Set a Practice Goal

Introduction

When I sit down to practice, I usually set a practice goal. The practice goal is pretty clear when it’s a piece that I have to learn or review to play the next day. Often, the practice goal may be less clear when my bunch of pieces are in different states of readiness. Plus, they may be scheduled to be performed at different times. As a church organist, there’s a weekly requirement to have new music ready. Don’t feel sorry for me – I have a lot of experience doing this, and it’s pretty automatic. My students, however, may be beginners at this, or at most just a few years of figuring out what to do at the piano. For that reason, I hope to help all my students set a practice goal each time they sit on the piano bench.

What Does Practice Look Like?

For the beginning pianist, practice is going to be pretty straight forward. Read through all of the pieces in the assignment, and then repeat, maybe several times. There may be the need to play slow at first, or to stop to figure out the notes. However, covering a bunch of pieces, each just 4 to 8 measure long, isn’t an issue. If the beginner happens to be a young child, help from the parents to ensure good, consistent practice sessions is important. I talk about how a parent can assist in practice in more depth in this post.

Even a later beginner or early intermediate student will face repertoire that can’t be fully practiced in one sitting. Sometimes, it’s good to just work on part of it, and come back the next day to review and add more measures. Certainly, the number of pieces assigned diminishes, but the length per piece increases. This adjustment happens as students transition out of method books and into real piano repertoire. If there is a need to learn a piece in sections, I recommend using little pencil marks in the music to indicate how far you got. It could just be an X, or it could be a date stamp like 10/1. I sometimes leave a few of these before erasing them, just to see how conscientious I’ve been in making progress. It can also help to use the assignment book to make practice notes and questions to ask your teacher. 

Practice Also Includes Activities (Theory)

Many of my students forget to budget time to do their activity pages. It’s more difficult since this practice occurs at a table or desk, and not at the piano. Doing a little bit each day is best, but might not be practical. However, doing it all at once, waiting until the last possible moment, is not good. I suggest that doing it two or three times spread throughout the week is a good compromise. These coordinated assignments are invaluable in learning new concepts that appear in sheet music. Theory helps the student to become a well-rounded musician, not just someone playing notes from the page. 

Have I captured this well?

It’s really easy for me to preach practice goals, since my time is not invested in making this happen at home. However, I hope that I can provide the support and guidance you need, no matter where you are in your piano journey. Certainly doing a little bit each day, moving forward bit by bit, is going to get you far when weeks become months become years. Let me know if you have any questions, or if I could state any of this better!

Scrabble rack with tiles GOAL
Goal by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Posted 2019-10-01

Try a Motivation Ritual

Introduction

Since piano parents are my best audience for helping guide my piano students, I wanted to give them something concrete. As a result, I posted a version of what I discuss below in my monthly studio newsletter. However, I’d also like to share these same tips with a larger audience. During the summer, I had the chance to read a lot through several Facebook piano teachers groups to which I belong. One of these groups has a book club that started reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Although this is not specifically a music book, Atomic Habits has many great ideas about how to build habits. I’m trying to adapt them to the habit of piano practice. One of his most interesting ideas applying to music is to create a motivation ritual to get to the piano bench.

Motivation Ritual

The motivation ritual is simply a device that gets you to do something you want to do by tacking it onto something that you enjoy. If you want to get into the habit of doing a morning devotional, connect it with some kickoff activity.  The kickoff activity could be preparing a cup of coffee, tea, or pouring a glass of water, plus preparing the coffee table. You sit down, beverage in hand, with your books nearby, so why not start reading?

You can create a motivation ritual for piano practice as well. That’s important since one of the biggest obstacles to progress is lack of practice. Even the site of the piano bench can become an object of guilt. If starting is an issue, then create a motivation ritual that gets you to sit down on that piano bench. It could be to sight-read a new Andrea Dow piece, or something from a pop book you like, regardless of whether it’s part of your lesson assignment. You could also play through some of your favorite previously-learned repertoire. If you’re especially stressed out or tired, maybe you just choose to listen to some music, seated at the piano.

The beauty of the motivation ritual is that it makes the difficult habit possible, without being heavy handed. There may be some days where practice doesn’t follow the kickoff activity, which got you to the bench in the first place. But, on other days, practice does follow. That practice may not have occurred if you didn’t start with some something that helped you ease into it. 

Let me know!

If this approach appeals to you, give it a try.  Let me know what you try, and how it works out for you!

young man playing the piano
Jeune Homme au Piano (1876) – Gustave Caillebotte – Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo
Posted 2019-09-21

Keep Pushing Forward

One of the challenges of learning new music is that there are literally so many notes. When I look back on the four Chopin Scherzi that I learned anew (2) and relearned (2) this year, that’s 82 pages of printed music. When organizing, musicians usually think in measures. Even using measures, there are 967 measures in the 12-minute Fourth Scherzo. How do you tackle pieces that are so daunting in length? Keep pushing forward.

There are plenty of metaphors out there about facing Goliath, an 800-pound gorilla or a large elephant, but the concept is the same: Take small bites. I write in pencil a small date/time code to identify my latest stopping point. It’s something that I did years ago when reading books, mainly because I constantly lost bookmarks. My goal in each practice session is to move forward from that spot about 50 measures or so. Of course, I have to loop back to practice difficult spots earlier on, but I have to always keep pushing forward!

One thing that I’m careful to do on longer pieces is to front-load learning. Tackle the difficult parts first, then leave the easy stuff for the end. Even though each Chopin Scherzo has very different musical themes, the construction is remarkably similar. I start with the the measures from the beginning through to the beginning of the middle section. Then, I skip forward to the coda (at the end), which tends to have some new material that is typically indicated at a rapid tempo. Once done there, I make my way back through the recapitulation, which lay between the middle section and the coda. Then, after all that hard work, I get to learn the middle section, which is almost like the ice cream or cake at the end of the meal!

In addition, I’ve also sometimes used a practice notebook, much like the spiral notebook I ask my students to use for their lessons. Lately, however, I just make my practice notes in Trello. It’s really helpful to have some type of journal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s written or electronic, as long as its consistently used. The more music I have to learn, the more organized I have to be. Using the traffic light colors alerts me to how well I’m doing. I use five colors: red, orange, yellow, blue, and green to indicate my progress on each piece.

I’m sometimes jealous of my school-aged students, who have regular practice routines built into their schedules. I practice when I’m already around a piano. That’s typically after teaching or after my work at the church. I do have a very good Yamaha U1 48-inch upright at home, but I almost always find something else to do at home. Sometimes it’s good to be somewhere that you have limited distractions!

Posted 2019-09-03

Adult Piano Lesson Experiment

Scenario

I’m sure that you’ve heard the classic cliché: The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results. How does this relate to adult piano lessons? I’ve come to the conclusion that most adults are not able to sustain a long-term commitment to the piano. There are some success stories, but in general, it ends sooner rather than later. All of a sudden it hit me – what if the problem is the interval? Enter the adult piano lesson experiment!

The reason for wanting to try something different is that I feel I connect well with adults. I’m willing to take the risk of making much less per student since I believe less frequent lessons will give that adult the opportunity to succeed. I’ve rarely found that adult students don’t have the talent (oh, that word!) to succeed. Adult students can sometimes cover material at several times the rate of a young child. It’s almost always a matter of practice time. Adult students often don’t protect their practice time. They ultimately succumb to the many by demands for their time. School-aged children don’t have this worry – their practice time is often protected by these same adults!

A Possible Solution

Monthly lessons! Let me explain. My experiment would begin with a 50-60 minute lesson. We would talk about goals and then make a plan to reach those goals. Although I will would want to include some traditional teaching – note reading and sight reading in each lesson – I would also like to cover chord progressions, playing from lead sheets, and even playing by ear. There would be follow-up 30-minute lessons each month for the next five months, and there would be an option to schedule additional lessons at the same rate as the other lessons in the package.

There will be a financial incentive to prepay for each six-month cycle, with the opportunity to cancel given a minimum of 30 days notice. Any remaining money paid-in would be refunded. A month-to-month option will also be offered at a significantly higher rate since there is a higher cancellation risk for me.

As a way to help bridge the gap between lessons, I will offer email support. I want to offer encouragement and answer questions. Getting off track for a week or two won’t sabotage the entire plan like it would in weekly lessons. I also plan to create a series of blog posts specifically targeted to my adult students as well. My ultimate goal would be to build a community of adult students that includes a twice-a-year adult piano party just for them.

What Do You Think?

Does this sound like an idea worth trying? I’m willing to give it a try, for six months to a year. I already have some adult students who might be interested to enroll. I expect there may be some bumps in the road, and the need to tweak the program. However, at some point, I have to see whether it’s a viable long-term option. I hope it provides an affordable, low-commitment chance to gain a new skill or reconnect with an old one. If it works, great! I would spread that idea to my fellow colleagues and their studios. If not, I want to say that I gave it my best shot!

Posted on 2019-07-26

Music Apps for Beginners (and Beyond)

Summary

Last summer, I committed to testing a bunch of music apps that I could recommend to my students. The result of that work is in this post. It took about a year to discover that I only consistently recommended two applications, plus a metronome app for those who didn’t have a separate metronome. I’m working through some recently downloaded apps that I’ll most likely add to this post, but it’s time to clean up my old post and start anew. Here is my list of music apps for beginners and beyond!

But First…

There is a bit of a bias towards iOS versus Android by app makers in education. Even though I’ve been only a PC owner since the early Windows days (and yes, I remember DOS!), I solely use an iPhone and iPad. I don’t have the resources to buy Android devices just for testing. However, I have tried to provide alternatives, and would be glad to work with any of my students to see how they perform. It’s in my best interest to recommend the best tools, since it makes lessons easier for me and my students!

The biggest lesson I learned is you get what you pay for! Free apps can be helpful to try out a paid app, but don’t expect to rely on them for anything past that. When I first tested out music apps, I tried going the free route and was totally frustrated and wasted so much time! If I recommend an app, it will be worth the $5 or less that most of these cost. The good news is that all of these apps are one-time purchases, not a monthly or yearly subscription. You own it for as long as the developer continues to support the app – which hopefully is a long time!

Highly Recommended

Note Rush: Music Reading Game

Flashcard drilling using your piano/keyboard to verify the notes. It’s great for students who are rapidly expanding their reading of the staff, and need a bit of fun along the way.

Device: iOS, Android

I find Note Rush a lot of fun to play myself, and I sometimes demo it with students by sight-singing, instead of playing notes on the piano. It’s a hit with any student to whom I introduce it. The app uses the device’s microphone to identify pitches, and it has calibrated perfectly wherever I’ve tried it. If your piano is wickedly out of tune, it may not do so well! It’s pretty easy to use, since you choose from one of several pre-loaded levels. You could also customize your own choice of note ranges if you’d like something more challenging.

If you are a beginner and note reading is going smoothly, or especially if you are past beginner method books and playing intermediate literature, you might want to skip this app. However, at least half of my students in method books could benefit from using this app along with the landmark and interval training that I provide.

Rhythm Lab

Rhythm drilling, using either one or two hand tapping on the screen. It’s useful for beginning through intermediate students.

Device: iOS only
Android Alternative: Rhythm Cat

This is a super fun app, and I find it I recommend it a lot for transfer students whose teachers have not been as strict with note values as I am. While I typically recommend it for students who need it for basic note values, like half notes vs quarter notes, the app could also be helpful for learning more complex rhythmic notation that anyone continuing into more difficult music will face. If you do struggle with playing in time, and are not self-aware about stopping at bar lines or when things get difficult, this is your app!

The interface is a bit complex and the judgmental applause at the end of each exercise is a bit annoying, but I look at that as just a minor irritation.

Metronome Apps

Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome

The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is listed at the bottom of my piano books recommendations. It is an old fashioned metronome, not an app. I have to include it because it’s still my top recommendation instead of, or as an addition to, an app.

Price: About $25

This model has been around in some form for several decades, and price has not changed much during that time. It’s an old-fashioned, electronic metronome that requires one 9-volt battery to run.  It’s not quite as old school as the Wittner Taktell, the German brand dating back to the 19th century that I grew up using.  So that makes me just a half dinosaur!

Why buy this and not just solely rely on a phone or tablet? Sometimes having a device dedicated to doing one thing is the right choice. If you need to charge your phone, or if you are sharing a device with a sibling or parent, it may not be available when you need to use it. It’s the type of device that you will only use occasionally. However, when you need to use it, you want it to be on your piano, in your piano bag, or maybe both!

Tempo – Metronome with Setlist

A more straightforward metronome app with bells and whistles not found on a traditional metronome.

Device: iOS, Android

This is the app that I often will use in lessons, since I already have my iPad out to mark attendance, check my schedule, and it is convenient to use. I have a Wittner on the top of my piano, and carry two different Seiko models in my separate piano and organ repertoire bags. It’s not as fun as the Super Metronome Groove Box, especially if you want an app to provide a backing track for playing pop songs. You get what you pay for; this one is much cheaper!

Super Metronome Groove Box

This is a more fun type of metronome with different instruments, beats, and compound meter.

Device: iOS, Android

The free version is just awful, but I’d try before you buy since you can get a feel for it, despite it timing out after just 16 measures! When I bought it, the price was $6.99. That’s was $4 more than I paid for the Tempo app above. You do get a much more feature-rich app. If you play some rock and pop, and want to play along with a metronome to develop a steady beat, or just because you enjoy having a rhythm section behind you, this is the app! If you just want to check an occasional tempo or play along for a few measures, stick with Tempo! 

What’s Ahead?

I’m always looking for other apps to try, and would like to add to my list to make it more comprehensive.  If you like apps, I’d be glad to forward you lists of them from other teachers that I follow, with the caveat that just because they liked them doesn’t mean either you or I will!

Posted on 2019-07-25

Te Deum – Psalms to Charlemagne

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Introduction

I was asked much earlier in my career if I’d ever taught a continuing education class for church, or whether I’d consider doing so. Up to that point, I’d never done it, but I was open to the idea. The possibility has since then intrigued me, but until recently I hadn’t put together a plan. Now that a date is on the calendar, October 16th, it’s becoming real. I’m teaching a class in sacred music at church!

The Course

The course is based upon the book Te Deum: The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer. I became familiar with Dr. Westermeyer through his work with the American Guild of Organists, and was impressed that an ordained Lutheran pastor would spend so much time associating with organists! He has spent his career steeped in teaching both seminarians and church musicians, so this book has an interdisciplinary approach.

I warn that the text has a scholarly bent, which is probably no surprise given the scope of the topic. For those who wish to take this journey with me, there will be quite a lot of reading involved, though I’ll parcel it off to make it manageable. As a reward, you will receive musical samples from each period to illuminate the weekly readings.

More Details

As the title of my post hints, the first five weeks will be covering just a portion of the history of sacred music. A continuation of this class will continue the exploration, beginning at the Reformation and continuing through modern times. In this session, we’ll cover music in Old and New Testament times, the First Centuries, and Before and After Charlemagne. I realize that this period may not be glamorous to some, but hopefully you’ll join me anyway. For those who are curious about what exactly is covered in later on – yes, there is a section on the Wesleys! Even a Lutheran like Westermeyer knows it’s best not to omit John and Charles!

Call to Action

Will you be joining me?

Posted 2019-07-18

Brighten the Corner Where You Are

The third of July just wasn’t my day.  I was having trouble getting the things done that I planned. My tendency is to try to do to much right before leaving for a vacation, even one lasting just a couple of days. I needed to complete the list that included doing the dishes, house cleaning, laundry, and mailing a birthday present to a friend in France. The latter involved a software and customer service nightmare that took an hour of time and didn’t get my package posted. Bottom line: I ran out of time to salvage driving to Kansas City to see the Royals play and enjoy a fireworks show at Kauffman Stadium afterward.

As I took a few minutes to decompress after realizing I couldn’t do everything, the lyrics of the century-old hymn Brighten the Corner Where You Are popped into my head.  This is one of those hymns that has long since disappeared from modern hymnals, but still has staying power. I like this upbeat recording by the Statesmen Quartet. The lyrics for the first verse are below.

Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar;
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.

Ina Duley Ogdon, Author

I did depart for Kansas City the next day, and enjoyed the remainder of the vacation I planned. Although I’m sorry I missed the game, I’m not sorry that I took the time to brighten my own corner. Plus, I found a post office on July 5th so I could brighten the corner of my friend. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some hymns on time management?

Posted 2019-07-11

One Piano Parent Listened

When I start typing on my keyboard, I often wonder whether there is an audience for what I’m about to say. Even though I only write when I feel passionate about a topic, I don’t know if anyone will read my blog post or Web page. If someone reads it, will it be helpful or even better, influential? In one case, the answer is a resounding yes! One piano parent listened!

She was seeking to upgrade her child’s piano. My student had long ago outgrown the 61-key Yamaha keyboard that was her practice instrument. If you read my Web page on choosing the right piano, you’ll know that I was never a fan of this instrument in the first place. I’ve also gone on the record with a blog post making the argument for an acoustic piano. I admit there are a lot of positives about choosing an electronic keyboard, until you realize that even the best keyboard isn’t going to sound as good as even a mediocre piano.

After considering a range of instruments, the piano parent decided to go with something inexpensive; she bought an older American-made spinet. It was delivered just a month before the auditions for a music festival in which several of my students participate. This was the third festival in which I had prepared my student. Each previous time there was barely enough practice to be ready. The results were always okay but not great. This time, my student ranked as first alternate, or second place, for her level! Even though she didn’t go to the finals, she made a major accomplishment. Along the way, she surprised everyone, including me!

Yes, a decent piano can make the difference. In this case, it was one costing $700. My student started practicing independently, without badgering from her parents. She practiced the changes we discussed at lessons. Her approach to the piano became more confident in a way that I didn’t see before. A couple of months past that event, she continues to play well, and has completed her method books and is ready to move on to the next level. While there is no guarantee that a new(er) piano will do the trick, having a decent instrument is one of the keys to success. And, I’ll always be thankful that one piano parent listened!

Posted 2019-06-28

Spring 2019 Finale

Four of my students from the Shepherd Music School participated in the semester-end recitals, Spring 2019 Finale. Their pictures are below. A couple of brand new students who are very young did not participate, and my two adult students also chose to sit this one out.

New Wrinkle: House Recitals!

I also tried something new this time: house recitals. Since I teach several in-home students who aren’t affiliated with Shepherd, I have to find opportunities for them to play. I often just do in-home recitals just for them, in lieu of a lesson. However, I also like for all of my students to get to know each other, regardless of where they are enrolled.

Figuring out how to do this seemed pretty obvious. Most of my students live in one of three areas. And there are about an equal number of students in each geography. I already had an invitation to check out the spinet piano one of my families had just gotten their daughter, so some of the planning already took care of itself.

At a Church

The first house recital was held not at someone’s home but at a house of God. It was at the church where Shepherd is based since none of the piano parents volunteered their home for the event. The three participants played the beautiful Baldwin grand piano in the sanctuary that is typically off-limits. My most advanced student got the chance to make a mini-recital debut playing much of the repertoire he learned over the semester. One of my adult students also participated, since she felt more comfortable in this small group setting versus the very busy Shepherd recitals.

At a Home

The second group was the one where I was invited to visit the newly-acquired spinet. There were extra adults and kids there in addition to the piano parents and student participating. I played to conclude the recital, as I did in the first event. When it was all over, the kids went into the backyard to bounce on the trampoline, and the adults enjoyed conversation in the living room. Although the goal to play was met in both cases, I much preferred the fun atmosphere of the second recital. This type of recital really benefits from being held in a home environment.

At the Emergency Room

The third group was for a single family with three students that lives a distance from the other two groups. Unfortunately, it was canceled due to a medical emergency that occurred just before I arrived. One learns to roll with the punches!

Last Updated 2019-09-25 | Originally Posted 2018-06-14

Schumann and Beethoven To Go

Listening to music in the online era seems a bit more like just another computer task, whether it be shopping online or even writing an email. The only difference is that it’s served via a music platform, like YouTube or Facebook Live, instead of some other computer, tablet, or cell phone app. So why not Schumann and Beethoven To Go, since that is how it is likely to be consumed?!

As I just hinted above, my virtual audience is much larger than my physical one. I’m not going to rehash my thoughts of my last blog post, but instead, continue to focus more on my online audience. The move to thinking about an online audience has been quite a challenge. I allow extra time to get my live stream ready before each performance. I post to both Facebook and Instagram both before and after events, in order to entice and provide listening links, respectively. After each Facebook Live event, I edit the recording to eliminate dead space, give program information, plus provide launch points for each piece and movement.

So what inspired me to put together works by Schumann and Beethoven? Before I explore that, here is a link to the concert program itself. I first heard Schumann’s Papillons in a recital given by Vladimir Ashkenazy. I remember sitting on stage in Symphony Hall in Boston as he thundered those octaves at the beginning of the second episode. That immediately dismissed any notion that this was a lesser work. It may not be as virtuosic as some of Schumann’s later and longer works, but it provides many challenges – including those very octaves!

Beethoven’s Second Piano Sonata, Op. 2, No. 2, is brand new to me. I selected it since I already played the first sonata in college, as well as several others sprinkled through the entire catalog. I don’t have a goal to learn all 32 sonatas, but I figured that with the first two sonatas learned, I might want to learn a few more eventually. It’s humbling to realize that a lifetime of piano playing hasn’t made learning anything by Beethoven any easier!

Now that I’ve offered Schumann and Beethoven To Go, I’m wondering whether I should have offered any food or beverage pairings. Okay, I’ll leave it right there, because I really now have to go practice!

Updated 2019-06-11 | Originally Posted 2019-05-28