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

Te Deum – Psalms to Charlemagne

Please Note: This page has Amazon Affiliate links. It’s a simple way to support the site without costing you anything.

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

Great Success and Utter Disappointment

Great success and utter disappointment might be a slight exaggeration. However, it shows the range of emotions I felt after giving what I consider to be my best organ recital on Sunday, April 28th at First Methodist in Bella Vista. My playing was really pretty decent, even good at times, and was about the best I could have expected. The Widor Toccata was the only piece that I had learned before this year. Anyone listening to me now versus several years ago would notice significant improvement. I am well on my way to playing the organ in mid-life as I did the piano when I graduated from music school.

I didn’t have a large network through which to market the recital, but I got the word out early, and even let the program sit for long enough to make a change from a shaky to a solid final selection. In the last year or so that I have been giving piano and organ recitals at the church, I have been getting audiences between 12 and 35 people, so I reasonably expected that I’d at least hit the low number, despite it being the Sunday after Easter and there being a couple of competing activities at the church.

Oh boy, was I wrong about that: Only five people showed up. That included my page turner, Music Director Larry Zehring. He reluctantly pitched in when I couldn’t find a single volunteer from the choir.

Strangely, I wasn’t as bothered by this as I might have been in the past. After all, I do broadcast and archive my recitals via Facebook Live, so they do have an online afterlife. The primary motivation for giving the recital was to prove to myself that I could do it. Having an audience of any size to hold me accountable was really the main criterion. This counted! Playing to an empty house, even in the best circumstances, is still just practice!

As I go forward, I need to be clear about my motivation, and what is and isn’t important. I have to focus more on the great success and less on the utter disappointment. I have to realize that most people are more concerned about their brunch plans than noontime recitals. Plus, there are only so many fans of the organ. Whenever I hear a national recitalist in Tulsa, there are barely 50 to 100 attendees for recitals that are free of charge. Maybe this was a reminder from God to keep looking inward, instead of outward, as performers want to do. I did well and should let Him take care of the rest.

Posted 2019-05-05

I bought a piano!

I wasn’t looking to buy a piano.  Really! But I bought a piano anyway. The interest was sparked by a piano parent who was searching for an acoustic piano. But I was surprised when she emailed me an advertisement for a 48-inch Yamaha U1 upright, built in 1977. This is a top-of-the-line upright, which Yamaha continues to make in Japan, along with their tallest model, the 52-inch U3. They offshored production of all of their shorter uprights decades ago.

When it was clear that my piano parent was pursuing pianos in a much lower price range, I made the call. It’s tough to fairly evaluate resale prices for used instruments, but I knew that the asking price was correct if the instrument was in excellent condition. However, even well-loved instruments can develop issues requiring significant rework, so I didn’t want to take any chances.

I hired my preferred tuner to do an analysis of the instrument, since a $60 fee was well worth saving hundreds or even more if I chose poorly. I have to be realistic that this might be the last instrument that I purchase. Yes, I’d still love to have a Steinway B or Mason & Hamlin BB, but this is a practical decision for now.

Everything worked out, and I was able to find a new owner for my Knabe spinet that is old enough to have ivory key covers. It was a gift to me, so it is now a gift to a new piano parent. I never loved this piano, but that’s more a reflection on me than it; I have better instruments available to practice where I work. It still has more to give, and I hope it will be appreciated for years to come.

Adopt a new-to-you upright of your choice. You won’t be disappointed!

Posted 2019-04-17

Different Kind of Feedback

I received very different kind of feedback after performing a new piece in my repertoire, the Chopin Scherzo No. 2: “I am glad that you learned that for yourself and that you shaered it with us!” It’s not the typical response following a performance. I knew that the comment was well intended, coming from one of my favorite people at First Methodist of Bella Vista. Still, it took a while to sink in what that actually meant.

While my reasons for wanting to learn new repertoire on the piano and organ are multi-faceted, it’s clear that they are all related to my goal to become better at both. I encourage my students to set and achieve goals, in a way that’s appropriate for their age. If I find a child is shirking responsibility, I try to address his responsibility in the process. One of the many benefits of piano lessons is becoming responsible for one’s work. The piano is just the tool that allows that to happen.

Performance is the natural culmination of music study. If you’ve taken the time to learn a piece, you should share it with others. Recitals and music festivals are the formal way to do this, but there should be other ways too. Performing for family, church, school, or a retirement community are equally valid. Live performance gives you feedback that you can’t get in any other way. Plus, it helps focus and refine your work, since there is a fixed date on the calendar that will make you accountable!

Learning and performing go hand in hand for me. I couldn’t imagine learning and then not performing. I have had some students, particularly adults, who have no interest whatsoever in public performance. That’s okay too. What doesn’t work well is performing without learning. Yes, I have performed more times than I’d like to admit without being sufficiently prepared. Building an audience is difficult, and it’s important to do your best. I’m grateful to have the chance to learn new pieces, polish old ones, and share them with my audiences and inspire a new generation of musicians.

Posted 2019-02-20

Practice Makes Better

I had just completed my first day of teaching in a new year at Shepherd Music School. It was a long day since I included some make-ups from the day before due to being sick. I shopped at the mall grocery store, where chicken is on special one day a week. Having put those in the car, I took a brief walk around the village of closed stores. Wow, it was great having the energy to do more than move from kitchen to couch to bed on repeat! Practice was far from my mind, or so I thought!

Unexpectedly, I ran into Dave and Buster’s, which is the new tenant in the old food court building. I’m always interested in investigating new businesses, no matter what they do. However, I will admit to especially liking those in which adults are encouraged to act like kids. I walked in, put $5 on a card, and had enough credits to casually play about 30 minutes worth of games. I even earned enough tickets to cash in for a ping-pong sized high-bounce ball.

There was a real mix of games, from those that were pure chance to ones where skill and experience are important. That’s especially important because just a little bit of an edge can mean scoring big versus earning just a couple of tickets. And that’s when it hit me. I was drawn almost exclusively to those games that required skill. After playing the basketball toss, Skee-Ball, and the piano game, I wanted to do it again and again. Yes, I wanted to practice, because practice makes better! Of course, getting really good at any of these games just unloads your wallet. At least you get to cash in your tickets for some merchandise that is almost exclusively branded with the Dave and Buster’s logo!

Practicing the piano follows the same logic. I want to practice my new repertoire to perform it to the best of my ability. Depending upon the difficulty, learning a new piece could take just a couple of hours in one sitting or dozens of hours over many days.

When I set minimum practice standards for my students, I think about what I go through now and then. I sometimes show students my books, filled with fingerings and practice markings. I don’t feel bad asking my youngest beginner to practice at least an hour a week, which could be just 20 minutes a day over three days. For an older beginner, I’ll ask that to be stepped up to 30 minutes a day. My best student, who is solidly intermediate, practices about 3 hours per week, typically 30 minutes per day over 6 days. It’s not a crazy or excessive amount, but it’s enough. Lessons are extremely productive: feedback is offered, practice solidifies the suggestions, and then we move on to new pieces fairly quickly.

Practice is where the real learning happens. Sure, I may be effective in giving guidance, suggestions, even a fingering that might work better. But it’s the student who determines what to do with all of that. I can’t take credit for what happens at home. I can just brag on my students who have done the work themselves, and be happy that I have had the chance to guide them along the way!

Posted 2018-08-16

Organ Music for Lent and Easter

As you might imagine, there is an abundance of wonderful organ music for Lent and Easter. It would be pretty easy for me not to learn any new music for the season, and just recycle what I already have. But that doesn’t serve my goal to learn a lot of new music while I’m still young enough to do so. Plus, there are entire composers whose music I’ve avoided due to the difficulty or strangeness of it. Now is the time to build a few of these pieces into my repertoire.

Certainly, one composer whom I’ve avoided is César Franck. His music is not the most difficult to learn, but his works are long, have lots of tricky sections, and require lots of registration changes to be effective. There are other composers like Edwin Lemare, Marcel Dupré and Jean Langlais who seem to delight in how many notes they can throw on a page. With them, there are no easy pieces, even ones marked at slow or moderate tempos.

I’ve learned to choose only a couple of difficult new pieces a season, so I can do them well. The Pastorale and Prière of Franck are two of these. For everything else, I look at lists from prior years and choose a variety of pieces and difficulties to make sure that I don’t spend too many nights toiling away at the console.

So, as the pensiveness of Lent breaks into the jubilation of Easter, the keys may change from minor to major, but the work continues! In order to document my work, I’m recording and posting some of these recordings to my own Website. However, they are just for my monthly newsletter subscribers. It’s free and easy to subscribe (please do) and unsubscribe (but I hope you don’t).

Posted 2018-03-26