Time and Place

Introduction

Time and place have more to do with practice than any others. For some, they are tightly linked, but for others, they may not be. If you’ve been finding it difficult to get a practice routine established, or your old routine doesn’t work any longer, make this powerful combination your best friend.

Time

Exploring time on its own, as I did place, you need to find out when you have blocks of time that you could use for practice. Once you find out where your free time is, you need to decide what are the best blocks of time to schedule practice. If you have an acoustic piano, or you don’t want to use headphones with a digital one, you will likely have restrictions about practicing during sleeping hours. You also might find that your energy is not good at certain times of the day, and avoid those as well.

Once you find a good time for practice, you might just be disciplined enough to sit down to practice, or you might need a Motivation Ritual to get started. Depending on your practice goal, you might want to make it a time that’s repeatable each day, so that you have some likelihood of practicing at least several days per week. You could instead just choose whatever time you have available, and rely on the place to be the deciding factor.

Place

Some of you might be saying, but I have just one choice. My piano is where it is. If you have an acoustic piano, that may very well be the case. If you have a digital piano, however, relocating it might be much easier. Your piano should be somewhere that makes it conducive for practice. If it’s in a common area where there is high foot traffic, competition with TV or video games, or a host of other distractions, it might be time to move it.

If you can’t relocate your home instrument, do you have a secondary place where you can practice? I’m sort of lucky that I’m affiliated with several churches, so I have options for both piano and organ practice. However, even having an alternate location once or twice a week might be worth exploring. Or, maybe you can find an inexpensive used portable digital piano that you could put in a better location of your home or office. Yes, one of my students has considered the latter!

Time and Place

While I tried to purposely keep time and place separated, you’ll see that they interconnect quite a bit. If you’ve read anything that I’ve written about my practice, you will quickly understand that I am not a good model for your practice. I practice just two or three days per week and usually practice for a long period of time. That’s the exact opposite recommendation I give to most of my youngest students. However, my model might work for teens and adults who have lumpy schedules and need to fit practice around life.

My time and place are typically at my church job in Bella Vista, where I work three days a week. In particular, I find that Friday and Sunday to be my best options for practice, where I can spend at least an hour or two, sometimes more, on the piano or organ. That is at a peak energy time for me, and I have two beautiful pianos from which to choose.

I have a decent home instrument, a Yamaha U1 studio upright, but it’s not a grand piano. It’s not my preferred place to practice. Plus, when I’m at home it’s typically early in the day or late at night and so the time doesn’t work out. Another strike for place is that I find myself most reluctant to practice at home because I’m trying to conquer housework, cook and clean dishes, keep my plants alive, answer emails, and much more. Spontaneous practice, just for fun, is not happening in that environment.

In Conclusion

I hope I’ve encouraged you to think about time, place, and their interconnection. I first read about this in the context of a visual artist, who like me, finds that she does her best work when in a studio, not at home. I don’t remember her specifics, but they were similar to mine. The best space has few distractions, whether they be of the drudgery type, like dishes and laundry, or of the fun type, like a giant HDTV. If you have only one place to practice, you might have to tweak your practice time. Try a few different ones to find what works. Then make it stick!

Last Updated 2022-03-10 | Originally Posted 2022-03-10

Track Your Practice Time

Introduction

You’ve decided to learn piano, but do you have a practice goal? I talk about how to Set a Practice Goal in a separate blog post. Once you set a practice goal, it can be helpful to see if you’re meeting that goal. I can guarantee that you won’t be able to meet your goal without sufficient practice. I’ll start by showing you how I track my practice time.


More About Practice

While practice time is a key component, there’s more you can learn about practice. Visit my Teaching Posts page to see the articles I’ve written on this complex subject.


How I Track My Practice

I use the free version of an app called Toggl, which allows me to track both how much and what I’m practicing. I also have a notebook to write details about my practicing, but some days I do that better than others. I’m also posting a practice summary online to show that I have to practice, too!

I consider this a better way to document my practice than documenting it in 30-second clips as you’ll see from certain Instagrammers. I’ve been very consistent in posting so far, but I did only make it for the first 4.5 months of 2021, so we’ll see how long it lasts!

Why Tracking Practice Is Important For Me

My practice is going to look a lot different than yours because my goals are different. I have to prepare for weekly church services at First Methodist, so I schedule my practice for both piano and organ around the rehearsal and service time I spend in Bella Vista. I don’t practice every day. When I do practice, it’s often for 2 to 3 hours per session.

I have goals aside from what’s required to fill the prelude and postlude slots for each church service. I have specific projects to learn the music of a Black composer (H.T. Burleigh) and a female one (Amy Beach). Some pieces from any of those side projects may end up in a church service, but I can pretty much guarantee the book I bought to learn salsa from the classical pianist’s perspective will not. I want to become a more well-rounded musician, which I hope will also inform my teaching.

What Works For You?

If you just want to make sure you are putting in the effort, you may not need to track at all. You might just want to use a simple silent timer. You can set it to countdown – ding, you’re done. Or, if you like practicing, use a timer that allows you to accumulate time instead. Most digital ones do. You can also use a watch or clock if that’s not too old-school for you!

Even if you do decide to track, you might just do it for a week or two, just to see if your practice time equals the effort you think you’re making. You might be surprised that the reality doesn’t meet your expectation. I like Toggl, but your best choice might be a scrap of paper, a Post-It, or a little notebook. Find what works best for you.

In Conclusion

To track or not to track. That is the question. Yes, you should commit to practicing. How you decide to make sure you are putting forth the effort is up to you. Hopefully, these ideas have been helpful. Please let me know!

Last Updated 2022-03-08 | Originally Posted 2022-01-04

Good Enough

Introduction

“Never good enough” was the original title I proposed for this post. That along with “How to discourage and demoralize a piano student” as the short description. I hope it’s obvious I don’t endorse any of this “never good enough” stuff. However, I experienced it first hand during my first two years of piano study at music school. I noticed a lot of this, across many students and teachers, during the six years I spent earning my BFA and MM degrees.

I realize that I had a lot to learn and that constructive criticism is key to learning how to make a piece better. However, spending an inordinate amount of time on a piece and picking it to death is not the road to success.

Several Possibilities

When a piece isn’t getting better, it might come down to insufficient practice time. For a performance major in a degree program at a music conservatory, you’d hope that’s not the case. However, I find that often in school-aged children in my own private teaching. Sometimes a student gets to a particular point and doesn’t have the time or motivation to pick the piece apart further.

In many such cases, I’ll just suggest that the piece is put to the side for now. Typically, much work has been done, and the piece will be better approached with fresh eyes several months down the road. In the meantime, I might assign a similar piece by the same composer or era, since that can deepen understanding. Of course, there are times where we have to push to the finish. Then, I’ll try to help pick apart the most challenging spots to give the student that last push.

In some cases, I may have misjudged the difficulty. The student has really tried his best but just isn’t ready to make more progress. This sometimes happens with what I call stretch pieces, pieces that are intentionally assigned above the student’s current level. This can help the student to reach beyond her limitations, but it can also lead to a dead end. Even if the piece can’t be completed right now, it can always be reconsidered down the road.

Balancing the Load

Students tend to learn best when their repertoire is at a level that nudges them without overwhelming them. I often rely on graded repertoire books to help me do that. However, there are times when I want to push a student by intentionally assigning a level or two above where they are currently studying. I have tried this with transfer students if I suspect that they have not been challenged enough.

Part of balancing the load is to know when to assign pieces that are below the current level of study. I routinely suggest that approach at Christmas, where a student will want to learn several pieces in several weeks. There just isn’t enough time to learn at level, unless the student will be satisfied to learn one piece over several weeks. That’s a better fit for an advanced student who might be entering a competition or talent show and understands the benefit of working on a piece longer.

In Conclusion

It’s easy for a piano teacher to go into criticism mode and not see the bigger picture. There is an optimal path for each piece assigned to a student and it’s up to the teacher to sniff that out. Sometimes a piece is close to recital ready, and a student should be given another week to do better. Another student might be near his limits, and it’s time to call it. Good enough. Be honest and don’t sugarcoat, but also acknowledge the progress that has happened. Tomorrow is another chance to do better.

Last Updated 2021-11-22 | Originally Posted 2021-11-22

Terrific Technique

Introduction

What is terrific technique? It’s an aspiration for any pianist at any level because it makes playing easier. What’s not easy is talking about it. I realized there must be a reason that I hadn’t covered this topic previously in my Practice Corner articles. Is it because technique is a given, and doesn’t merit discussion? Or is it just a harder topic to flesh out? I think it’s both!

Simply put, it’s the nuts and bolts of piano playing. But there’s a lot more. Theory. Injury prevention. The way to scale up to harder pieces. Let’s look at each of these a bit more.

Nuts and Bolts

Everything we study in technique is in preparation for playing repertoire. The seven animal techniques we study in Piano Safari are immediately followed by pieces that contain those elements. Five-finger patterns, diatonic and chromatic scales, and arpeggios show up regularly in piano literature. By learning these in advance, we can more easily tackle pieces that have these elements included.

Theory

Studying 5-finger patterns, scales, and arpeggios is a great introduction to music theory. We need to know what sharps and flats appear in each key and learn the triads (chords) that are commonly found in each of these keys. That leads to discussing simple chord progressions, and identifying these in the pieces we’re playing. This kind of theory work can also help in memorizing pieces. Often, just a basic awareness of chords can help in those transitions where different sections go in different harmonic directions.

Injury Prevention

When I Googled the topic of teaching technique, I was looking to make sure I didn’t miss anything obvious. Even though I’ve lectured on and written about the Arrau Technique, injury prevention wasn’t top of mind when I was determined to finally write this post. That sort of makes sense, because injury prevention often only comes to mind after the injury has occurred. People sometimes require carpal tunnel surgery. Other pianists go to study the Taubman technique post-injury. I was lucky to find a teacher and a way of playing that prevented those injuries in the first place.

Many pianists and teachers know how to play in a healthy way. One of the reasons that I wanted to learn more about Piano Safari is that the animal techniques are very sound and similar to how I was taught to play. I asked Julie Knerr where she developed these techniques, and she said that they came from a variety of leading pedagogues. That said, not every teacher is enlightened on how to play and teach healthy technique. Your body will typically give you plenty of warning if you’re on the wrong path.

Harder Pieces

Playing correctly and having good technique helps when it’s time to try pieces that are more difficult than what we’re comfortable playing. For the past many years, I wanted to learn the Goyescas of Granados, among other difficult pieces. Every time I approached the first piece, Los Requiebros, I only got as far as the third page. It’s just so hard. But, as I dug in a little more, I was able to work through that piece, and a couple of the others, even though only one of them is ready for prime time.

In Conclusion

Technique is one of the four pillars of my teaching, along with rote playing, improvisation, and note reading. Over time, as students pass from beginners to intermediate players, rote playing and improvisation fade to occasional treats. At that point, technique remains a part of lessons along with the study of repertoire. Acquiring terrific technique may not always be fun, but it is so worthwhile. Each higher level of playing opens a student up to a whole new set of composers and pieces to discover.

Last Updated 2021-10-25 | Originally Posted 2021-10-25

Going the Second Mile

Introduction

I remember seeing this expression on a motivational poster decades ago, where a runner is shown in full stride with no one else in sight. The others gave up before going the second mile. I’ve known both mid- to long-distance runners, and most of them wouldn’t bother to lace up just to do a mile. But what the expression originally refers to has nothing about recreational runnning.

Origin of the Expression

Going the Second Mile has Roman and Biblical roots. One of the feats of the Roman empire was to create an elaborate road network not previously seen in the ancient world. The expression “Many roads lead to Rome” comes from that. Because Rome ruled much of the world, any Roman soldier or citizen could ask anyone traveling along the road to help carry his/her load for exactly one mile. In Matthew 5:41, Jesus tells anyone who is so asked to go two miles. Jesus could have said just go an extra 100 yards, but he makes it clear we are to go far beyond what is expected!

Inspiration to Carry On

I think about this instruction when inspiration is lacking, and the urge to quit is swelling! Sometimes the burden seems too heavy, and getting done sounds good. I won’t lie, I often feel that it’s hard to keep going and I just want to quit early. That’s true whether I’m trying to make my step count for the day, finishing up work on the computer, or getting a piece in shape on the music bench. I try to keep thinking how good it will be to complete that second mile, and often it works!

The Struggle of Piano Students

I’ve seen the same struggle at work in my piano students, particularly as they arrive into the early intermediate repertoire, where pieces double in length and become more complex between the hands. Some of them come to lessons with a first-mile attitude. You can see it when they come in saying they only practiced hands separately, or that they haven’t gotten far through their piece.

To be fair, there are some advanced pieces that require several weeks to get through. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about bringing a beginner mindset to intermediate pieces. They haven’t fully embraced arriving at the higher level.

However, some of my students don’t seem phased by longer and harder pieces. They try their best, and they sometimes surprise me at how far they’ve gotten or the achievement they’ve shown. They’ve learned the secret that a piece double the length isn’t necessarily double the work.

Lots of those passages repeat. They are much better readers than they used to be and can cover more measures in a practice session than they used to be able to cover. They’re okay with certain passages being complex and don’t just stop and give up when they encounter a hard passage. They know I’m here to help them figure those out.

Thoughts?

What are your struggles in going the second mile? Where do you find it easy or difficult to go on?

Last Updated 2022-03-11 | Originally Posted 2021-09-19

Train Your Ears

Introduction

Ear training isn’t something that I do enough with my students. It’s really difficult trying to fit so much into a half-hour lesson, which is the length of time that most of my students choose. I use the phrase train your ears, because I’m going way beyond the discipline of listening for intervals. It also involves listening to styles of music. You need to use different types of articulation. Hearing with precision is an important part of playing with precision. Let’s get the dissonance out of the way first!

Dissonant Intervals

A dissonant interval is one that sounds wrong. Technically speaking, it’s either a 2nd, 7th, or a tritone, which itself has two different names! Each of the above intervals, when played in isolation, sounds like someone made a mistake. That’s frequently the case, since dissonant intervals aren’t a large part of beginner repertoire, except when a mistake is made. I try to use the mistake as a learning opportunity, so I say “Does that sound right?” Most of my students will instantly know that I only ask that question when it doesn’t sound right!

Sometimes, the student played the correct notes but is practicing at a slow tempo that exaggerates the dissonance. In other words, when sped up to a proper tempo, the dissonance will make more sense as a part of the longer phrase. In cases like that, I point out that such dissonances are ways of transitioning between consonant intervals on either side. Sometimes it takes a brief dissonance to travel between those two places.

I especially love discussing the tritone. It’s a series of three whole steps connected together, which make a sound that is very unstable, and typically resolves up to a 6th, or down to a 3rd. It’s a fun interval to discuss in lessons since for centuries it was considered the devil’s interval. It certainly has the sound of conjuring no good when heard in isolation. However, these two notes are sometimes just part of a larger dominant 7th or 9th chord, and the notes determining that are in the opposite hand.

Consonant Intervals

Technically speaking, the 3rd and 6th are the consonant intervals, while the 4th, 5th, and octave are perfect intervals. I will take students through the differences between these intervals when it’s the right time during theory discussions. However, for the purpose of this post, I’m mostly concerned about the differences between notes that sound right and those that don’t.

Listening for Inversions

Listening goes well beyond whether something sounds correct or not. It also concerns whether a chord or note is played in the correct disposition. I’m not talking about whether it’s sunny or cranky, but what note is at the bottom. In any chord, we can have the root at the bottom, called root position. Sometimes the third or fifth is at the bottom, which is called first or second inversion, respectively. This gets a bit complex, but essentially we need to listen to determine that the notated chord is what we played.

Listening for Style

Often it can be helpful listening to a recording, especially when the style of the piece is unfamiliar. Even in beginner pieces, there’s sometimes an indication that the eighth notes, which are written as though they are even, are to be played in a swing style. In that case, they sound like they belong to a triplet, where the first note is twice as long as the second.

Some styles of music are hard to pick up from the page. I’d include anything that isn’t standard to our ears. I worked with an early advanced student on a Bossa Nova piece that just didn’t click until he listened to a recording of the piece. The printed score is where we start, but it shouldn’t be where we end our work!

Listening for Articulation

Broadly brushed, there are three basic articulations, with increasing length, from staccato to detached to legato. These are details that aren’t emphasized in depth at the very beginning of musical study, but become more important as the student climbs through the beginner levels. A performer on a recording making these differences can often help the student understand how to produce them herself.

In Conclusion

This is just an example of the type of listening we do in lessons, in order to try to connect the notation on the page to the notes on the piano. Combining theory with listening can be an effective technique, even if I don’t point that out per se. Students who become good critical listeners to their own playing tend to be more successful pianists. For that reason alone, I try to let the student figure out the error, instead of taking the easier route of pointing out what went wrong.

Image by Asoy ID from Pixabay
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2021-09-18

Sharpen Your Pencil

Introduction

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!

Fingering

The most important thing we’ll often discuss at a lesson is fingering. Unless you have one of those uncanny minds, 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 simplifies the passage by using sound fingering principles.

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 marking or write a reminder on the page. (Slow down here!) Sometimes a student will take that to an extreme as you’ll see in the picture below. 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 named Fred who would call me into his office to deliver very specific instructions. One day, when I apparently wasn’t thinking, I just plopped down in his guest chair empty-handed. Fred asked me where my pen and paper were. The point he was making was that I wasn’t being invited for tea and scones (or coffee and donuts). He wanted something specific done, and I wasn’t prepared to take notes. 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 a good start. When you sharpen your pencil, you’ve gone 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 I expected you to cover during your practice since your last lesson. Sure, a sharp pencil won’t solve any of those problems, but it shows you are serious. And that has to count for something, right?

music score with writing
A student who took my “don’t stop” advice seriously.
Last Updated 2021-09-12 | Originally Posted 2020-07-25

Feel That Beat

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Introduction

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 some beginning piano students, I bet you’ve noticed some who don’t feel the beat. One of the things I do more and more is to introduce rote playing. In rote playing, the student imitates what the teacher does, learning the piece by pattern and repetition instead of reading notes on the score. They are thus freed up to really listen and feel what they are doing.

Feeling the beat is so important in music because it’s the first thing a casual listener will notice is wrong when it’s absent. They will forgive or maybe even not notice a few notes incorrectly here or there. Plus it’s essential in ensemble work, whether playing duets with another pianist or playing in a band with other instruments.

Use Your Own Percussion

There are lots of ways to establish a beat. Clap. Walk around the room. Patsch – it’s a German/British English word indicating smacking the legs with the hands. Tap on a closed keyboard cover or a table. Count using either metric (numbered) beats or use Kodaly syllables like tah and ti-ti.

It’s difficult to get students to break down music in this way. However, once a student breaks the rhythm apart from the notes, it’s naturally easier for him to play it correctly when the notes are added back. Besides rote playing, sight reading is a great way to keep reinforcing the primacy of rhythm. I use the Piano Safari sight reading cards, but there plenty of other options. It’s important to keep adding more complex rhythms in advance of when the student will encounter them in his music.

Hear the beat
of dancing feet,
It’s the song I love the melody of,
Forty-Second Street

Title song of film and Broadway musical 42nd Street, Lyrics by Al Dubin

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 several bucks when I last checked, and has iOS and Android versions. Everyone likes free stuff, but many free apps are extremely limited. Don’t hesitate to purchase a great app you’ll use all the time, especially at a negligible price like this.

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!

In Conclusion

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 drudgery, 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!

wooden metronome
Courtesy Wikimedia
Last Updated 2021-09-12 | Originally Posted 2020-03-01

Sight Reading Is a Priority

Introduction

When I write my practice corner articles, I typically think about my students’ struggles 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 easy to me. Rest assured I struggled in other areas of playing like technique, sound projection, and memorization.

Definition

What exactly is sight reading? It’s the ability to quickly grasp what’s important in a musical score and translate that to the piano on the first try. It might be slow, a few notes played incorrectly, and there may be some hesitation here and there. However, the result resembles the piece in some way. A parallel would be how well a student can read a written passage and summarize the main points after a first reading. Both in music and literature, it’s important to get the gist while not getting bogged down by details.

Sight reading in music is just a first step to the finished product. It’s great to grasp what’s on the page quickly, but making music is another thing. Often, there are technical difficulties to be worked out, plus lots of nuances that only practice can work out. Plus, sometimes only the bare essentials are notated in certain playing styles, like jazz and pop. Some extra work might be needed to add the details. Successful sight reading gives the student a good foundation.

Older Methods

It’s important to step back to discuss a bit about the old ways of doing things. Many methods popular decades ago, what I call the dark ages, because I grew up then, used a middle-C-based approach. These methods, which I consider inferior, stuck around for a long time, but are hard to find these days. If you remember your thumbs constantly fighting to play middle C, you learned piano in that type of book.

The problem? You’d get good at playing by finger number from line notes F in the bass clef to G in the treble clef. In order to go past that, your teacher would drill using mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine for the lines and the acronym FACE for the spaces on the treble clef. When you needed to move away from those nine notes in the middle of the piano, it would be really difficult!


Mnemonics Is Not A Dirty Word

Mnemonics, pronounced with initial m silent, refers to any device or trick to aid in memory. I use the skips alphabet from Piano Safari to map the notes FACE and GBD to the lines and spaces. It’s one tool along the road to aid reading, but it shouldn’t be the only one.


Newer Methods

Music educators agree that using landmarks (memory notes) and intervals to be superior to the old fixed-note methods. Most of the methods that are popular today use these tools as the primary way to train note reading. Piano Safari, the method I use, goes beyond that to make sight-reading a regular part of the curriculum. Their sight reading cards are so good that I sometimes use them with transfer students who come in using other method books. They help develop good note-reading techniques, and the student learns to read the entire grand staff and then above and below it.

From Sight Reading To Score Reading

I also have a student transpose certain pieces from time to time. Once she plays a piece in one key, I ask her to play it in several different keys. What I don’t tell her is that she is simultaneously learning how to read new clefs! That’s helpful since we as pianists often have to play with other instruments. To read some parts in concert pitch, like trumpet and clarinet, you need to transpose. The viola primarily uses alto clef, and the cello occasionally uses tenor clef. You can’t work at your best with other musicians if you’re stuck trying to determine whether every good boy does fine!

Can You Hear It In Your Head?

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 scores, or determining which pieces to work on next. 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.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, you’re convinced that sight reading should be a priority. It’s one of those skills that every teacher needs to nurture and remediate when necessary. As a teacher, I can only do so much to instruct note reading. It’s up to the student to practice the skill on his own. If a student is young, it’s beneficial when the parent helps the student establish the skill. Note reading isn’t everything, but it is a huge thing!

circular music score
Photo by Sebastien Paquet of George Crumb Music Score. Courtesy Flickr.
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2020-02-04

Law of the Farm

Introduction

Sometimes it pays to relate the complex world that we create for ourselves to simple principles. Stephen Covey did this when he discussed the Law of the Farm in his manual on life, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Learning a piece of music is not much different than planting a tomato. You have to be attentive from the beginning to the end of the process. I’m sure you’ve seen the difference between a tomato that is scrawny and one that is a spectacular celebration.

Sure, there are always external factors in farming, but that takes away from looking at the farmer’s role. There are some farmers who are more successful than others because they do everything in their power to produce the best result. The same is true about the factors that go into producing the best musical results!

Time And Attention Are Important

I try to have the conversation early on with my students and their parents about a good amount of practice per day. I talk about it in my post Guide Your Child to Independent Practice. While that article discusses guidelines towards practice time, it doesn’t discuss the limitations to practice. Some children might be able to focus for 10 minutes, whereas some might be able to focus for up to an hour. Focus might be easier on some days than others, or at certain times during the day. Lack of focus isn’t the only limitation to practice.

Distraction can be an enemy as well. It can be from a device like a cell phone, where you end up being your worst enemy. The distraction can also look more old-fashioned, as an adult student recently related to me. He sits down for his 30-minute practice session, but he’s frequently interrupted. It might be a work call, followed by his child who approaches with a homework problem that needs to be addressed. For him, waiting for that perfect block of time never comes along. Sometimes, it’s better just to start, then find your way back to the bench.

Frequency Is Also An Important Factor

Regular practice is the key to most students achieving the best results. However, that isn’t possible for some older students or adults whose free time is lumpy. They might participate in sports, which tend to have complicated schedules. They may have family obligations as well. The good news is these folks tend to have the gift of longer focus. They might be able to find those two or three days where they have longer blocks of free time, and they are able to take advantage of them. I often encourage my pre-teen and teen students to transition to a more realistic schedule of practice based on their particular schedule.

Advanced Preparation

If there is anything relatable to the Law of the Farm it’s allowing plenty of time for recital or festival preparation. 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. However, I know that there will be weeks that certain things take precedence over my practice, and the same thing happens to my students. The good thing about advanced preparation is that you can deal with practice obstacles early enough to get back on track.

Sometimes, even advanced preparation doesn’t make the difference. It could be a timing issue, where a student gets involved with another school activity that parallels the critical practice phase. That commitment becomes consuming, with little time left over to practice. Sometimes a student just gets into a practicing funk, where finding joy on the piano becomes more important than the original goal. Although life is full of second chances, sometimes it’s clear that time wins and it’s better just to drop an unrealistic goal. The good news is that the next opportunity is likely to be just several months away.

Enjoy The Gift Of Time

You’ve probably heard many successful people say that their best ideas came to them away from their actual work, which for us would be on the bench. They might have had a discovery in the shower, while driving, or in the middle of their walk. The same is true with us. Our practice doesn’t end when we get off the bench. Our brains process all kinds of things even when we’re not intentionally focusing on them, but time is the key here. If you practice at the last minute, you don’t allow time to be your ally. I don’t want to come to a musical discovery about a piece two days after an important performance.

I Come Up Short, Too!

A couple of years ago, I performed a piece on the organ where I played the notes correctly, but I didn’t understand the musical style. It was an early Baroque piece by a composer whose music I hadn’t previously played. Since I was performing in a musical style rather foreign to me, 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-executed, and the registration was not varied enough. When I performed it the next time, the result was so much better.

There are also more times than I’d like to admit where I left the note learning to the last minute. The Law of the Farm applies to me too! Even if I was able to fool some or most of the people in the room, I disappointed myself. If you are your worst critic, you already know how that feels!

The kids that practiced hard did well, and those that didn’t, didn’t!
(Said during a break in the action on a long day of semester-ending juries)

Professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

In Conclusion

While I don’t recommend your wearing overhauls onto the concert stage, I would recommend paying attention to the Law of the Farm. There are no shortcuts to musical preparation. I have had my own farming successes and failures, and I’ve observed lots of good and bad farming practices through student performances. I’m talking about observation, not judgment. I may not know what limitations affected any particular performance, just like I might not know the heat or rainfall irregularity that impacted a growing season. I do know that all students, regardless of potential, can produce results that might even surprise them if honor the Law of the Farm.

Photo by Don Graham of Iowa corn fields. Courtesy Flickr.
Last Update 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2020-01-01