Practice Archive

Listening to Your Gut

Learning to play the piano takes many skills all rolled into one musician. Oftentimes we don’t realize just what it takes until we take lessons ourselves. Even then, a good teacher only hands out the information as the student is ready. Too much too soon can be overwhelming. Likewise, not enough information creates boredom.

How do we know when it’s too much or not enough? That is the magic question, and one that I encourage students to begin to recognize the answer to within themselves as they grow up.

Many times students will do what a teacher asks simply because the teacher said it. While I’m all for respecting teachers, I’m more interested in a collaborative relationship with a student, where if I suggest something that is overwhelming to them, they feel comfortable saying so.

However, sometimes students don’t know how to articulate what they feel in their body, nor what it means.

I once suggested to a student to learn “x” for next week. I saw his body language change ever so slightly, and so I asked, “Does that feel do-able to you?” At a loss for words, he didn’t know. I asked, “What do you feel in your body? Are there knots?” Sure enough, there were. So I told him, “This means that what I’ve asked you to do is too much.”

So I broke the task down into smaller tasks, one for each day of the week. Suddenly that big task didn’t look so daunting after all. Then I asked, “How does that feel?” With a smile on his face he replied, “Yes, I can do that.”

Learning to play the piano from a place of curiosity without fear, nor anxiety, can be a lot of fun. Each time knots appear in our stomach, no matter how small, we can acknowledge them and let them give us information about what we are doing. Does our body want us to go slower? Does it want the task broken down into smaller tasks over several days?

The answers are endless, and they are found within us. How do we know we’re on the right track? The knots will transform into curiosity and enthusiasm, and even a smile on your face. You’ll feel like you can do it, and you can’t wait to try. How fun is that?!

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Two More Reasons to Count Aloud

Just this past week in my own piano practice and in helping a student practice I was reminded of two more benefits of counting aloud.

1. Improved memory. I was working on refining my memory on a piece I had been working on, and I realized that in one particular part, I wasn’t aware of exactly how all the notes fell on the beats. I was never quite sure exactly when one phrase ended and the next one began. So I decided to count aloud as I played, and low and behold, all the notes suddenly had an exact place to be and it took me about 10 seconds to solidify my memory in that section.

2. Improved ease of playing. Later in the week I was listening to a student play a piece from memory, and one particular end of a phrase felt hurried. I asked, “Can you count aloud that part?” He started to play and count and in the last two beats of the measure he couldn’t count it. Sure enough, we figured out the problem. The music had four beats per measure, and yet, his body was only feeling three. Counting aloud brought this to his awareness. He took a moment and reprogrammed his brain and body to count and feel four beats. Suddenly, this passage that had always been worrisome to play became very easy.

Yes, counting aloud takes some time and effort, and will expose weaknesses. However, the rewards are great once you master it. The weaknesses will become strengths, and those difficult passages can become your favorite part. It’s amazing to make music from a place of ease and comfort, and a little counting aloud will take you there.

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Spectacular Phrasing

2016 was the year of spectacular phrasing. Just what is phrasing?

It is listening to the sound you create and deciding how you want each note and groups of notes to sound.

Do you want them to start quietly and then grow to a really big sound? Or do you want to start loud and end quietly. Will the sound be harsh and abrasive? Or will it be gentle and inviting.

The possibilities are endless. The question musicians ask themselves to help them decide how to phrase is: What is the music trying to communicate?

There is an example of a Prokofiev Sonata where parts of it can be phrased with no loud, no soft, no crescendo, no nothing but monotone big sound. Why would Prokofiev write a piece like that? A little history provides the answer. He was living in the Soviet Union in the 1930s where there was no freedom. He was describing what it felt like not to be free. (What I find fascinating is that he wasn’t thrown in jail).

Contrast that with a brilliant Chopin Polonaise where huge dynamic contrasts bring the piece alive.

Professional musicians meticulously choose how they want every single note to sound. Sometimes they don’t know what way will sound the best. So they experiment and let their ears and body tell them. Keeping in mind what the piece is about, they listen closely as they try different ways. When they find the way that moves them and conveys the feeling the piece is trying to convey, that seals the deal.

You too can learn spectacular phrasing right now. You don’t have to wait until you’re a professional musician. All it takes is a listening ear and a willingness to explore different sounds.

If you’re not sure where to start, ask your teacher for help. Before you know it, you’ll be playing music that not only moves your audience, but also moves you as well.

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Establishing a Practice Routine

Practicing. Everyone knows it’s an integral part of learning any new endeavor, and learning to play the piano is no exception. Some days your child may be inspired to practice, and other days not. This is completely normal.

Even professional musicians have days where they are inspired to practice, and other days where they don’t feel like it. However, they realize that without practice they will not perform well; they will probably not get hired again, and then they will need to find another way to make a living. So they make practice a priority regardless of how they feel on a particular day.

For students learning how to play the piano the stakes aren’t so high, but learning how to establish a practice routine (for any endeavor) is a wonderful skill to have as they grow into adulthood. Here are a few ideas to help you guide your child with making a practice routine.

1. Have piano practice be a part of their daily routine. Just like they wouldn’t go to school without their shoes on, neither would they dream of leaving the house without playing the piano first.

2. Tie their practice to something in their day that they never forget to do. One parent told me their secret: Their child likes the ipad. So she gets her ipad time after she practices the piano. She practices nearly every day and doesn’t forget.

It may take a few weeks to determine a routine that works for your child, but it is well-worth the effort. Your child will grow in confidence and skill.

I would love to hear what you discover works for you and your child.

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How do you know when a piece is too hard?

Learning to play the piano can be rewarding and challenging. Finding just the right pace for a student, not too easy, and not too hard, is the key to their continued success. Overcoming challenges incrementally will build their confidence. When your child is confident, they are more open to learning and trying new things. And when they are open to learning, learning accelerates.

I recently had a student discover on her own how to know when a piece is too hard or just right for her.

When she’s learning something new, if it’s just the right level of difficulty, she can master it in about 2-4 tries. When it takes more than five tries, and even then she’s not really getting it, then she knows it’s too hard for her.

It made my day when she came to her lesson one day and announced that a piece I had given her the week before was too hard. The feedback from her helped me determine a more appropriate course of action for her lessons.

Several months from now when she has more skills, we can revisit that piece, and perhaps it will be just the right amount of challenge where she can get it in 2-4 tries.

Each student’s pace of learning is unique to them. Teaching them self-awareness so they can be actively involved in their own learning process will enhance their learning and develop independence. When a student is invested in their own learning, the sky really is the limit on what they can accomplish.

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Two Practice Tips to Help Your Brain

I recently talked with an acquaintance who had taken a few years of lessons as a child, and now as an adult was spending his spare time playing the piano again. Between juggling kids and work it was difficult to find a consistent time to practice.

He noticed that he could learn a part of a piece one day, but when he would return a few days later it was as if he had never learned it. He would then start again and go through the same process, only to have his brain seem to not retain what he was teaching himself. A nagging question began to lurk in the back of his mind, “Is there something wrong with me?”

I assured him, “There’s nothing wrong with you. This is completely normal when you’re on the upper threshold of your skills and you’re not able to practice every day. When I’m learning a difficult piece, the same thing happens to me if I don’t practice several days in a row.”

We then went on to a discussion of what does practice look like so that your brain does remember.

Here are two ideas to help your brain remember:

1. Visit the piano once a day, even if it’s only for five minutes. In those five minutes, teach yourself one new thing, no matter how tiny. The next day, review that one new thing. If you have time, teach yourself another new thing. Keep repeating this process every day until you have taught yourself the entire piece.

2. Get a good night’s sleep. Any time you learn something new, the next two nights of sleep your brain will finish processing what you learned. When you are able to practice several days in a row, every night you are processing what you learned that day and the day before.

If you or your child can identify with your brain not remembering what you previously practiced, try these two ideas and see what happens. I’d love to hear what you learn.

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Efficient Practice

When I was young, I loved piano. I played a lot, and sometimes I actually practiced. (I’m defining practice as working out a hard part of the music until I can do it easily). Not until I was an adult and being paid to play the piano at weddings and funerals did I start to really practice efficiently. I was hired to play music that wasn’t necessarily my favorite, but I had a job to do, and I needed to do it well. If I didn’t, no one would hire me again. As a result, I learned to practice very efficiently. No more aimless playing through the piece several times for days on end. I had to have a specific practice plan and clear goal in mind, which was learn the piece quickly and well.

One day, at my accompanying job I was handed a piece of music at the last minute. Usually I would inform the person that I don’t do things last minute. If they wanted the job done, then the music must be given in advance. This day, however, I glanced at the music, and knew that I had the skills to learn it in about 10 minutes. So I said, “Ok.” I gave myself the challenge of how quickly could I learn this piece and perform it and have it be a pleasant experience.

I excused myself, found a piano and sight read once through the piece. As I played I made a mental note of every place where I hesitated, got worried or held my breath hoping to make it through. Then I went back to each of those spots and broke it down to small concepts. Not until I mastered one concept at a time did I go on to the next concept. Here’s how it went:

1. What are the notes of the right hand alone?
2. What’s the fingering of the right hand alone?
3. What’s the rhythm of the right hand alone?
4. What’s the articulation/touch of the right hand alone?
5. What’s the tone quality of the right hand alone?
6. What are the dynamics of the right hand alone?

Once I mastered the right hand alone on each of the concepts above, I went and did the same process with the left hand alone. Once I mastered that, then I did the same thing again hands together. It ended up taking about 10 minutes to work all these things out. Once I did, I then played straight through the piece again to check and see if there were any remaining spots where I hesitated, got worried or held my breath. If I did, then I went back to those spots and repeated the process. Eventually I had no more spots that were difficult. They all were easy. That is when I knew I had mastered the piece, and I was ready to play it.

Efficient practice is a process, not a function of time. Every parent wants to know how much time their child should practice. While setting aside of certain amount of time every day for practice is helpful in providing consistency and a starting point, really effective practice comes from focusing on the process of learning. Fall in love with the process and the results will come.

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How Do You Know You Are Ready to Perform?

Question: How do you know you’re ready to perform in front of an audience? Choose the best answer:
a) You know the notes
b) You can play the piece perfectly from memory
c) You know how to keep going if you make a mistake
d) You know how to fake if you have a memory slip

The answer:

c) You know how to keep going if you make a mistake
d) You know how to fake if you have a memory slip

If a student can keep their composure when they make mistakes or have a memory slip, then I know they can handle a performance situation.

Choices a) you know the notes, and b) you can play the piece perfectly from memory, are important in learning a piece and should not be overlooked. Once those are in place, then start practicing performing in front of people.

Things will happen. You may make a mistake where you’ve never made a mistake before. You may have a memory slip. Knowing how to keep the beat going and improvise if needed until you get back on track is a skill. Those two skills are your backup system when performing. I do not recommend performing unless you have a backup system in place. Otherwise you run the risk of a negative experience.

Prepare well. Know your piece well. Then, in the moment of performing it’s a dynamic environment. Having a back up system at your disposal will enable you to have a good experience performing even when you are not at your personal best.

Need help learning how to have a good experience performing? Give us a call at 360-527-9626. We are happy to help.

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How Slow? Excruciatingly Slow

Last year I saw world famous classical double bassist, Alex Hanna, give a masterclass, and he described how he practiced.

His exact words were, “Excruciatingly slow.“

In going excruciatingly slow he is aware of every minute nuance, and can easily make adjustments where needed. Only in excruciatingly slow can he uncover problems and correct them before they become bigger issues.

The next time you practice slowly, consider practicing excruciatingly slow. It is what sets the world-class performers of any instrument apart. If you have the patience for it, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn without the help of a teacher.

I would love to hear about what you learn.

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I Love That Piece!

Five minutes before the end of one of my piano student’s lessons, his mom knocks on the door to come in. She finds us throwing a ball and trying to bare hand the catch. Her 8 year-old son is energized and really into this ball throwing. Sometimes we miss, and the ball bounces off the wall, but we’re both really trying. Even I get better at my throws and catches.

I explained to his mom that he just spent the last 10 minutes memorizing an entire piece that he thought he‘d never be able to memorize. I had him memorize one line, repeat it a few times, and then get up and play catch for about 10 throws. Then he would return to the piano, and see if he could remember the line of music he just memorized. He just now finished memorizing the entire piece so we were doing the final throws.

Then I suggested to the student, “Hey, why don’t you do a test, and see if you can play the piece from memory for your mom?”

Excited to show his mom, he sat down and played from memory. Sure enough, he could do it. He was thrilled; his mom was thrilled. I told him that when he went home to do the same process again, and maybe get his dad to throw a ball with him to solidify what he learned today.

The next week he came back to his lesson and announced, “I love that piece!”

Having fun learning, and being able to do things you didn’t think you could. It doesn’t get any better than that. If you or your child would like to experience the fun of learning to play the piano, give us a call at 360-527-9626 or email us.

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