I was asked by Sarah Folkerts to write a long-form blog post that became Music Reading Through Rote Teaching. She works with Nicola Cantan on the Colourful Keys Website and the membership site Vibrant Music Teaching. It all started as a result of my trying to reconcile how something sounds with the musical notation. Perhaps that was bolstered by spending hours of listening to orchestras play and reading along with the score during my formative years. I chose the opening motive of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an example. This point was peripheral to the article I ended up writing. However, since it’s where the idea originated, I wanted to briefly explain it here.
Although many conductors get the motive right, there are some conductors who more dramatically interpret the first three sixteenth notes on G as if they were a triple upbeat to the long E-flat. Wrong! There is no accent on that first note. You can see that I believe in faithfulness to the score. However, every note on the page first was heard in the ear of the composer, or sometimes improvised on the piano or other instrument. The notation was just a way to preserve it for posterity.
Why Do We Torture Our Music Students?
Why, then, do we fixate on putting the cart (the notation) before the horse (the music)? We can teach preschool kids to sing (or play) many short pieces by rote, so why do we torture our old ones with the notation before they are ready? Read my article to get some suggestions as to when it might be helpful to teach the music before the notation.
One related point I make to the idea of notation not being the place to start is in music that we fundamentally don’t understand. I first explored this in a blog post from 2018 called Where Music Notation Fails. In a case from last fall, I was helping a very skilled student in my studio audition for a jazz workshop. He had to learn music from different styles, but the bossa nova piece was just not clicking. I had played some music like this in my high school days, but even I wasn’t totally understanding the piece just from looking at the page. After we both listened to a recording of the piece, as well as to others from the genre, the notation clicked.
Please let me know how you like the article in the comments below. I’ve already come up with an idea for a second article that I’d like to get published. Please let me know if there’s something else that you would like to see me write. My goal is to be helpful to my students and their parents.
When I was in public school, you learned quickly whether the teacher required a pen or pencil for class. Once you got past early elementary school, pretty much every class except for math required a pen. It’s always been a surprise to find that kids typically don’t bring anything to write with to lessons. In case your kids missed the onboarding notice, here’s the announcement once again: Sharpen your pencil!
The most important thing we’ll often discuss at a lesson is fingering.
How can you possibly remember what we’ve discussed unless you write it in your score? Sometimes I’ll give two different fingerings to try, each with its advantages. A good fingering often simplifies the execution of a passage. Or, at the very least, it makes it possible to play a certain series of notes.
Other Score Markings
There are other things that you might want to write in your score. It might be the metronome marking of practice and goal tempos. It could be to circle a dynamic, or write a reminder on the page. Sometimes a student will take that to an extreme. However, this is much preferable to seeing a page with no markings, which to me means no extra effort.
Sign of Respect
I had a boss several jobs ago who would call me into his office to deliver very specific instructions. One day, I guess I just wasn’t thinking, and just plopped down in his guest chair empty handed. He asked me where my pen and paper were. The point he was making was that I wasn’t being invited for a social visit. He wanted something done, and I wasn’t prepared. Lesson learned. When I see a student with a pencil, I see a student who cares and is ready to learn. When I don’t, I often think back to that day in Fred’s office.
Sharpen Your Pencil
In choosing the wording of the title of this brief blog post, I was trying to be a bit clever. Bringing a pencil is one thing, but when you sharpen your pencil, that goes the extra mile. This points to other parts of preparedness, like being ready to play the scale that was assigned, knowing the pieces in your repertoire, and what our goals were from the last lesson. A sharp pencil won’t solve any of those problems, but it is a step in the right direction!
My title is rather open ended, but it was meant to be more specific. Unfortunately, there was no catchy subject line that fully captured my sentiment. Perhaps this is better: Do your best, despite these crazy times, in preparing for our video-recorded recital! Since we can’t have a recital in person, we will be presenting a recital as a compiled set of recordings. We’re used to seeing this now. People recording bits and pieces that are stitched together for worship services, interview shows, and even Saturday Night Live! It should be really interesting.
Each home has different types of pianos. Some have been recently tuned and repaired; others could still use a bit of TLC! Some recordings will be made on a cell phone, a tablet or laptop computer. What hasn’t changed is that this is a celebration of accomplishment. It’s about a dozen children, who along with their parents, have worked to keep learning going, despite an overnight change to social distancing and online education in mid-March.
The preparation I’m talking about is for recording, versus a live recital. If you think you are lucky not to perform live, then you have never recorded yourself before! Having the choice to re-record, if a particular take didn’t go well, means a potential for many other takes that also don’t go exactly as planned. Then, you have to figure out which one is the best of the worst. I do this all the time when I record myself! If you are looking for a post in getting pieces ready for performance, look at my November 2019 post Make Those Refinements.
Since you know you are going to be recording yourself, don’t wait until the last possible moment to practice making recordings. You’ll want to hear yourself back, and perhaps this will help you work through a problem area that you’ve been avoiding or let you know you need to adjust your device in some way.
Now that you’ve practiced all that you can, and have made some sample recordings during that final practice, you’re ready to make your final recording(s). Try to make just one or two takes of each piece, and choose the one you like the best, or perhaps hate the least. If you’re making lots of mistakes, either adjust the entire tempo to be a little bit slower, or do a little emergency practice on the area that needs help. Don’t worry that your performance is not perfect, but does it well represent the best you can do?
Submit Your File
If you have to choose between takes, don’t agonize too much between what likely will be pretty similar performances. Your fellow pianists and their parents will enjoy whatever you present, as long as you’ve made a good effort. Learning how to record is an acquired skill, and unfortunately you need to acquire that skill now! The good news is that you’ll know the process in case you’ll ever need to do it again, whether it be for a summer music festival, or a college application.
Enjoy hearing your playing as part of our piano studio. You’ll have a chance to hear the work of some kids you know, and some who you no doubt won’t know. Make sure to pay attention to the other students so you can mention something you enjoyed about each person’s playing. Be prepared to offer a compliment to every fellow pianist in your recital. Don’t worry about the constructive feedback – that’s my job!
At first, I was reluctant to post this article as the April 2020 addition to the Monthly Practice Corner. How does Technology for Online Lessons belong here? First, we couldn’t keep learning online without a minimum of technology know-how. Bravo to you for figuring this out so quickly! Second, there are lots of tweaks that can be made, regardless of whether you buy new equipment. That sounds like practice to me!
Many music teacher have written articles on this subject since confinement began. However, I wanted to put together what I’ve done, in hopes it might help you too. Whenever an option is available at no cost, I consider that first. I also take the long view – making recommendations that might help beyond our hopefully short time of social distancing. Let’s get started!
Device Setup Video
My mentor, Nicola Cantan, made this device setup video. I can’t do it better. Go back to the beginning if you want to hear the intro and her lighting suggestions.
There are several things you can do to make sure you have the best speed possible. One is to call your provider to ask what’s available. I did this just before the Covid-19 pandemic, and received a higher-speed connection for a lower price. I don’t say you will be as lucky, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease!
One further tip is to try to test your upload speed on whatever device you are using. Yes, I did say upload and not download. This is not Netflix, where all you care about is download speed. If you want me to guide you in your playing, I need to receive it well. That’s only possible with good upload speed.
Test your upload speed on your device using Google, or the old standard Speedtest by Ookla. Every time I find a problem with bandwidth, I go to the Speedtest app on my phone. I want to know if I’m the problem! If you have at least 10 Mbps, that’s good enough. If you don’t have that much, there are several things you can do:
Ask your other family members to stop streaming video or playing online games during your lesson. Web browsing and Social Media, without video, shouldn’t be a problem.
If you’re using a laptop or desktop, directly connect via a network cable to your modem. These cables come in lengths of 50 and 100 feet, and are worth the trouble to plug and unplug!
If you’re using a phone or tablet, you must rely on strong Wi-Fi. Thus, try to move your modem closer to your piano, or even your piano, if it’s electronic, closer to your modem. If neither is possible, perhaps upgrade your modem, if it’s more than several years old, or get a repeater to boost your signal.
Tablets are better than phones. Typically, larger devices have better cameras, audio, and battery life. Remember to charge your device before a lesson. If that’s not possible, plug it in to a charger during the lesson if your battery is low. Laptops have the advantage of a larger screen size, but they don’t necessarily work better than tablets. Plus, their size almost dictates having a music or specialty laptop stand for support.
Technical Tips to Optimize Your Device for Faster Wi-Fi
Turn off background app refresh
Free up storage space to enable optimal buffering
Reboot your device periodically
Clear the cache regularly (However, this means having to enter your passwords again)
Device Stand and Holder
Many of you are using a table or chair with books to prop up your device. If you have a standard Wenger or Manhasset music stand, that can work even better! The best placement is a couple of feet past the end of the keyboard, and high enough to show both the keys and the student’s face as well.
If you’re looking to spend money for a better solution, I suggest buying a microphone tripod floor stand. My model is a Samson MK-10, which gives me the added flexibility to use it as a boom stand with a Webcam over the keyboard. You can purchase a phone or tablet holder to mount to it. Besides the two uses mentioned, the stand could be used with a microphone, a camera, or a digital audio or video recorder. Just make sure that you are aware how the holder connects to the stand. Make sure to get a 1/4″ male to 5/8″ female adapter if necessary.
Software (FaceTime or Zoom)
I am currently using FaceTime on my iPad. The problem is that FaceTime only allows that simple one-camera approach. I am often scurrying home from in-person lessons, or need to leave home after a video lesson to teach in person. My plan is to eventually use Zoom more often, instead of FaceTime, so that I can set up my second camera with an overhead view of the keys. It provides a higher-caliber online lesson.
If you don’t use Apple products, I can also use Zoom on my tablet. I just need to know in advance since those calls have to be scheduled; they are harder to create on the fly.
Your built-in microphone is probably sufficient. This is a really tricky one, since most inexpensive microphones have become much more expensive due to current circumstances. The Fifine microphone I purchased a few weeks ago was $5 above pre-Covid-19 times, and is currently selling for $5 more than I paid. A lavalier or lapel microphone is also probably fine. There is a risk in overpaying for any microphone right now.
Also, pay attention to the connector. A lightning connector will only work on older Apple devices, since Apple abandoned that connector for USB C in 2019. The Fifine microphone comes with an old USB A connector, which is perfect for a PC. An inexpensive adapter can also make it useful on an old or new Apple device.
Yes, you already have most of the technology for online lessons! So now you have to consider if there are any facets of online lessons you’d like to improve? The best improvement to any online lesson is by maximizing bandwidth and have an optimized device. Those two tasks are most likely free.
Most of the other ideas suggested aren’t free. Purchasing a device holder and stand adds to the online lesson experience, and will be useful past social distancing. So would purchasing an add-on microphone. Both are important steps in making quality recording for posting recordings to the Internet or simply for critique yourself. I’d recommend thinking long and hard about the proper way to buy technology. As Nicola Cantan from Colourful Keys says, figure out what your problem is first. Then, find a shiny tech device to solve it, and not vice-versa!
Last Updated 2021-02-15 | Originally Posted 2020-04-12
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I was tempted to call this post Hear the Beat, not Feel That Beat. See the pullout quote below if you’re unfamiliar with the lyrics of the title song of the musical 42nd Street. However, there’s a big difference between hearing and feeling. When you hear good musicians, you can feel that beat because they do, too. However, if you’ve ever heard a group recital with lots of beginner piano students, I bet that’s not the case. On behalf of all piano teachers, I’ll take the blame, since we as a profession spend so much more time teaching note reading than the underlying rhythms that are attached to those notes. Yet, a listener will more easily forgive a few note errors than when the sense of rhythm is lost several times.
Before proceeding, I readily confess to conflating beat and rhythm, for good reason. When a quarter note is held too long (rhythm), the beat is lost. When a student doesn’t hold to a steady beat, the rhythms become skewed. So what’s the solution? Read on…
Use Your Own Percussion
There are lots of way to establish a beat. Clap. Walk around the room. Patsch – it’s a German/British English word that indicates smacking of the legs by the hands. Tap – on a closed keyboard cover or a table. Count using either metric (numbered) beats or use Kodaly syllables (tah, tee-tee, ti-ka-ti-ka).
It’s difficult to get students to break down the music in such a way. However, once a student breaks the rhythm down, it’s naturally easier for him to play it correctly when combined back with the notes. In order to keep reinforcing the primacy of rhythm, I use either method book activity pages or Piano Safari sight reading cards. It’s important to keep adding more complex rhythms as the student encounters them in his music.
The Dreaded Metronome
There is not much that is dreaded by the music student as much as having to use a metronome. To the student who doesn’t understand the device, it’s just an obnoxious ticking device that makes playing more difficult. Yet every mid- to late-beginner has to at some point be introduced to one. For the beginner student, it’s typically used to make sure that notes with the same rhythmic value are played evenly. Sometimes the last beat of a measure or phrase gets extended as the student sees a bar line and thinks that’s a good pausing place. Or, it’s a way to regulate the rhythm of contrasting note values, like the quarter and eighth notes.
After a student gets a good sense of rhythmic values, she tends to use the metronome for tempo regulation. Every piece has a final tempo and good practice tempos. As a rough rule of thumb, once a student works out the notes and rhythms well enough to play more or less in time, we are aiming to get the piece to 80% of the final tempo, or 80 beats per minute (BPM). Once the piece is clean at that tempo, we can move the tempo progressively to and beyond the final tempo. Practicing a little faster than the final tempo is good in order to see what difficulties remain. Plus, it helps the performer know he is okay even if it starts too quickly or accelerates midway.
What Kind of Metronome
I used to be against metronome apps on principle. It just seems strange to turn a $400 device into a $25 one. Then, I found myself routinely grabbing for my iPad with its two tempo apps during piano lessons. When on the road, sometimes it is easier having one less physical object to carry! If you always have a phone or tablet with you, and prefer it to a separate device, look no further than Tempo – Metronome with Setlist. It was $2.99 when I last checked, and has iOS and Android versions. Everyone likes free stuff, but with music apps, don’t hesitate to purchase, especially at a negligible price like this. I included metronomes in a comprehensive app review for beginner students in mid-2019.
Although I love old-fashioned pendulum metronomes, they are a poor choice for most music students because they are fragile. Drop it, overwind it, or simply leave it properly wound without using it, and your device will soon cease functioning. If, after that warning, you still want a pendulum metronome, the German-made Wittner brand is the gold standard.
The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is one that has been in production in a similar form for decades, and is still the best-selling metronome according to Amazon.com. Its analog dial allows you to choose any tempo within a second. For people who hate analog, or want to save a few bucks, I’ve included the Seiko DM51B Metronome. I don’t understand why anyone would want to use the long-press up and down buttons instead of an analog dial, but at least you have a choice!
To feel that beat is important in music. It’s not something that’s achieved just by older, more advanced, musicians. It can be done from the very beginning, as long as the instructor is willing to insist on playing correct rhythmic values. Playing rote pieces, and figuring out songs by ear also help in establishing the beat. It doesn’t have to be drugery, requiring the metronome to be frequently used as a crutch. In the best case, it should be seen as a friend who checks up on you during your time of need!
When I write my monthly practice corner article, I typically think about the struggles my students face in their learning. In many cases, I struggled with the same issues when I was a piano student. However, not in this case, since sight reading always came very easy to me. I began piano at age 9, which probably helped. Students who begin later tend to grasp the concepts in note reading a lot more quickly than their younger counterparts. However, both younger and older students often find note reading to be quite vexing. That’s why I make sight reading a priority in lessons!
What exactly is sight reading? Simply put, it’s the ability to quickly grasp what’s important in a musical score, and translate that to the piano on the first try. A great parallel would be to how well a student learns good reading comprehension. It’s important to be able to read a passage of text to summarize the main points while not getting bogged down by details.
Sight reading in music is just a first step. It’s great to quickly grasp what’s on the page, but it’s another to make a music from it. Often, there are technical difficulties to be worked out, plus lots of nuances that can only be worked out by lots of practice. Plus, in certain styles of playing, like jazz and pop, sometimes only the bare essentials are notated. It’s up to the student to know the correct style of playing, manipulate the chords, and do a lot of listening to be successful.
How to Learn It
Now that we’ve identified what sight reading is and its role in playing piano, how do you best learn it? Music educators have learned that using landmarks (memory notes) and intervals to be the best method, long term. If you learned piano back in the dark ages, like when I did, your teacher would have typically used a middle-C based book. I bet you remember these books, where your thumbs were constantly fighting for middle C! You would have been drilled on mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine, for the lines on the treble clef, and the acronym FACE for the spaces. It sounds great, right?
However, going back to the analogy with book reading: How effective would you be if you had to speak the alphabet every time you see a new word? As a kindergartner, it might work fine, but it would hinder a second grader! I’ve had an early intermediate student who cannot start a new piece without consulting that every good boy nonsense. I never taught this method; it’s something he learned from a former teacher several years ago.
The primary method books I use, the Music Tree and Piano Safari, both have regular sight-reading as part of the curriculum. I often use the Piano Safari sight reading cards even with students of different method books. They are helpful in developing good note-reading techniques. As a student progresses, he learns new landmarks, which cover all of the Cs up and down the staff, in addition to the Gs on the treble/G-clef and the Fs on the bass/F-clef. He then uses the small intervals like 2nds through 5ths to identify notes that are above or below those fixed landmarks.
I also have a student transpose certain pieces when she gets into the late beginner level. Once she plays a piece in one key, I ask her to play it in a different keys. What I don’t tell her is that she is simultaneously learning how to read new clefs! That’s really helpful, since we as pianists often have to play with other instruments. Some of these instruments transpose (like the trumpet or clarinet) or don’t transpose but read in different clefs (like the viola and cello). You can’t work at your best with these musicians if you’re stuck trying to determine whether every good boy does fine!
Another benefit of being a good sight reader is to hear music without playing it. When I open a score, the music pops off the page. This has enormous implications when learning new music, shopping for new scores, and even for determining which pieces to program. I can quickly find pieces that will work for a particular occasion by scanning them with my eyes, not needing to sit down at a piano.
Now you know why I make sight reading a priority. It’s one of those skills that every teacher needs to nurture, and remediate when the level is not up to par. As a teacher, I can only do so much to instruct the best method for note reading. It’s up to the student to practice the skill on his own. If a student is young, it’s up to the parent to help the student establish the skill. Note reading isn’t everything, but it is a really big thing!
Last Updated 2020-02-05 | Originally Posted 2020-02-04
When I was thinking of a topic to discuss for January, I kept coming back to “your playing reflects your practice.” I witnessed lots of student performances in the past month, and had some of my own. Each of those performances was the product of weeks or even months of practice time. To a large degree, the level of success in each performance was determined at home, by practice. Sure, lessons help, as does a certain amount of innate ability. However, as one sage college professor recently said to me about semester-ending juries: The kids that practiced hard did well, and those that didn’t, didn’t! Let’s look a bit more into the relationship between playing and practice.
Time and Attention Are Important
The amount of practice per day is where I start the conversation with students and their parents. There is a certain natural and practical limit per person, adults included! By natural limit I’m referring to the amount of time that a person can focus. Past that limit, practice time is largely wasted. For a very young child, that may be just 10 minutes, whereas for a teen or adult, it might be measured in hours. Some practice days will be better than others, and that’s just, well, natural!
The practical limit refers to allocation of time. Even though a teen might easily focus for an hour, he may have to stop at 30 minutes, in order to get a host of other things done before the next day. When a child has lots of activities, it’s good to see if there is enough time available to practice. If there isn’t enough time in the schedule, the family has to take a serious look at what needs to be cut. Regrettably, sometimes piano is the activity to be cut.
It goes without saying that frequency is also important, but it really needs to be considered separately from time available. For a younger child, a small amount of time per day with daily frequency is the best solution. As students get older, and get more variability in their after-school schedule, practice frequency will need to fluctuate. That older student might be able to get her work done in just three to four days per week, as long as practice time is increased. My schedule is even more extreme than that, since I typically only practice two or three days per week, but can be efficient for hours each time.
I make sure my students have plenty of time to learn a piece for a festival or recital, and I do the same for my own performing. If I have a recital coming up in a month or two, I try to get a jump on my practicing, because I cannot afford to get behind. For students, this generally doesn’t present much of a problem, unless a student gets into a multi-week practice rut. Sometimes there’s not much to be done when that happens, though regular checkpoints can help to identify the issue.
I can give a very good example of last-minute preparation, from my own experience. I performed a piece on the organ where most of the notes were played correctly, but there was a serious lack of musicianship. I was performing in a musical style rather foreign to me, and I didn’t understand the larger form of the piece as well as I should have. There were lots of nuances that went unexpressed, trills that weren’t well planned, and the registration was not varied enough. When you leave the note learning to the end, you don’t get the gift of time. Our brains often process our learning when we are doing other things, and gift us with new insights at the next practice session.
Your playing reflects your practice. No shortcuts! I’m reminded about what Stephen Covey said about the Law of the Farm. If you don’t prepare the land, plant the seeds, water, and fertilize, you won’t have a crop to harvest. Our work really isn’t much different. Cramming doesn’t work well for musicians. Take my warning from the paragraph above. Music needs time to germinate in the brain between practice sessions, just like plants need time in the fields. An impartial observer at a recital or concert will never know how much time went into preparing for a music performance. However, I assure you that there is no magic involved!
Gotcha! There is no such thing as memory magic. Yet, some students often treat memory as something that’s just going to happen, because it always has before. As a student progresses, pieces get longer, more difficult, and trickier to memorize. Thus, form study, key/chord analysis, and visualization are just three ways to provide a multi-layer approach to memorization that repetition alone cannot provide.
Form study simply means looking at the big picture. This is often done better away from the keyboard, pencil on score. I’ve attached a score study from the first movement of Lynn Freeman Olson’s Sonatina No. 5 1, a piece that has become a right-of-passage for many of my late beginners. What makes this first movement tricky is that the A theme returns twice, each time in a different, abbreviated way. Analyzed using letters, it’s A-B-A-C-A-Coda, which is rondo form, not typical sonata form. I’ve heard students do all sorts of crazy things once they get lost! Knowing the order of the sections and how the A theme changes each time is key!
The key analysis goes hand in hand with the form, yet it makes sense to also separate it for study. In the movement I analyzed, the starting key is D Major. The B section is in D minor, then cadences back into D Major for the second iteration of A. The C theme is in G Major. It, too, cadences back into D Major for the final appearance of the A theme.
Chord analysis is a way to look at what’s happening inside each section. I’ll look at just the B section. It starts in D minor, with tonic and dominant chords in alternation. It briefly moves to E minor, with tonic and dominant chords in similar alternation, that then cadences on a dominant chord that leads back into the A section in D major. These details help firm up the finger and aural memory that naturally develop during repetition.
By visualization, I mean playing the piece through in your mind. Even though I’ve never sat down to practice this movement, I could play it almost perfectly just because I’ve heard it enough, and done the analysis described above. As I just played this movement through in my mind, I realized a bit of blurriness in the coda. Even before looking at the score, I slowed down that passage, and now I’m confident that I do know those notes. I refer to this as musical meditation. You could sit in a chair, or even lay down on a bed to do this. You could even do it as sleepy-time practice – and don’t worry if you fall asleep before you get to the end. The true memory magic might happen without any effort from you!
When memorizing music, it’s important to obviously know it well from the score. However, repetition alone makes for a risky performance, since the tactile and aural memory is easily thrown if you wander onto the wrong keys. By looking at the form, keys/chords, and by practicing the piece away from the keyboard, you increase the chances that you will have a memory secure performance, or at least can get back on track quickly. That’s where you find the real memory magic!
Music is inherently difficult, because there is no such thing as a perfect performance. When learning a new piece, it’s routine to get to the point where everything sort of works, but it’s still not great. I’m not just talking about my students, but in my own playing, too. I call this place the 80% malaise. It often takes extra practice to take care of troublesome technical passages or to make sure that everything is in place musically. It just doesn’t happen on its own. You have to be purposeful to make those refinements.
A Teacher Helps
Students have that built-in helper: their teacher. She will point out all of the places that have potential to be better. It could be little stops and starts, unclear phrases, lack of dynamic contrasts, among other things. However, in order to take advantage of those tips, it’s crucial for the student to practice within a day or so after the lesson. If there isn’t an instrument available, notate the score or write down the places where you have to focus, when you do get back to a piano.
But You Still Must Do the Work
When this doesn’t happen, and the student comes back playing the same way, with the same issues, it puts the teacher in a bind. Does he take the time to explain all of these things again, as patiently as possible? Or, does he just move on, since there is always lots to do in a lesson? While I always give the student my best, I do realize at a point that not all students are striving to be excellent. Some are just satisfied with good enough.
When I train my athletes, it’s a dictatorship with three rules: show up, work hard, and listen. If you can do those three things, I can help you. If you can’t we have no use for each other. I will bust my a** for you every way possible, but I expect you to do the same for yourself. I’m not going to work harder than you do for your benefit. Show me you want it, and I’ll give it to you.
Tim Grover, trainer to elite NBA athletes, including Michael Jordan 1
Try A Digital Audio Recorder
A good digital recorder can be helpful to both students and professionals alike. You might say that you have one built into your phone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t serve much use due to its poor fidelity. The Zoom brand is widely used among serious musicians, and you can get the base model for $200 or less. A generation ago, the Sony Professional Walkman cost far more than this, and that’s before adjusting for inflation. Listening to yourself while not playing can give you an unbiased perspective that you can’t get any other way.
Even though it’s true that we’ll never be perfect, striving to be better is always worth the effort. There’s lots of guidance on that score to get you closer to musical nirvana, and you might have a teacher to give you that extra boost. In the end, it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to do the hard work that makes our listeners sit up in our seats, or just looking around waiting for the performance to end.
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!