Inspiration. You never know when it’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen. But when inspiration hits, internal motivation comes forth.

As a child, I remember hearing two different concerts that so inspired me, I immediately went to the piano when I got home. Here they are:

1. Age 12, I hear concert pianist, Byron Janis perform Piano Concerto #2 by Rachmaninoff . It was the first time I had ever heard the piano like that. From that moment forward it has became one of my all-time favorite pieces. When I was in my twenties I bought the music to save for some future time. Since then, I have practiced various parts of it.

2. Age 13, I hear concert pianist, Andre Watts perform Schubert and Beethoven solo piano pieces. I still remember the crescendo at the end of the Beethoven piece. It was so subtle, and it went on for quite some time. It was so gradual I couldn’t figure out how he had gotten to forte at the end. I couldn’t wait to get home and play the music myself.

I’ve heard many concerts over the years. Some have been fine. Some have been good. Some have been great, and some have been spectacular. You never know when a performer will reach out and touch you with the music. You just have to go to concerts and be open to the possibility. But I can tell you this, when you experience the magic, it will be well worth it.

Do you ever find yourself nagging your child to practice? Before you get too worn out doing that, take them to concerts. They just might get inspired, and you won’t be able to keep them away from the piano.

Practicing vs. Performing

Who hasn’t heard of a horror story performing in a recital? Unfortunately, negative experiences performing are not uncommon.

However, here at Discovery Music Academy, we want to write a different narrative. We want students to have a great experience performing. Therefore, we teach two different skills very intentionally: 1. How to practice to learn a piece. 2. How to practice performing that piece.

With the proper preparation, you can master both skills. But first, we need to understand the difference between practicing and performing.

In practicing you are constantly stopping and fixing and repeating a passage until you get it right. Then, once you get it right, you do it 4-6 more times well to solidify what you just learned. Then you sleep on it two nights in a row for your brain to finish processing what it learned.

In performing there is no stopping, no fixing and absolutely no repeating of anything. Once you start playing, the beat keeps going without interruption. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. You keep the beat at all costs, and let the mistake go by.

As you can see the skills needed for practicing are very different than the skills needed for performing. Allow yourself time to learn a piece through practicing. Once you have learned it and can play it well by yourself, transition to performing where you practice keeping going no matter what. Make a mental note of where your mistakes were, and when you’re back at home by yourself, work out those places where you made mistakes. When you are comfortable again, play it in front of someone again.

Keep repeating this process until your performances improve, and you no longer have any places to work on. Allow yourself a minimum of three weeks of practicing performing in front of three different groups of people before performing at a recital. You want to work out the kinks in an informal setting so you have the best chance of a good experience in a more formal setting.

As with learning any kind of new skill, the more you practice performing, the easier it gets. Performing can become a wonderful experience of sharing your music in a mutual exchange with your audience. Believe it or not, it can be an incredibly energizing experience.

If you are learning to play the piano, I encourage you to not only practice, but also learn how to perform. You have a wonderful gift to share. If you would like help getting started, give us a call.

Counting Aloud Messes Me Up!

“Counting Aloud Messes Me Up!”

Have you ever said this, or heard your children say this when learning a new piece? Or, maybe they don’t say anything. They just don’t count aloud. Instead they play through their piece over and over hoping it will eventually get better. However, for those students who are willing to bite the bullet and work through the awkwardness of counting aloud, the reward is great.

Over the several years I’ve been teaching piano I’ve become more and more convinced that rhythm, or lack thereof, is the root of many problems. In my early days of teaching I did encourage counting aloud. However, if the student wined enough, I would let it go and try again on another day. Today, I’m relentless when it comes to counting aloud because I see the wonderful results students can have relatively quickly if they put forth the effort to count aloud. I love to see students grow in independence because they can count aloud.

I’ll spend an entire day teaching with the same resounding refrain: “Count aloud.” If the student complains, I know I’ve found their learning spot, and I don’t let it go. I tell them, “Join the club. Everyone today has begged me not to count aloud. So you are in good company. However, everyone today is counting aloud for better or for worse. It’s ok to stumble. It’s ok to make mistakes, and it’s time to keep trying until you get it.”

Inevitably, when the student follows my precise directions, they are usually surprised to master a passage in about 3-4 tries. Then I ask, “What was the key to your success just now?” Of course, the reluctant counters seem to have already forgotten that it was the counting aloud that helped organize their playing. I remind them that counting aloud was the key to their success.

“Counting aloud messes me up,” or how about, “counting aloud gives me results that I deserve.” Give both options a try, and see which one propels you or your children forward in your music study.

Brain Benefits of Music Lessons

Learning to play a musical instrument teaches students so many life skills, such as learning to listen, how to set and reach goals, and how to solve problems. In addition to life skills, science is showing the positive effect of music lessons on the brain.

Check out this article: Science Just Discovered Something Amazing About What Childhood Piano Lessons Did to You.

You don’t need to become a professional musician to reap the benefits of music lessons. If you are already taking lessons, I encourage you to stick with it. If you are considering taking lessons, go for it. It can be a rewarding experience, and a side benefit is your brain will thank you.

Giving Up

Has your child ever given up on the first try and then refused to try again?

This is a common issue that comes up in learning to play the piano. It’s also an opportunity for students to learn what the process of learning looks like. Students who refuse to try again oftentimes believe that they should be able to get it on the first try, and if they are not successful then they believe they are not good enough. Rather than experience those uncomfortable feelings of not being good enough, they stop. This is the best coping mechanism they have to date.

Where did they come up with this idea that they need to be able to do something new on the first try? It can come from anywhere. One student, after hearing his father make an off-hand comment about a band not being very good, interpreted that comment in his mind to mean he needed to be perfect on the first try so he wouldn’t be in the category of not being very good, and therefore not have his dad’s approval.

Here’s a different tape that I repeat over and over to my students until they get it and experience it for themselves: Learning is a process. It does not happen on the first try. It’s often the 4th or 5th try where you start to get it. You are suppose to stumble around and make mistakes, and keep going until you get it. That is the process of learning.

Some students understand this immediately, for others it can take a few years to actually believe it. (If your child is in the “few years” category, don’t give up on them. They need a parent who believes in them, especially when they don’t believe in themselves).

Students who are perfect on the 1st try are not learning. They are showing what they already know. The process of learning is allowing yourself as many mistakes as you need to work it out. Making peace with this process accelerates learning.

Parasympathetic Nervous System and Piano

Do you ever feel like you’re running around, trying to get everything done, and then you’re exhausted at the end of the day?  I’m sure we’ve all felt that at times.  That experience is the sympathetic nervous system at work.  It’s fight or flight mode.  Even in learning to play the piano it’s easy for students to fall into trying to get it right and putting pressure on themselves.  Again it’s the sympathetic nervous system at work.  It’s great for when you need that extra adrenaline to run for your life, literally.  Thankfully, we rarely need to run for our lives, and in piano lessons it’s not necessary at all.

What’s the alternative?  Engage the parasympathetic nervous system.  “What’s that?” you ask.

The parasympathetic nervous system is everything you’re body does automatically without you thinking about it, like digesting food and breathing.  It just happens.  When you’re resting the parasympathetic nervous system is at work.  What if you could be in a rest state and learn to play the piano?  Wouldn’t that be relaxing and invigorating?  Yes, it would.

I have great news for you.  It is possible to learn and play the piano from a rest state.  No stress.  No worry.  No to-do list trying to get your attention.  Just pure relaxation that feels great, and sounds great too.

I recently had a 13-old student truly experience this for the first time.  She had been struggling to learn a particular piece.  She could do it, but she had all this stress and worry about it before she even played the first note at her lesson, even though she had practiced it at home.  (Ever had that feeling before?  You are not alone).

I encouraged her to go really, really, really slow.  So slow the average person would think she didn’t know how to play the piano.  Not the pace you would play to show off, but the pace your body needs so it has time to relax, think, and process everything it is doing as it is doing it.  So slow you can feel yourself breathe with every note without a care in the world.

She found that pace and nearly put herself to sleep.  I stopped talking.  There was nothing to say.  She played incredibly slow.  Where she struggled before, she now played flawlessly.  Her tone was stunning.  She had never experienced what I meant by slow until now.  She had a huge smile on her face and was so excited that yes, she really could play this piece.  In fact, she could probably learn the whole thing by next week simply by going this slow.

I told her, “This is how I practice.  You now know the secret.”

Truly going so slow you can feel yourself breathe takes letting go of trying to look good, and instead finding that pace where your body feels comfortable.  It takes self-awareness, practice, and a willingness to look like you don’t know how to play the piano.   Yet, the truth is, this is how you learn to play the piano well.  It is what keeps students coming back for more because it feels so relaxing.  That’s the parasympathetic nervous system for you.  Try it.  It will open a whole new world of possibilities for you.

One Fingering

I was recently preparing a piece to perform.  I could play it well by myself, but I wanted to test it in front of an audience.  When I played it for a friend of mine, I found out real quick where the spots were that I didn’t know as well as I thought I did.  I then knew what I needed to work on.

One particular passage stood out to me.  It was only a few measures long, but I realized I really didn’t know exactly what fingering I used when I played it.  I just sort of played it, and it always seemed to work out.  (Sound familiar?)  But when I played it in front of my friend, it fell apart.

In my next practice session, I went back to hands alone, and used the fingering in the music.  I re-learned the passage over several days, still hands alone to ingrain the specific fingering in my brain and in my hands.  This was all done incredibly slow.  Eventually I worked my way up to hands together slowly, but still slow enough so I was consciously aware of the precise fingering I was using on every single note.  One week later I could just start to play the passage up to tempo, however, I continued to daily go back to hands alone slowly with conscious awareness of the exact fingering I was using.

Once I get comfortable with my new precise fingering, I will test the piece in front of an audience again.  I will then find out if it’s performance ready, or if I need more practice on that passage.

Going through the same practice and performance process I ask my students to reminded me of the importance of having one precise fingering you use all the time.  One fingering gives you predictability and therefore, security.  When you have that, performing can be a lot of fun.

If you find difficult parts in your pieces, ask yourself if you are aware of the exact fingering you use.  If you’re aren’t, just getting one fingering in your hands and brain can make all the difference.  It may take a little time and effort, but the reward is great:  You can play with ease and the worry is replaced with fun.

How to Motivate Children to Practice

When you sign your child up for piano lessons, you have hopes and dreams for their success.  It’s great when they are motivated on their own to practice, but it’s typical for students to have periods when they seem to lack motivation.  What can you do as a parent to help re-ignite their fire?  Here’s a couple of ideas my own mother used with me.

1.  “Mary, will you play for me while I cook dinner?”  The piano was in our living room and open to the kitchen.  To this day I can still see my mom cooking while I played.  It was something the two of us shared, and I thank her for that gift.

2.  “Mary, I’ll clean the kitchen for you if you’ll play for me.”  If all I had to do to get out of my job of cleaning the kitchen was to play the piano, then I was going to do it.  Of course, my mom took full advantage and scrubbed every nook and cranny until that kitchen was spotless.  I couldn’t leave the piano until she was done with the kitchen.  Again, to this day, that picture of me playing and her cleaning the kitchen is indelibly etched in my mind.

3.  “Mary, let’s take an R&R day, just the two of us.”  This only happened once a year around my birthday when I was in elementary and middle school.  She cleared the entire schedule for the day, including school, and we went out to lunch and shopping.  It is some of my best memories with my mom.

As a student, did I have periods of time where I did not practice?  Yes.
Did I always follow my piano teacher’s assignment?  No.
Did my mom ever nag me to practice?  No.

Through her creative ideas she found ways to encourage me to keep playing, and the piano has become a constant in my life that today I get to share with others.  I can’t imagine my life without it.

With your own children, before you’re about to tear your hair out, try some of these creative ideas, or think of your own.  They can become long-lasting fond memories for your child well into their adulthood, and someday, your child just might thank you.

Emotion in Music

I once had a 7 year-old student who had been taking piano lessons for a few months.  One day at her lesson we were going over her theory book assignment she had done in pen.  When I showed her a few corrections, she realized couldn’t erase her errors.  In a gentle, whispered tone I suggested she always use pencil in piano, even when she gets older, so that she can always erase as needed.  I even showed her my Beethoven sonata book, and the piece I was working on, where I used pencil.

Somehow in this conversation she wanted to hear the Beethoven sonata I was working on.  So I told her a little about Beethoven and how he went deaf later in life, and this sonata was composed when he was deaf.  I told her the sonata had two movements, like two mini-pieces, that go together.  I said I think the first movement sounds like his anger over being deaf.  I played a little bit of it, and she agreed.

I asked her, “If this were a dog, what kind of dog would it be?”

She responded with a harsh tone to her words and a bark.

Then I played the second movement, and I said, “I think in this movement he’s at peace with being deaf.  It’s like he’s saying it’s o.k.”

As I played the gentle, delicate melody, her head tilted one way as her eyes were drawn to my hands, and she listened intently.  Seeing how mesmerized she was by the music I kept playing until it came to a natural stopping place.

She said, “That was so pretty.”

I responded, “Isn’t it just beautiful?  Now, what kind of dog is this movement?”

She gave the best imitation of a floppy puppy face, completely relaxed and at ease.

She just loved the second movement and wanted to play it someday.

I said, “Well, I’ll show you what notes you can play, and we’ll improvise on it right now.”

I gave her three keys she could play that would fit with the music, and we improvised in the style and key of the piece.  As we went along, I realized I could probably start playing the sonata movement itself with her improvising.  So I let the Beethoven melody intertwine with her improvisation.  The music that had moved her earlier, she now was participating in creating.

After we finished she took the three keys I had given her:  e, b, e, and said the following after each key:  (e) “I“, (b), “Am“, (e), “Deaf“.  Then she started creating something new all by herself.  She switched one of the notes and the pattern became minor.  I was about to interrupt her doodling on the piano, but I saw her focus in what she was doing, so I sat back and let it unfold.  After a few minutes she was done creating.

She looked at me and said, “Was that sad?”

I responded, “What do you think?”

She replied, “It’s sad.”

It’s wonderful to see a young pianist, just starting out, begin to understand and experience emotion in music.  It’s the emotion that reaches out and touches us and moves us.  It’s why we still hear Beethoven’s music today and understand what it means to be alive and a human being.

To hear a recording of the Beethoven sonata mentioned above, click here.

The Ebb and FLow of Piano Lessons

One moment your child craves the piano. They spend time playing Christmas songs, feeling happy that they can create music that they recognize. Then a few months later they’re unmotivated and want to quit. What’s going on?

In undertaking any endeavor like learning to play the piano, there will be highs and lows. The question is not if, but when will the lows happen. It’s important to recognize that this is normal and part of the learning process. A “low” does not necessarily mean quit. It means something has changed, and it’s time to investigate and figure out what that is. Once you understand what has changed then you can evaluate what step to take next.

In preparation for a low, establish a good relationship with your child where they feel safe talking to you about what’s going on in their life. When a “low” comes take this as an opportunity to learn more about your child. The issue is not about quitting, but what has changed in their world. This may take a little more time and effort as a parent, but it will be well worth it. One day they will be a parent helping their own children navigate the process of growing up.