Welcome to our blog about music education

How many times do you want me to play that?

Whether you are working through a passage that has a difficult note pattern or a seemingly impossible rhythmic pattern the best way to overcome the problem is with repetition. That can lead to the question, “How many times do you want me to play that”? The answer is, “As many times as it takes (without injuring your muscles)”.

Begin by identifying the passage that is giving you the most trouble and break it down by measure, working on just few measures at a time (or even just a few notes at a time for extremely challenging passages). I usually find that it is most efficient to begin with the rhythm, especially if it is syncopated.

The most important thing to remember is to begin very slowly. How slowly? Slow enough that you can drill the rhythm and play the notes without making any mistakes. If you only ever play something correctly then it goes into your head and your hands only one way – correctly! So, find the tempo that works for you on your metronome, listen carefully, feel the beat, memorize it.

Next, it is time to begin counting, stepping and clapping the rhythm, a method that we guarantee effective for getting the feel of the music into your body and your mind. Stand up and start taking one step for each beat of the metronome. Then clap and/or sing the rhythm as you continue stepping on each beat. This will train your muscles to react in a way similar to how they will need to when you are playing the piece. How many times do you have to count, step and clap that? Until it becomes easy. There is however a caveat. Stop when you become frustrated. Take a break and move on to other aspects of your practice routine. Return to the drill after a few minutes.

Once you can feel the rhythm in your body and hands it is time to sit with your instrument and learn to play the rhythm. It is often a good idea to pick a single note and to learn that rhythm on just that one note. How many times do you have to play that rhythm on just that one note? Again, until it becomes easy, provided that you take a break and move on when you become frustrated and then return to the task later in your practice session.

Now that you can play the rhythm it is time to add the actual notes written in the passage. At this point you should still be practicing very slowly. As you become comfortable you should begin to increase the tempo of the passage you have isolated until you have it up to speed. How many times do you have to play the passage? By now you know the answer.

You are almost done with this drill. The final step is to add the the measures before and after the difficult passage so that your transitions are seamless. You shouldn’t have to stop and brace yourself as you approach the hard part or hesitate to breath a sigh of relief once you have gotten through that hard part. Once again you will have to repeat that whole process until it becomes easy.

How many times will you have played the passage by this time? Way more than you want to know. Instead of focusing on that think of how much you will have learned. This is truly the most efficient way to learn to play a challenging passage of music. It certainly beats returning to the beginning of the piece every time you make a mistake which only serves to reinforce the easy stuff. All of that repetition might seem a bit tedious in theory but if you think of it as an exercise or a game it will be easier to get through it and you will be amazed at the progress you will make.

As an added bonus, you may not realize as you are drilling individual short sections of music, that you are practicing for everything that you are ever going to play. All of this drilling helps make it easier to learn the next thing that you work on. Music is full of repetitive patterns and the music that you are working on in one section may very well show up later in the same piece or in other pieces as well. You are working on them all at the same time!

A final word on drilling passages is that you may find that you need to do this same kind of practice on the same section of music for several days in a row or again next week. Do not be discouraged. That is normal! It will start to come easier and go quicker each time you drill the section. This is a necessary part of the process of learning music, something that everyone does at every level of music performance right up to your favorite star.

Ever feel like more practice leads to worse playing?

I am here to assure you that though many of us have felt this way, it is absolutely not the case. More practice does not lead to worse playing! As long as you are engaged in mindful practice, and follow proper practice techniques that you will have learned from your teacher, or those published in previous posts to this blog, you are most assuredly making progress. There are however, some reasons that you might actually feel that the more you practice, the worse you play.

To begin it is important to understand that we don’t learn in a linear fashion. We develop skills in a step by step fashion. Here is a gross simplification. First we learn about a new skill as an idea. At this point we understand what we want to do, but not how to do it. Next we learn the concept or the technique that helps us to perceive how to actuate the new idea that was introduced. Finally, we practice and practice and practice to develop the muscle memory that allows us to consistently perform the new skill.

Learning to play an instrument involves your entire body and mind; your senses, your autonomic nervous system, your muscular and skeletal system, etc. all of which respond at different rates when faced with responding to stimuli and they are all part of a loop. When we produce a note we first feel it with our hands and or/lips (depending on the instrument), next we sense the vibration being sent into the room and finally we hear the sound with our ears. All of that is processed by our brain which sends instructions to various muscles to react and respond. It takes many hours of mindful practicing/listening/feeling to be aware of these sensory issues and to have them automatically modify your playing behavior. This is not an intellectual process!

When learning to play an instrument, the development of your ear (auditory response) is always ahead of the development of your technique (muscle response). The technique will never catch up to, or surpass your ear which is why even very high level performers are always striving to be better. As you practice your ear becomes more and more discriminating so that your expectations are always several steps ahead of your actual ability. Compounding the frustration is that not only does your ear develop first; it often improves faster than your technique. Sometimes the two aspects move fairly fluidly as though both are floating on the same current and sometimes they drift apart temporarily widening the gap between how you are hearing vs. how you are playing. When that happens we begin to feel that we are playing worse despite our practice.

All of this makes it very difficult to determine if you are improving without an objective teacher to guide you. You won’t learn if you are just practicing without being properly focused, but if you are practicing carefully and mindfully, it is impossible not to get better over time. There may be individual challenges that change your rate of progress but if you are putting in the time, internalizing how you are practicing and really listening to what you are playing, then your playing skill will develop. There will be leaps of understanding to rejoice in and plateaus to struggle through but you will improve.







Why Do I Play Worse at My Lesson?

Is there any music student anywhere who can honestly say that they have not experienced the phenomenon of playing better at home than they do at their lesson? The fact is that most students and teachers have first hand experience with this unfortunate occurrence.

There are many psychological and physiological reasons for playing better at home. Rather than focusing on the technicalities of right brain, left brain function I will use this opportunity to focus on other contributing factors; factors that students can learn to overcome such as nervousness, unreasonable expectations (on the part of the student) and avoiding distractions.

Overcoming nervousness might just happen over time as you become more familiar with your teacher. Remember that it is natural to feel nervous and exposed when you are playing in front of others. Learning to play an instrument is difficult. Your teacher is not a critic but a mentor who is  there to guide you on your musical journey. Despite your harshest thoughts about yourself, you are not the worst student that your teacher has ever worked with!

Playing in front of others can be intimidating. You can begin to get used to playing in front of others in many different ways. I’d like to suggest starting benignly at first. If the weather allows, try practicing with your windows open so that others can hear you without your seeing them. Or practice while others are in the house but not in the same room; whether they are family or friends of the family. Either way, it is important to have the mindset that someone is listening. In time you should be able to invite someone into the practice room with you (other than the family pet!)

Learning to play an instrument is inherently difficult and it takes time. Allow yourself that time. Regular, effective practice habits are beneficial for that and many other reasons. As you progress you will gain confidence in your playing. It is a good idea to record yourself practicing. Listening to recordings that you make over time can help you to realize that you are indeed making progress. This can help you to adjust your expectations of yourself.

Overcoming your nervousness about playing in front of others (including your teacher) and adjusting your personal expectations are only part of the cure for learning to play better outside of your own familiar environment. There is another very valid reason that you play better at home.

When you learn your piece, you are not just remembering how to play the notes. Your memory is also absorbing your surroundings. This means that when you play in the relatively unfamiliar surroundings at your lessons, your memory isn’t as strong and as you are already nervous, your playing suffers.Some students have found that visualization can be helpful with this.

Before practicing sit with your instrument, close your eyes, relax your muscles and visualize being in the studio where you have your lessons. Try to focus on the whole sensory experience; the atmosphere, the lighting, the distracting sounds, having the teacher sitting beside you; try to focus on the differences between the two environments.

Once you have can visualize in this way, try to start playing your piece while holding that visualization in your mind and project it into the room around you. This is difficult when you are playing, because it is hard to concentrate on your playing and have your mind focusing on something else but it is a very worthwhile exercise. If you begin practicing at home while visualizing, you will learn your pieces with the image of the other environment, which will affect how you remember them in your lesson. Of course after a few minutes of visualization, it is important to give your actual exercises and pieces the attention they deserve.

We are programmed to care about what people think of us and to worry about how they judge us. Your nervousness isn’t all in your head. It is an automatic reaction of your nervous system that is engineered into your makeup. As you know it has a profound effect on your playing at lessons. The best you can  do to fight your natural instincts is to practice and keep practicing and where possible, in an environment that closely simulates the environment that you will be “performing” in, whether that eventually includes an actual public performance or just playing in the studio with your teacher.








The importance of group playing

Once a student has learned to play their instrument and has strong reading and rhythmic skills it can be very helpful and gratifying to learn to play in a group setting such as a band, chamber group, orchestra or small ensemble. Group lessons and other group playing add a whole new dimension to your playing; it is both enjoyable and very motivating which can inspire students to progress at a more rapid rate than they might otherwise.

Before I delineate all of the benefits of playing music together, I want to emphasize that first and foremost and  maybe more important than all that follows is that playing music in a group is just plain fun! It provides a level a gratification and satisfaction that is exponentially better simply because it is a shared endeavor. It is fun to rehearse together, to develop a relationship with the others in the group and to have and to cherish the shared experience of creating something with other like minded people.

Joining a group of other students with similar musical abilities adds a social element to the learning process. Playing in a group is the same as being on any team, everyone is working together and toward the same goal. Rehearsals provide the opportunity for the camaraderie that is often absent in a private lesson. Shared hurdles can be easier to overcome and ideally, no one in the group wants to let the others down creating a compelling reason to practice and to work through difficulties. Working with others at comparable levels will quickly boost the confidence of everyone in the group as students see that they are not the only ones who must occasionally struggle with difficult passages.

Group playing will very clearly demonstrate why your teacher has been so diligently focusing on your intonation and your rhythm, reminding you to count as you play, encouraging you to follow the written dynamics, playing louder in some places and softer in others. Whether you are a piano student learning to play your first duet, a guitarist learning to play in a rock band, a brass player learning to play in a jazz ensemble or a string player learning to play in a quartet, the importance of all of the above skills will be obvious to you as soon as you begin playing music with others. Playing with others emphasizes the importance of cooperating with others.

A note that is passable but not quite right will be far easier to recognize when matched against the other notes in the chord, if most members of the group are keeping a steady count of the rhythm it will be clear when someone is not and when the melody is drown out by the harmony you will realize why the dynamics are marked as they are. In short, when playing in a group it is imperative that you are following all of the basic rules and that you are all listening to one another. Playing with others emphasizes the importance of good communication skills.

Playing music in a group teaches patience, humility, the maturity to take responsibility, accept the consequences of good and bad decisions and the ability to work hard while still taking a moment to laugh together. It teaches collaboration and crosses all social, financial, cultural and ethnic boundaries. It helps to develop compassion and empathy, as opposed to the development of greed and a “me first” attitude. All of the skills that we learn by playing music with others mimic the skills we need to be responsible and productive members of society. And as I said in the beginning it is just plain fun!

If you are interested in reading more about the social benefits of playing music in a group, I highly recommend Tricia Turnstall’s book, Changing Lives, Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema and the Transformative Power of Music. This is a link to our website which lists some of the benefits of playing music in groups from the above referenced book Music and Social Transformation.



Note Reading and Sight Reading

Music literacy is one of the most crucial aspects of music education.Just as with any other language you can consider yourself fluent when you recognize the notes  on the staff, at first glance. And, as with any other language the only way to become a good reader is to practice reading.

Note reading can and should first be learned independent of your instrument, in the same way that we learn the alphabet before we learn to read words. Becoming a fluent note reader does not have to take a long time to accomplish however it does take consistent and short term intense exposure to accomplish. So, when you are ready, just dive in. There are numerous tools and worksheets to help.

Once the skill to instantly recognize the notes on the staff has been attained the next step is learning to sight read. With instant note recognition there is one less thing to actively think about as you begin to hone your skills as a good sight reader. Practicing sight reading should be part of your regular routine. A glance at your sheet music tells you the name of the note(s) you want to play and now the goal is to instantly register exactly what you have to do to produce that note.

Becoming a fluent sight reader takes a bit more time than becoming a fluent note reader as there are more variables involved, like key signatures, rhythm, tone and dynamics to name a few. However, if each aspect is broken down separately it can become an easier task. Choosing a random piece of relatively easy, unfamiliar music is a good way to begin.  Now that you can easily  recognize the notes it is time to practice playing them on your instrument. Part of what you will be establishing is muscle memory. In time your fingers will automatically reach for the correct notes on your instrument.

Each time you practice sight reading try to add another dimension to your reading – first find the notes, next add the rhythm, the dynamics, the proper technique, etc. Your goal will be to enable yourself to pick up any piece of music and play it fairly accurately and relatively effortlessly. Learning to sight read is extremely rewarding and will be well worth the effort you put into it. In terms of solo playing the skills you learn will bring joy and satisfaction to your playing because you will be putting less effort into the mechanics required which will allow you to play with more expression. In order to even consider playing with a group, large or small, strong sight reading skills are absolutely essential.

Note reading and sight reading are both taught during your regular lessons. Taking all opportunities to accelerate your learning  of each skill is  very important to your progress as a music student.




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