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Empowering Kids Through Music

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.

Aural Development

As your child grows as a musician, so will their ear. It’s not uncommon for children to have sensitive ears. Becoming a musician will develop that sensitivity even more. To make beautiful music at the piano, sensitive ears are a requirement, and they develop over time and practice.

If there’s a downside to developing a good ear, it’s this: the piano that used to work just fine a few years ago isn’t so great anymore according to your child. Their ears begin to pick up changes in the tone quality of different keys on the piano. They can hear when a key begins to go out of tune.

Fine musicians need this level of sensitivity to communicate the emotional content of a piece of music. That is how they can knock your socks off when you listen to them play. As these aural skills increase, having a quality piano that can meet or exceed the skills of the pianist will catapult their listening skills even further.

Does this mean that you need to go out and buy a 50K piano? No. However, it does mean providing a quality piano and having it tuned at least once a year. In addition, listen to your child when they tell you the piano doesn’t sound right. If your child hasn’t been practicing lately, ask yourself if the piano needs to be tuned.

One word of caution: If you child practices on an out-of-tune piano, after a while they will begin to think the “out-of tune” piano is normal and the “in-tune” piano at their lesson is out of tune.

Your child’s ears will develop one way or the other. Provide a quality piano. Keep it in tune, and soon your child will be knocking your socks off with beautiful music in your home.

Mastering Counting Aloud

Learning to count aloud can be challenging. Try these tips to help you go from a novice to a seasoned musician:

1. Count a full measure before beginning.
2. Make your counting is big and loud so you can hear it. Don’t hold back.
3. Get as much of your body feeling the beat as you can while you count aloud. This can include bouncing your wrists, tapping your foot, and even bobbing your head if you don’t get dizzy. Feeling the beat in your body as well as counting it, is key.
4. Take a dance class of any kind. It will help you learn to move your body to a beat.

Learning to count aloud and being comfortable with it takes time and practice. Allow yourself to struggle and stumble around. You will eventually get it, and you will be rewarded. Your music will start to play itself. When the beat and rhythm are solid, your notes will sit on those beats and rhythm. Your music can then flow naturally, and you will enjoy the experience of playing.

Need help getting there? Contact us about lessons.

Counting Aloud

Raise your hand if you like counting aloud while you are playing. If you are a singer, wind or brass player, you are lucky. You can’t count aloud and play your instrument at the same time, but for everyone else, like pianists and string players, counting aloud is a tool that will transform your playing.

I have never had a student jump up and down excited when I suggest counting aloud a passage while they play. That is my clue that that is exactly what they need. They can’t do it, and therefore, would prefer not to do it. I remind them that the purpose of a piano lesson is to gain new skills. This is one of those skills.

If you can count aloud with ease while playing then you have the skill and you can decide when and where to count aloud to help you learn the music. But first you have to learn the skill.

When you go to count aloud the first time, it will be awkward and you may feel clumsy and inadequate. That is o.k. and normal for everyone. You have to stumble around several times to work it out. That is the learning process. That is how you gain the skill. Allow yourself to feel clumsy, but keep trying until you get it. If you find yourself getting frustrated, stop. Ask your teacher for help.

When applying counting aloud to your practice, try these ideas. Master each one before proceeding to the next:

1. Clap and count the rhythm of each hand alone.
2. Play and count each hand alone.
3. Tap and count the rhythm hands together. (Your right hand taps the right hand part while your left hand taps the left hand part).
4. Play and count hands together.

Need more help? Contact us about lessons.

Piano Dream

I recently attended a social gathering where I met a woman in her forties who shared with me her childhood piano story. In grade school she took piano lessons from the school music teacher during recess. Her parents bought her a little keyboard to practice on at home. She liked her piano lesson because it was the one time she got to play a real piano. She rarely practiced on her keyboard at home. It just wasn’t the same as the piano at her lesson. Because she didn’t practice much, she didn’t progress much. Eventually she stopped lessons.

As she reflected on this experience as an adult, she commented, “If I had a real piano to practice on as a child I may have kept with it and actually progressed.” Today she dreams about buying her own piano and taking lessons again.

How about you? Are you an adult dreaming about learning to play the piano, or are you a parent of a child interested in piano lessons? Either way, find a piano to make part of your home, or find a piano in your community to practice on. It will make a huge difference in your success and your child’s success.