Category Archives: practicing tips

Some of my favorite TED Talks.

From time to time in lessons, I refer my students to watch Ted Talks that I think might help them with whatever they are struggling with.  Today, I am doing a quick round-up of a few of these talks, why I share them, and what a music student can learn from them.

1.  Hard Work is more important than talent

The Power of Believing That You Can Improve by Carol Dweck.

I most often share this Ted Talk with parents of young students as a way to encourage them to foster good practice habits and a growth-mindset in their children.  The TL;DR version of this talk (although you should definitely take the time to listen to it) is that research has shown that children who are praised for their successes resulting from hard work tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges and failure than children who are praised for their talent.  When you think about it, this makes perfect sense because a child who knows that hard work results in success will blame his or her lack of hard-enough work when faced with failure; conversely, a child taught to value talent alone will give up, thinking he or she is untalented and cannot improve when things don’t go well.

This is especially important in a discipline like music, where talent tends to be over-emphasized as the most important factor in a musician’s success.  Even truly great talents will practice for hours a day, but that’s what audiences don’t learn about.  The hard work.  If young musicians were to know that very talented and successful musicians practice countless hours, then they might be more inclined to think that they too can reach that level of success with some grit and determination.

2.  How to practice each day without being intimidated by the enormity of the endeavor.

Your Elusive Creative Genius by Elizabeth Gilber

This wonderful and highly popular talk contemplates artistic success and artistic process.  I use this most often to encourage students who feel “stumped” in their music practice or playing without improvement.  The TL;DR of this talk is that the ancients used to believe that someone’s “genius” was not intrinsic to them; an artist was just a vessel or mouthpiece through which a higher power…”genius” spoke.  Ms. Gilbert concludes that if we thought of genius more in this way, and not in the modern way of emanating purely from an individual artistic talent, that art and creativity are not such scary endeavors that will leave individual artists constantly disappointed in themselves.  My favorite line of her talk is when she is chatting with her on “genius” and saying that she showed up to work and is doing her part by being with pen and paper in hand (as an author), and it’s not her fault if her genius isn’t pulling its weight.

So when a student finds that something isn’t clique-ing for them, I suggest that they watch this video.  Just show up to work at the piano and let your genius do the rest.  (Also not bad metaphor for why practice is again necessary even when you have oodles of talent).

https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius

3.  For Motivation, a Challenge to Establish a Habit, and a Can-Do Attitude

Try Something New for 30 Days by Matt Cutts

I love this talk for many reasons.  First, it’s great at helping people see that it can be a small thing to establish a habit of practicing and that even beginners of any age has nothing to lose by trying out a new skill such as piano.  Secondly, I love how the speaker challenges you to have a 30 day goal and just observe the result.

For my students, when they are struggling with establishing a practice routine, lack inspiration/motivation in practicing, or simply need a new challenge, this Ted Talk works wonders.

Challenge your students to 30 days of practice of no less than X amount of time per day.  See what happens.  Also, use a habit tracker so students can see their success on paper.  I made one for a Summer Practice Challenge that lasted 24 days that you can check out below.

https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/matt_cutts_try_something_new_for_30_days

4.  On Achieving Mastery through Near-Wins (And Appreciating Our Near-Wins)

Embrace the Near Win by Sarah Lewis

This talk praises the near-win, which we generally tend to under-value.   So the pretty good performance, rather than the flawless one.  This is useful in thinking about performances and about practicing.

First, she talks about how numerous near-wins bring us closer and closer to mastery.  This plays out in the piano practice context in the sense that numerous repetitions of a particular phrase, perhaps hands separately or at a less-than performance tempo for (i.e. not perfectly) brings us closer to playing the phrase perfectly the next time and the likelihood of flawless repetitions.  In performance, this can mean that each performance is merely an opportunity to do the best you can at the time – not necessarily perform note-perfectly.  When viewed this way, the best way to achieve mastery of performance of a particular piece comes from doing many, many performances.

She also discusses, more directly, how as a student of a subject gets better and better at a skill or more and more knowledgeable about a subject, the more likely that student is to judge his execution of the skill or knowledge of the subject matter as being insufficient.

This relates to music performance because, in learning music, we are always working on the edge of our abilities (or where we can’t be absolutely perfect) so that we might improve.  If we worked on Fur Elise only when we should be playing the Hammerklavier Sonata, for example, we might be very satisfied with our playing, but we wouldn’t be living up to our abilities.  Conversely, if we play the Hammerklavier Sonata, we might struggle, and we might miss some notes or have other difficulties, but one day, that Hammerklavier Sonata will become as easy to us as Fur Elise once was.  But of course by then, we will be giving ourselves grief over not being perfect at some more challenging piece of repertoire.  Ultimately, if we aren’t frustrated and feeling like we only have near-wins, then we are not learning, which is why I tell my students that they SHOULD make mistakes in lessons when I teach them something new.  If they weren’t making mistakes trying out some new endeavor, than that means we aren’t learning anything new or of any benefit to us.

Why take lessons if you can already (as if this were possible) play everything in the world so perfectly that you have nothing to gain from a teacher’s perspective.

https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/sarah_lewis_embrace_the_near_win

I hope you enjoy these talks and that you can use them to motivate your own students.  Please feel free to comment if you find them helpful or if you have others you’d like to recommend.

PS) For some reason, my embedding of some of the videos is now displaying links.  Will try to fix later because I’m not sure what’s causing it right now.  Feel free to let me know if you, know how to fix!

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How To Practice Effectively (Ted-ED Lesson)

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 1.16.45 PM

How to practice effectively…for just about anything – Annie Bosler and Don Greene

Mastering any physical skill takes practice. Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement, and it helps us perform with more ease, speed, and confidence. But what does practice actually do to make us better at things? Annie Bosler and Don Greene explain how practice affects the inner workings of our brains.

 

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Flashback Friday – Helping Your Music Student Practice. Ten Tips.

This week, I thought we could revisit an old post that I think bears repeating.  I copied and pasted it entirely here, but the link to the original post is here.

 

One of the things that teachers might forget is that a beginning music student needs to learn how to practice – a process that takes some many years. When the student is young and under a parent’s care, help from a parent is vital in helping the student in that process. Unless the student’s parents took lessons themselves, parents need a little help helping their student. And even parents who took as children might need a refresher. So here’s a easy guide that you can point your parents to.

1.  Practice area should be free from outside distractions.

Make sure the piano is in an area of the house that is free from distraction, at least while the student is practicing. TVs and radios should not be audible.

2. Take away the tech.

Take away their smartphone, their tablet, their laptop, and any other devices that might distract them while practicing unless the teacher instructs otherwise. The constant texting, etc. breaks concentration and therefore makes practice less constructive. To that end, buy a real metronome rather than letting them use an app, at least until they are mature enough to not allow the phone to be a distraction (which may not occur until college with some). Metronomes vary in the way their controls work, so it’s a good idea to bring your student’s metronome to lessons until he or she understands how to use it.

3. Schedule practice appointments.

Schedule practicing in your student’s daily routine. Making appointments in their calendar is the best way to insure that practice becomes a habit. For example, I practice every night between 9 and 10pm. Make it part of their routine.

4. Practicing should be done regularly.

No fewer than 4 times per week. Preferably every day, including lesson days. Practice after a lesson reinforces what was learned during that lesson.

5. Act as a coach for your student while she learns to practice.

This may take several practice sessions and may require you to sporadically check in on her practicing. As much as a teacher may try to tell them exactly how to practice, young students routinely simply play the piece from beginning to end over and over again which is a highly ineffective method of practice. They also tend to take shortcuts. If you have questions about how the student should practice, make sure you communicate with the teacher – ask if you can sit through a lesson or come in for a chat during the last 5-10 minutes of the lesson. (Don’t try to chat after the scheduled time is over – the teacher likely has another student or has a short break which he or she needs).

6. Check your student’s work to make sure they’ve completed it.

Make sure your student completes ALL of their assignment each week. Students often fail to refer to their written assignments and come in without having completed all the required tasks. This is a waste of time and your investment in lessons. Verify that she has indeed practiced everything on the list and done all written work. Students especially love to neglect their music theory homework.

7. Enforce practice time goals set by your teacher.

Make sure you know how much your student is expected to practice weekly and you make sure that the student does it. If the student is not practicing enough, he or she is wasting your investment and will not progress very quickly. If the teacher assigns the student to practice a total of 60 minutes during the week, make sure that 60 minutes are completed. Of course, be gentle in enforcing these goals. You may have to “trick” younger students into practicing through various methods of encouragement.

8. Don’t allow students to cram practice.

If 60 minutes of practice are assigned, the student should not do all of it the night before. An ideal schedule, assuming the lesson is on Monday, would be to practice 15 minutes on 4 different nights – T, W, F, Sunday – for example.   Or don’t divde the time up exactly evenly and practice T, W, Th, F, S, Sun. Frequent repetition after periods of rest is vital to allow the material to “sink in.”

9. Don’t make practice or participation in lessons optional.

Once you have committed to lessons, stick with it. There will certainly be times when your student wants to quit from fatigue or lack of interest or because he or she wants to pursue something else. Make sure to decide before they start that you will give it 3-5 years before you allow them to quit. So many adults seek me out for lessons who didn’t take it seriously as children – I hear over and over again that “I only wish my parents had forced me to stick with it.” Don’t let that be your child. Worst case scenario, let your student take a few weeks off in lieu of quitting.

10. Reinforce that learning their instrument is important.

Praise the student for accomplishing goals, such as memorizing a piece or learning a new scale. Take time to listen to them play when they want to show you something and act really enthusiastic. Also, giving little rewards for completing practice assignments doesn’t hurt either (ex) ice cream.

NEW BONUS TIP:  If you commit to participating in a recital, competition, or festival, please make that a priority over other events that occur more often in your child’s life.  For example, if they have to miss a swim meet once to participate in a competition that occurs once per year, make sure the student feels supported in skipping the swim meet and that it is a worthwhile endeavor.

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Helping Your Music Student Practice – 10 Tips for Parents

One of the things that teachers might forget is that a beginning music student needs to learn how to practice – a process that takes some many years. When the student is young and under a parent’s care, help from a parent is vital in helping the student in that process. Unless the student’s parents took lessons themselves, parents need a little help helping their student. And even parents who took as children might need a refresher. So here’s a easy guide that you can point your parents to.

1.  Practice area should be free from outside distractions.

Make sure the piano is in an area of the house that is free from distraction, at least while the student is practicing. TVs and radios should not be audible.

2. Take away the tech.

Take away their smartphone, their tablet, their laptop, and any other devices that might distract them while practicing unless the teacher instructs otherwise. The constant texting, etc. breaks concentration and therefore makes practice less constructive. To that end, buy a real metronome rather than letting them use an app, at least until they are mature enough to not allow the phone to be a distraction (which may not occur until college with some). Metronomes vary in the way their controls work, so it’s a good idea to bring your student’s metronome to lessons until he or she understands how to use it.

3. Schedule practice appointments.

Schedule practicing in your student’s daily routine. Making appointments in their calendar is the best way to insure that practice becomes a habit. For example, I practice every night between 9 and 10pm. Make it part of their routine.

4. Practicing should be done regularly.

No fewer than 4 times per week. Preferably every day, including lesson days. Practice after a lesson reinforces what was learned during that lesson.

5. Act as a coach for your student while she learns to practice.

This may take several practice sessions and may require you to sporadically check in on her practicing. As much as a teacher may try to tell them exactly how to practice, young students routinely simply play the piece from beginning to end over and over again which is a highly ineffective method of practice. They also tend to take shortcuts. If you have questions about how the student should practice, make sure you communicate with the teacher – ask if you can sit through a lesson or come in for a chat during the last 5-10 minutes of the lesson. (Don’t try to chat after the scheduled time is over – the teacher likely has another student or has a short break which he or she needs).

6. Check your student’s work to make sure they’ve completed it.

Make sure your student completes ALL of their assignment each week. Students often fail to refer to their written assignments and come in without having completed all the required tasks. This is a waste of time and your investment in lessons. Verify that she has indeed practiced everything on the list and done all written work. Students especially love to neglect their music theory homework.

7. Enforce practice time goals set by your teacher.

Make sure you know how much your student is expected to practice weekly and you make sure that the student does it. If the student is not practicing enough, he or she is wasting your investment and will not progress very quickly. If the teacher assigns the student to practice a total of 60 minutes during the week, make sure that 60 minutes are completed. Of course, be gentle in enforcing these goals. You may have to “trick” younger students into practicing through various methods of encouragement.

8. Don’t allow students to cram practice.

If 60 minutes of practice are assigned, the student should not do all of it the night before. An ideal schedule, assuming the lesson is on Monday, would be to practice 15 minutes on 4 different nights – T, W, F, Sunday – for example.   Or don’t divde the time up exactly evenly and practice T, W, Th, F, S, Sun. Frequent repetition after periods of rest is vital to allow the material to “sink in.”

9. Don’t make practice or participation in lessons optional.

Once you have committed to lessons, stick with it. There will certainly be times when your student wants to quit from fatigue or lack of interest or because he or she wants to pursue something else. Make sure to decide before they start that you will give it 3-5 years before you allow them to quit. So many adults seek me out for lessons who didn’t take it seriously as children – I hear over and over again that “I only wish my parents had forced me to stick with it.” Don’t let that be your child. Worst case scenario, let your student take a few weeks off in lieu of quitting.

10. Reinforce that learning their instrument is important.

Praise the student for accomplishing goals, such as memorizing a piece or learning a new scale. Take time to listen to them play when they want to show you something and act really enthusiastic. Also, giving little rewards for completing practice assignments doesn’t hurt either (ex) ice cream.

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Playing musically through the use of adjectives, metaphors, and imagery

piano lessons new orleanspiano lessons new orleans

I.  Summary of recent article and its suggested exercise

I recently read an article that suggested a few exercises to help musicians play with more musicality.  The first exercise involves brainstorming a list of adjectives – at least 100 adjectives so that you (or the person you are directing to do the exercise) is forced to move beyond the more quotidienne adjectives such as “happy and sad.”  Once you have the list, the author suggests that you take five of these adjectives, all contrasting, and experiment with playing  a passage of music in such a way as to evoke those descriptors.  So for example, you might play the opening of Fur Elise hysterically, exhaustedly, furiously, nervously, and sullenly.  When you do this, assuming you are doing it successfully, each iteration of the phrase should be markedly different in shading, articulation, tempo/rubato, and other expressive devices.  For example, a hysterical rendering of the opening of Fur Elise, might be at an allegro tempo with an accelerando feeling and would likely be forte or involve a rather drastic crescendo.  But it could also waver between two emotions very quickly and therefore go from fast to slow, loud to soft, legato to marcato, accelerando to ritardando to communicate that.

By contrast, a rendering of the opening phrase which would communicate exhaustedness, would probably be heavy handed and slow, like a windup doll that was puttering out, running out of steam.

One point the author makes is that, ideally, you would want to try this exercise out with at least one partner.  When playing the excerpt, you would have them try to guess the adjectives which you are trying to evoke.  As the author mentions, if they cannot guess, you need to revisit your attempt.  The author says:

 It’s interesting to note that when the performer’s intention isn’t well-formed or clear, the audience response is invariably inconsistent. On the other hand, when it’s ‘real,’ it’s easy to deduce that emotions don’t lie. They seem to bypass the intellect and leap straight into the music, through the performer to the audience.

new orleans piano

II.  Thoughts on the suggested exercise

I love it to a certain extent although I think it would be best to work on applying different emotions to technique and other exercises.  That way, you can focus on defining one (or a few) emotions for a piece and really work on committing to it.  Plus, it seems best to integrate this kind of work into a routine practice rather than just working on it with the occasional musical passage.

The listing idea is really brilliant.  Many students have not really thought much about a wide range of emotions and certainly don’t have the vocabulary for it all.  Having them brainstorm a list is great because it really makes them explore emotions past the simple “happy, sad, scared, tired” level.

To help students brainstorm their emotion list, ask them to look at the emoticon lists in their phones, ipads, and other devices and attach a word to each one.  That should get them started.  Once they’ve got that list, help them find synonyms (or most importantly, near-synonyms) for their initial list of words.

music lessons

III.  Related exercises designed to aid the musician to communicate

In college, my voice teacher used to have these flashcards sitting atop her piano.  On them were written nearly every kind of emotion and attitude I could think of at the time.  While I was vocalizing at the beginning of each lesson, she would randomly draw from the stack and hold up an emotion that I was to portray as I sang.  One of the purposes was to get me to work on the acting side of being a singer.  At the time, I hated it.  I was one of those singers (who had long been a student of piano) that didn’t understand the importance of acting and portraying a character.  I thought all that mattered was hitting notes and phrasing, etc.  I used to cringe with embarrassment when she would pull from the stack.

Now, as a teacher, I think that those exercises were some of the most important that I could have learned as a young singer and a young musician.  A singer must first and foremost connect with the audience on a visceral level – if she sings wonderfully but is stiff and has no stage presence, her performance will not be a success.

voice lessons

Jolly Stewart, my college voice professor

However, what I also learned from those lessons applies equally to the singer and the instrumentalist.  While stage presence and the ability to effectively convey the text of a song is vital, another perhaps more important benefit of “acting” is that if you portray the proper emotion effectively, much of the work of phrasing and planning appropriate breaths will follow.

This works for the pianist because even young children can understand that there is a difference in how you would play a scale if you were sad or happy.  To understand and feel a musical passage that way – rather than by the gut understanding of musical phrasing and interpretation that you develop, say, through discussions of the conventions of pedaling and listening to professional performances – will oftentimes result in more exciting and original interpretation.

At any rate, I think that all pianists and vocalists alike could benefit from the demands of the emotion flashcard stack and should routinely use it.

One last thought – one of the most effective methods of getting a topnotch performance out of a student I learned as a student myself.  In high school, in a lesson with Frank Heneghan, I was instructed to come up with a story line for the Debussy Prelude “Minstrels.”  The story was non-sensical but full of imagery – certain melody lines were associated with characters and types of personages.  Through this technique, I remember feeling like I really connected to the piece in a new way and my performance was vastly improved.  So here’s the advice, always try to come up with phrase by phrase imagery or story lines.  I often tell students that they should try and come up with a music video for the piece or to imagine a Fantasia-like cartoon to go with it.  That idea, in combination with the training in understanding a broad range of emotions, should produce some truly wonderful results.

piano lessons

Frank Heneghan with student

piano

Fantasia is a great model for designing your own imagery

 

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How to Improve Music Memorization Skills

Some additional tips on how to memorize music. I particularly like her advice in #3 and #4 – understanding and analyzing the music is particularly helpful in memorizing it.

 

Take Note

By Carolyn Walter

Memorizing music can be a daunting task for musicians of all stripes.  Unfortunately for many of us, repetition alone is not enough.  Simply playing a piece of music from a score over and over again only teaches you to play the piece extremely well. . .but with the aid of the written page.  The key to “getting off of the page” is identifying what kind of musical learner you are, and which strategies will be most effective for you as an individual.

#1 Prepare the piece for memorization
For technically challenging works, memorization will be much more difficult if you don’t have a firm grasp of the most difficult sections beforehand.  In a similar fashion, you should have a clear picture in mind of

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PRACTICE INSPIRATION

piano practice, music lessons, piano lessons, Lang Lang, classical music

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March 20, 2013 · 1:56 am