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

Halloween Piano Party 2021

Introduction

This past Saturday, October 23rd, we had our third annual Halloween Piano Party. The event made its debut in 2018 but skipped last year due to the pandemic. I decided to do things a little bit differently this year. Instead of doing one event for all, I set up four rolling start times each half-hour so that people wouldn’t have to stay for the entire event. It enabled folks to rotate people in and out of the room so that we had adequate social distance. We all wore masks (the Covid-19 type) except during photos and playing.

Every year is a bit different, but like other years, we had a lot of day-before cancellations. That can be frustrating, like when six students scheduled in the first time block imploded to just one. However, everything turned out okay. The 11 students and their families that showed up made the event a success. They seemed glad that they had attended, and I even got a couple of nice thank you emails following the event!

Seven contestants and one toothy pumpkin!

Perfection Wasn’t the Goal

Two of the students got to play their memorized pieces for the Sonata/Sonatina Celebration coming up in two weeks. Everyone else got a chance to play whatever they were working on or finished this fall. The goal wasn’t thoroughly-polished, recital-worthy performances. It was simply to remember what it is to play in public, or perhaps for the first time with a supportive audience. Having plenty of opportunities to perform is important, as I mentioned in this older blog post that I just revised.

Tara was the winner of the costume contest, judged by five piano teachers from Ireland, Canada, and the United States following the event.

Candy and Apples

I had some filler Halloween improvisation pieces ready to teach, but as it turned out they weren’t necessary. I have enough older students playing longer pieces that the time flew by! Everyone sanitized their hands after playing, then got a chance to pick up snacks and an apple from the Trick or Treat table.

Prior Year Halloween Piano Parties

Originally Posted 2021-10-29 | Last Updated 2021-10-29

Two Tough Conversations with Prospective Piano Parents

Introduction

As a piano teacher, I find myself doing lots of things besides teaching lessons. For instance, I’ve added sanitizing skills to my arsenal! That includes supplying hydrogen peroxide and clean clothes to make sure the piano keys stay Covid-free! One of the more normal side activities is to speak to parents about teaching their kids. This happens a lot at the beginning of each semester. Turnover is part of the business due to the number of families that move into and out of our area each year.

I spent quite a lot of time on the phone recently to two parents who inquired about lessons. The difficulty in both of these cases was that the children are studying with other teachers. That’s not a conversation I ever enjoy having, even though there’s the possibility I could get a new student. These were two tough conversations!

Don’t Poach

I have no problem teaching a transfer student after a piano parent decides to switch teachers. Yet, I approach that situation with some trepidation. I don’t want to find myself on the short end of the stick as the next disappointing teacher! But, in no case would I ever try to persuade someone to switch to me. This needs to be the parent’s decision. I don’t poach!

First Conversation

The first conversation was with the parent of a 6-year-old child. The parent asked me if lack of performance opportunities might be a negative for her child. I said no, given that at that age, motivation from the lesson itself should be enough. Lessons should be fun and inspiring, which encourages practice at home. That creates a positive feedback loop. Performing is a nice add on for a young child, but it’s not a major focus. That 30-second performance at the end of the semester might be fun, but not a major factor.

There was a separate vibe I was getting that the lessons themselves might be the issue. The parent needs to observe the dynamic between teacher and student and to understand the goals being set. As for why practice isn’t happening, that’s more complex! The lessons might be boring and uninspiring. Or, the lessons might be fine, but the child isn’t getting enough structure so that regular practice happens at home. The best I could offer, besides the advice that the parent become a more intentional observer, was an evaluation lesson to give better feedback.

Side Note – Structure Comes from the Parent

Regular practice at home for young children starts with the parent. There are some kids who are self motivated, but that’s more the exception than the rule. There are some kids who rebel. Why? Some kids might have too many activities, but other might want to play. Immediately rewarding activities like Legos, Beyblades, or gaming compete hard with piano practice. I can only provide the instruction, not the practice structure at home.

Second Conversation

The second conversation was with the parent of a 12-year-old, who was generally happy with her child’s lessons. She, too, mentioned lack of performances as a reason she might switch teachers. Not knowing the child, I had no idea whether that child even liked to perform. Regular performance becomes more important as students mature as musicians and as people. That’s still not a reason for me to persuade the break up of what sounds like a good teacher/student relationship. I encouraged the parent to stay with the current teacher for now.

In Conclusion

I do offer lots of performance opportunities for my students, at least in normal times. During the pandemic, we can’t have recitals in person, or visit a retirement home. Performance has gone online for now, and that has pluses and minuses. My two tough conversations didn’t yield new students, and that’s okay. Perhaps each of these students would be a good addition to my studio at some later date. However, that has to be the parent’s decision, without coercion. Plus, I don’t want to jeopardize my good standing in the local teaching community. Yes, I have a few slots still available, but the right students will find me soon enough!

Image by user1505195587. Courtesy Pixabay.com
Originally Posted 2021-01-29 | Last Updated 2020-01-29

Video Recording Guide

This article is specifically intended to help piano parents in my studio to make online recordings for recitals and festivals. As so much of music-making has been in 2020, these events have been online-only since March. We might as well get used to doing it well!

Introduction

I dedicated my entire April 2020 Monthly Practice Corner article to cover technology for online lessons. The good news is that if you are correctly setting up your equipment for online lessons, you have mastered the important steps towards launching a video recording. Even if you have only done in-person lessons, you may have mastered many of these steps already. This guide is just to help those making their first recordings, since there are best practices to share. Once you do one, the next one will be so much easier!



Quick Start Guide
  1. Choose your device and put it in landscape mode.
  2. Make sure to capture full body and keys; look at the man playing piano below.
  3. Use the easiest software available for your device.
  4. Allow enough time to make at least several recordings across a couple of days.
  5. Learn how the Dropbox link works; test it with a simple text file.

Video Hardware/Software

Apple Devices (iOS)

Since almost everyone in my studio has an iPhone or iPad, I’m going to start here. For recording, use whichever device has the larger storage to hold your files. That’s going to be much more important versus choosing which device has the newest camera hardware. Before I switched over to doing recordings on a laptop, I would have to erase about half of my iPad apps just to clear enough space to do several takes of short recital pieces. If you do have to delete apps, choose the largest ones that don’t purge old cached data unless you uninstall/reinstall. For me, this was Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Instagram. Even if you have to uninstall a program that is legitimately storing lots of data on your device, you will get it back as long as the main data store is in the cloud.

Most people can use the built-in Camera app. I liked using iMovie, which is a free download from the App Store. It allows you to do simple editing, including trimming dead space at either end of a performance, or two put several recordings together. I’ve made a short YouTube video that takes you through the entire process, from recording to exporting. The one snag will be that you may not have Dropbox on your device, which means you’ll have to do the transfer from your PC or Mac. This support post from Apple should do the trick to establish a connection between your device and your computer, if you don’t have one established. Please transfer the file(s) in MOV format to the Dropbox link I have provided.

Samsung, Google, Other Manufacturers (Android)

I have no experience or guidance to give on recording on an Android phone or tablet. I’d be glad to add a link or to mention helpful hints, if anyone wants to share them. The result of any recording will yield an MP4 file, which works just fine for sharing.

PC or Mac

I use an open source program called OBS Studio for video recording on a PC laptop running Windows 10. There is an equivalent program called Ecamm Live on the Mac. Although my experience is only with OBS Studio, I understand that there’s a similar learning curve to learning Ecamm Live. Both are powerful software packages for their respective operating systems, and you shouldn’t try to learn them at the last minute before recording. Each program will export file types that I can use: MP4 from OBS, and MOV from Ecamm.

Device Placement

If you don’t have a microphone stand, music stand, or something that your device can attach to or sit on, then use a small table built up with books and put it a foot or two to the side and behind the pianist. The angle used in my YouTube video above works well. Also, make sure your device is placed in landscape. This is super important, especially if you’re using a phone. Rotate it 90 degrees so that it is oriented wider versus taller!

man playing piano in park
Man playing piano in park. Courtesy Needpix.com

Record Early and Often

Please don’t wait until the last moment to do your recording. It’s good to do some testing recording, to make sure that you have your camera set at a good place. It’s also instructive for the student. Your goal is to take just one or two takes, since subsequent takes will actually get worse as you get more picky about the output! Although playing for a camera is different than for a live audience, you may face some of the same performance anxiety. It’s better to get used to playing for, and ignoring, the technology!

Grouping Your Recordings

I will also let you know how to group together your recordings, but the general guideline is below. Also, super important: Between movements, or between pieces, please put your hands in your lap for two Mississippis (one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi). Then, put them back on the keyboard and continue when ready.

I prefer if you can record all of your pieces together, in one file per student, in the order that we determined at your lesson. If you can’t join the files together, I’ll be glad to do it in my editing software.

Dropbox

Hopefully, all of you already use Dropbox. If not, I’d strongly urge you to try it out, even if it’s just for our project. It’s really the gold standard for cloud-based file storage, and works incredibly well for exchanging files securely. If you would like an invitation to get started the software, I’d be glad to provide. It doesn’t benefit me at all, to my knowledge at least, since I’m on a paid plan with massive storage. However, with the free plan, you often can get more storage simply by inviting others to sign up for the software.

Permission to Post

Please make sure that you answer the SurveyMonkey request that grants me permission to post photos and videos of your child/children as specified. Most people give full access, but I want you to have a choice since your privacy is important to me.

Stay Tuned for Updates

This video and audio recording guide will remain a working document for us, as we find out what works and what doesn’t. I’ll update and send you a link or reminder once any major changes are made. Let’s see what kind of playing fun we can have, even if we have to do it within our own four walls!

Gustave Caillebotte painting
La Leçon de Piano by Gustave Caillebotte at Musée Marmatton Monet (Paris 16th). Courtesy Wikimedia.
Last Updated 2020-11-20 | Originally Posted 2020-04-13

Feel That Beat

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

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

Music as a Focusing Tool

We live in a distracted age, where focus can be as fleeting as the obedient dog who loses it when he sees a squirrel in his peripheral vision. Music is a place where multitasking just doesn’t work, so it makes sense that it might be a good focusing tool for children. Music activates brain cells on both sides of the brain. Parents have to love that fact, but the child just wants to have fun. Is it possible to have fun while giving the brain a healthy workout? In my experience, the answer is a resound yes!

Let’s face it: Kids don’t always like doing structured activities, even if they are (hopefully) fun like the piano. Establishing good practice habits takes time, and parental involvement is going to be key especially for younger students. However, practice becomes self-sustaining for kids who really enjoy playing the piano. If you’re looking for some inspiration for getting your kids to practice, please visit the monthly practice corner posts I write each month for my Piano Parents.

This post was inspired by two online articles I came across in my reading. The article about practice from UC Berkeley is not specifically about music, although it applies well to it. I was most encouraged by the experiment that showed how kids as young as six and seven are able to grasp the concept of deliberate practice! The NY Times piece is a guide to parents to limiting their kids’ tech, by age. Limiting tech time is a good opportunity to insert the great focusing tool of music!

How to Motivate Kids to Practice Hard Things (UC Berkeley)
How and When to Limit Kids’ Tech Use (NY Times)

Distracted Boy Cartoon
Distracted Boy Cartoon by www.amenclinics.com. Courtesy Flickr.
Posted 2020-02-19

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

Memory Magic

Introduction

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

Form study simply means looking at the big picture. This is often done better away from the keyboard, pencil on the score. I provide a specific example of this for my students, taken from a piece that I often teach to late beginners. Essentially, we just look for the themes and mark where they appear.

In basic sonata form, the first theme typically appears in the tonic key, whereas the second theme appears in the dominant key. When you move out of the exposition, or opening part, into the development, those themes often appear in a variety of transitional keys. When you arrive at the recapitulation, which is the third and final section, the second theme will often come back in the tonic key. Being aware of this one detail can help a lot when memorizing!

Key/Chord Analysis

I’ve already pointed to some of this above, but the chords are sometimes worth further study away from the first and second themes. We often use what are called major cadential points, as a landing place for memory issues. If you get lost in the details, it’s best to be able to jump to a nearby place, and then continue. Otherwise, you might jump to the beginning of the piece, and get stuck in a loop. Or, you might skip to near the end and cut out lots of good playing.

Visualization

By visualization, I mean playing the piece through in your mind. You know you’ve been teaching too long when you can memorize a piece just by seeing it on the page. This happens frequently with pieces that I teach often to my students, without any separate effort. I refer to playing a piece in my mind 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!

In Conclusion

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. . You increase the chances that you will have a memory secure performance by studying the score away from the keyboard. At least you can get back on track quickly. That’s where you find the real memory magic!

Frederik Magle – www.magle.dk; Photo by Morten Skovgaard
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2019-12-01