more than ten to twelve other adults along with their teacher. Each participant can bring a contribution for a pot luck lunch. The recital begins with time for refreshments and conversation. The setting provides the impetus to create not only a relaxing atmosphere but one of real camaraderie.

In either of the two models mentioned above the teacher might begin the actual performance segment of the event by volunteering to be the first performer. Though there are no written programs the teacher will organize the performers in such a way as to prevent the beginners from being intimidated by the more experienced students. Again, no one is forced to play.  Some students begin with a reluctant performance but really warm to the opportunity quickly.

Even if you are sure that you will not perform, if you are invited to a recital you owe it to yourself to make every effort to attend. You are sure to have a very nice time and to be inspired by the other students, whether they are your peers or the younger students. Some day you will perform and once you do you will be very pleasantly surprised at how much you get out of the experience and of how much value it adds to your music lessons.

 

 

How to create a great recital audience

At this time I expect that most students are busy practicing to give the best recital performance they can. We owe it to them to make ourselves aware of what it takes to provide them with the best audience possible. These points, while simple to actuate, all make a vast difference in the whole experience.

Being a good audience member requires us to do something that most of us have precious little time to do anywhere else. Basically, all we ask is that you sit quietly, relax and listen. Being at a recital gives you the opportunity to unplug, turn off your devices, breathe deeply, clear your mind and get into an almost meditative state. Each recital is only about an hour long, and for that hour, the rest of the world can wait.

For some of us doing nothing can be difficult. We are so used to running around in a constant state of connectedness that it has become unnatural for us to relax either our bodies or our minds. But, honestly, tranquility is really good for us. So, being a good audience member is not only beneficial to the performers but healthy for the audience member too.

The performer needs to be able to focus. Focus is arguably the most important attribute of the student in their ability to execute a fine performance. I know this on a very personal level. As some of you know I am a cello student. I am a member of a volunteer orchestra, the South Jersey Pops, as well as an amateur quartet and I have no problem performing with either. However it is nearly an impossible feat for me to perform at one of our own music school recitals. Why? As the hostess of the event, I simply can’t turn off the stream of details and thoughts running through my mind. And, as long as those thoughts are monopolizing my ability to focus, it doesn’t matter how prepared I am, I simply can’t perform!

Obviously the situation I just described is my own issue, one that only I can remedy. I use it only to help to illustrate how crucial focus is to performance. I know that none of us would intentionally do anything to hamper any student’s presentation of their recital piece.  But we can get caught up in the moment and inadvertently do any number of distracting things without even realizing it.

Here are some of the things that we can try to avoid as an audience member, all of which will be easier if we arrive at recitals with a positive mindset. We are all there to support the efforts of all of the performers. Of course, the most important performance is that of our own child(ren) and we recognize that. Since we would not want anyone do anything to compromise our child’s focus we would want to return that favor.

You might think that your whispers or other muted sounds are not an issue. Or that the only concern is cell phone ringers. Unfortunately that is not the case. Talking and/or whispering, walking or running around, opening and closing the door leading out to the lobby, noodling/fidgeting with the instrument in your lap, noisily turning the pages of your book or your music, opening candy wrappers, all create unnecessary distractions.

On the subject of small children, please know that they are always welcome as long as there is someone present to see to their needs. We understand the importance of family togetherness and would not suggest doing anything to compromise that.  Special memories are more meaningful when the whole family is present. It is easy to accept occasional happy baby sounds however an outburst from a young person who simply does not know any better can interrupt a student’s focus. Please know that temporarily removing an upset baby or toddler to the lobby will often be all it takes though do be cognizant of the fact that some louder sounds will travel through the closed doors.

We are well aware of the fact that young preschool aged children, attending the recital of their older sibling(s) might do best with some silent diversion to occupy them. It is our hope that the rest of us can be positive role models by sitting quietly without the need for diversions and giving the youngsters around us something to aspire to.

In publishing this post the intent is really to make the recital experience better for everyone present. All of our lives can be enriched by giving our focused attention to musical performance whether the performers are our children or professional musicians.

 

 

 

It is important to attend live concerts

Attending live concerts has the obvious benefit of supporting the musicians who are performing and helping to assure that they will continue to offer the kind of entertainment we enjoy. However, did you know that there are actual health and educational benefits that can be derived from attending live concerts?

John Logan, a civil war soldier, famously said that music is the medicine of the mind. It is safe to say that he was not referring to recorded music. Unlike recorded music, attending a concert is a communal event that connects you with other concert goers and provides a sense of community that is good for your mental outlook.  We all feel better when we are connected to other like minded people. There is a palpable energy present when you are surrounded by people who share your interests and that can be very invigorating.

Live concerts are good for you because they improve your mood. Medically speaking,  being at a concert decreases your production of stress hormones, and reduces your blood pressure and respiratory rate (Dr. Nirav Mehta, Cardiologist). In addition your brain releases endorphins which then has an analgesic effect, offering pain relief (Dr. Steven Eisenberg, Encologist, “the singing doctor”).

Psychologically speaking, being happy is good for your health and concerts tend to bring people joy. Musicians are often viewed as idols, or role models, and when you get to see them in person the experience can make you feel happy, which is really good for you.

As a student, one of the best ways to learn to become a performer is to attend live concerts and to really study the art of performance. Listening to recorded music and even watching videos cannot come close to the experience of being there in terms of this aspect of your music education.

We’ve talked a great deal about preparing for your recital or other performances. All of the information we have shared is vital to your readiness. However, live performance is an interaction involving you and your audience and a lot can be learned from just watching how it is done.

We know that the performers whose concerts you attend make it all look very easy and very natural. However getting to that point was not effortless. It is important to take a moment to focus on this. Many hours, days, weeks, months, years and often decades were spent getting the performer to the point at which you are enjoying them.

It is important to realize that attending live concerts does not have to be limited to the big name bands. Please consider expanding  your musical horizons and saving a great deal of ticket money by going local for at least some of your musical events. Check out the smaller venues in your town. Regardless of your favorite genres, you might be very pleasantly surprised by what you find.

 

 

 

Preparing for your recital

On March 24, 2017 I posted a blog entitled, “How to tell if your child is practicing effectively” stating that there is more than one type of practice. To simplify, there is the kind of practice that you do to learn new skills (discussed in that previous blog) and the kind that you do to build your music performance skills.

When you are preparing for a recital or other performance it is important to adjust your practice routine accordingly. It isn’t that you should abandon your entire normal regimen but rather that you add a new routine for the piece that you will be performing.

All of the things you have been doing in practice have lead you to this point. You have been working on your pieces and isolated the one that you will be performing. This post applies to the piece that you are going to perform at your recital. It is important to understand that perfection is not the goal for your performance but gaining confidence and reducing stress are. Both will make your performance more enjoyable for you and your audience.

With that in mind here are some general guidelines and a time line for June recitals. Your performance piece should be one that your already know how to play through, not a brand new one.  It’s okay if there are still a couple of troublesome areas that need some work. You will continue to work on those spots with your teacher and practice through them as you have been doing.

One of the surest ways to build confidence and eliminate some stress is to know your piece really well. So, whether your teacher expects you to perform your piece with sheet music or without, it is a good idea to work on memorization. Then if your teacher allows, your memorized sheet music can be right there in front of you at your recital but you will find that the familiarity you’ve gained through the memorization process will help build confidence and reassurance.

Memorization can be approached in different ways. All require listening and repetition. Visual memory would mean memorizing with your eyes, being able to recall the actual notes on the page or finger motions on your instrument. Auditory memory would mean remembering how the piece sounds.

Motor memory comes from repetition and results in your fingers knowing where to go on autopilot. Beware, this type of memory alone is dangerous as nerves can have a detrimental effect on it.

The best kind of memorization involves understanding the music. Your teacher is there to help you recognize the key of the music, hand positions and intervals. Knowing the music in chunks allows the security of knowing where you are going and so being able to move on if you should get stuck along the way.  The importance of being able to start from parts other than the beginning cannot be overstated. Be sure to practice that.

The importance of listening is another task that cannot be overstated. Listen to professional recordings and record and listen to yourself as well!

Practicing  your piece at this time involves playing it over and over again. Always begin slowly, focusing on accuracy, tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and general musicality.  Your repetitions should include varying the tempo as you go to provide security. Count out loud to aid in focusing. Practice in sections and when you can play a section three times without making a mistake you are ready to move on to the next section.

Four weeks before your recital is an ideal time to aim to have your piece committed to memory. There is no need to stress over a couple of mistakes at that point. If you spend the next two weeks ironing out any memory lapses you should have your piece reliably memorized two weeks before your recital.

You should now be able to play your piece without your sheet music and mistakes if any should be easy to recover from. This will be a great time to find family and friends that you can perform for. This is the only way to prepare for the normal pressures and associated nervousness of performance.

Nerves are our biggest enemy in any performance situation. They plague professionals and amateurs alike. They can strike even the most prepared performer. We suggest that you actually practice playing while nervous. Visualize playing in front of an audience when none is available and obviously create one as often as possible. Recording yourself playing is another way to add a bit of nervousness. The point of course is to learn to play well despite your emotions.

One week before the recital is the time to relax.  You should know your piece. Keep playing, pay attention and enjoy listening to yourself. Your enjoyment will be conveyed to the audience. On the day of the actual recital the most important thing to do is to plan ahead. Arrive early to eliminate the stress related to worrying about being late.

You have worked hard on your recital piece so take this opportunity to show off your hard work and enjoy the performance. Remember that everyone in the audience is on your side and wants to hear you succeed, so have fun.

During all stages of this process finding time to play for a live audience can provide a very valuable experience. As it turns out we have a perfect opportunity for you. Call today to  sign up to perform at the next nursing home event.

 

Music competitions aren’t for everyone

Some students enjoy the prospect of showing  off their musical skills in a  competitive setting. For the students who thrive on this kind of atmosphere there are many opportunities to satisfy their needs.  The drive to battle against an opponent and to prevail, to come in first can be very motivating to these students.

However, there are also many music students who enjoy learning and playing music for their own personal gratification. They find fulfillment in their studies and garner motivation from within themselves. They take pride in learning and working hard to improve their skill level without the need for the outer rewards that come from competition. They might even find competing stressful thereby mitigating the potential rewards of studying music in the first place.

We live in a very competitive society. Their are many opportunities to compete within music education and obviously in the world of work, school, sports, etc. We certainly support and encourage all of our students who audition for local student level bands and orchestras as well as those who compete in competitions  through such organizations the Mid Atlantic Music Teacher’s Guild.  We recognize the value of each in their role as our partners in music education.

In our conviction to provide a personalized approach for every student we want to recognize and support the fact that many students are actually best served without exposure to competition (a situation that can be re-evaluated over time). Your teacher has years of professional experience and is well equipped to help you to assess  whether competition is appropriate.

Whether you choose to be involved in music competitions or not it is good to be familiar with the pros and cons and to enter auditions and competitions with the right state of mind, one that allows for the prospect of not winning the prize while simultaneously not allowing defeat to deflate the love and passion you have for the music you play.

While competition can build mental toughness and prepare musicians for the competitive reality they may heading towards, competition has also been accused of squelching creativity, and called detrimental not just to the development of young artists but to the evolution of the art itself. Whether competitions are helpful or harmful depends on how you approach them.

If approached as a framework for learning rather than as a win or lose experience, students can use competitions in a positive way. (Barli Nugent, Julliard).  Competitions provide a context in which students can push themselves to learn a great amount of repertoire, to polish it to a high level, to be able to manage their time, practice productively, demonstrate poise under pressure, cultivate a unique voice and image, perform under adverse conditions, and more.

Winning is just a side effect of having successfully achieved all of these objectives. It can easily be argued that the objectives are more valuable for long-term success than the actual winning.  Think about the fact that successfully achieving those goals would make you deserving of winning that one time prize while preparing you for long-term success even without that one time award. (Bulletproof Musician, Noa Kageyana, Ph.D.)

If the award and notoriety are still important to you than by all means, participate in competitions and enjoy them. If you would rather avoid competing, we understand. Either way, your teacher will support and respect you!

 

 

 

 

Music for Aging Well

Think about the people in your life who are 65 or older. Some are experiencing the usual mental difficulties of old age, like forgetfulness or a dwindling attention span. Yet others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp.

Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? “Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. Physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and compare the brains of 17 superagers with those of other people of similar age and succeeded in identifying a set of brain regions that distinguished the two groups. These regions were thinner for regular agers, a result of age-related atrophy, but in superagers they were indistinguishable from those of young adults, seemingly untouched by the ravages of time.

What are these crucial brain regions? If you asked most scientists to guess, they might nominate regions that are thought of as “cognitive” or dedicated to thinking. However, that’s not what was found. Nearly all the action was in “emotional” regions. The researchers were not surprised by this discovery, because they’ve seen modern neuroscience debunk the notion that there is a distinction between “cognitive” and “emotional” brain regions.

This distinction originally emerged in the 1940s, when a model of the human brain with three layers was devised and named the triune brain. An ancient inner layer, inherited from reptiles, was presumed to contain circuits for basic survival. The middle layer, the “limbic system,” supposedly contained emotion circuitry inherited from mammals. And the outermost layer was said to house rational thinking that is uniquely human.

The triune brain became (and remains) popular in the media, but experts in brain evolution discredited it decades ago. The human brain didn’t evolve like a piece of sedimentary rock, rather it evolved by reorganizing as it expanded. Brain areas that were considered emotional, are now known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain. They’re important for many functions besides emotion, such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience. Research demonstrates that these major hub regions play a meaningful role in superaging. The thicker these regions of cortex are, the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention.

Of course, the big question is; how do you become a superager? Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? The question is still being studied, but the best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. You can  help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort.

Our impulse, as we age, may be to avoid hard work. As people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

This means that pleasant puzzles like Sudoku are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Neither are the popular diversions of various “brain game” websites. If you want to become a superager you have to really work that brain. One of the top suggested ways to do that is to master a musical instrument.  It is never too late!

(this is an excerpt from the NY Times Sunday Review of the book, “Gray Matter” by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is the author of the forthcoming “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.”)