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!
I just kicked off the fourth year of offering classical piano repertoire to conclude worship at First Methodist of Bella Vista. Piano Postludes happens every three months, during the months of February, May, August, and November. For four weeks during each of those months I play pieces according to a common theme. You can get a feel for what I’ve done in past years of Piano Postludes, but this year it’s all about Chopin! As in, Hello Chopin Waltzes! All 17 of them.
After completing my project of playing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier Book One of J.S. Bach, I decided that I should do something completely different. Even though you might consider Chopin’s romantic sweep to be quite different from the high Baroque style of Bach, there is more connection that you might think. His 24 Preludes, Op. 28, are written around the circle of fifths, with alternating major and minor keys. Pianist Josep Colom demonstrates how certain of Bach’s compositions were an obvious influence on Chopin. His Confluences album Web page provides sound file examples.
I get that church goers aren’t interested to linger to listen to long postludes. My hope is that these bite sized pieces will be more appealing to those folks. I’ll always have my small group of loyal fans who will stay for whatever I want to play for them. And I’m so thankful for that! People have told me that they can’t attend my post-church recitals due to brunch plans or missing the chance to socialize over coffee and pastry. Hopefully these bite-sized pieces – most are less than 5 minutes long – will take care of that!
I will be forever indebted to my master teacher, German Diez, who introduced me to the very first of the waltzes, the Grande Valse Brillante Op. 18. He studied for 10 years with Claudio Arrau in New York City after leaving Cuba before the Fidel Castro era. I listened to a recording of Arrau playing this waltz recently, and said to myself “he plays it remarkably similar to me!” Picking this piece back up has always been easy because I first learned it when I was young! Since I’m writing this post just after starting the project, you can now listen to this first installment on Facebook Live. You don’t have to have to be logged into Facebook nor even have a Facebook account.
Bach will still be on my mind. Since I’m also an organist, he’s never far away. But it’s time to say Hello Chopin Waltzes! I won’t be recording each week’s installment, but at least there’s one to give you a taste into my love of Chopin. I also plan at some point to put together all four Chopin Scherzi that I played as Piano Postludes last year to present in a recital.
When I write my monthly practice corner article, I typically think about the struggles my students face in their learning. In many cases, I struggled with the same issues when I was a piano student. However, not in this case, since sight reading always came very easy to me. I began piano at age 9, which probably helped. Students who begin later tend to grasp the concepts in note reading a lot more quickly than their younger counterparts. However, both younger and older students often find note reading to be quite vexing. That’s why I make sight reading a priority in lessons!
What exactly is sight reading? Simply put, it’s the ability to quickly grasp what’s important in a musical score, and translate that to the piano on the first try. A great parallel would be to how well a student learns good reading comprehension. It’s important to be able to read a passage of text to summarize the main points while not getting bogged down by details.
Sight reading in music is just a first step. It’s great to quickly grasp what’s on the page, but it’s another to make a music from it. Often, there are technical difficulties to be worked out, plus lots of nuances that can only be worked out by lots of practice. Plus, in certain styles of playing, like jazz and pop, sometimes only the bare essentials are notated. It’s up to the student to know the correct style of playing, manipulate the chords, and do a lot of listening to be successful.
How to Learn It
Now that we’ve identified what sight reading is and its role in playing piano, how do you best learn it? Music educators have learned that using landmarks (memory notes) and intervals to be the best method, long term. If you learned piano back in the dark ages, like when I did, your teacher would have typically used a middle-C based book. I bet you remember these books, where your thumbs were constantly fighting for middle C! You would have been drilled on mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine, for the lines on the treble clef, and the acronym FACE for the spaces. It sounds great, right?
However, going back to the analogy with book reading: How effective would you be if you had to speak the alphabet every time you see a new word? As a kindergartner, it might work fine, but it would hinder a second grader! I’ve had an early intermediate student who cannot start a new piece without consulting that every good boy nonsense. I never taught this method; it’s something he learned from a former teacher several years ago.
The primary method books I use, the Music Tree and Piano Safari, both have regular sight-reading as part of the curriculum. I often use the Piano Safari sight reading cards even with students of different method books. They are helpful in developing good note-reading techniques. As a student progresses, he learns new landmarks, which cover all of the Cs up and down the staff, in addition to the Gs on the treble/G-clef and the Fs on the bass/F-clef. He then uses the small intervals like 2nds through 5ths to identify notes that are above or below those fixed landmarks.
I also have a student transpose certain pieces when she gets into the late beginner level. Once she plays a piece in one key, I ask her to play it in a different keys. What I don’t tell her is that she is simultaneously learning how to read new clefs! That’s really helpful, since we as pianists often have to play with other instruments. Some of these instruments transpose (like the trumpet or clarinet) or don’t transpose but read in different clefs (like the viola and cello). You can’t work at your best with these musicians if you’re stuck trying to determine whether every good boy does fine!
Another benefit of being a good sight reader is to hear music without playing it. When I open a score, the music pops off the page. This has enormous implications when learning new music, shopping for new scores, and even for determining which pieces to program. I can quickly find pieces that will work for a particular occasion by scanning them with my eyes, not needing to sit down at a piano.
Now you know why I make sight reading a priority. It’s one of those skills that every teacher needs to nurture, and remediate when the level is not up to par. As a teacher, I can only do so much to instruct the best method for note reading. It’s up to the student to practice the skill on his own. If a student is young, it’s up to the parent to help the student establish the skill. Note reading isn’t everything, but it is a really big thing!
Last Updated 2020-02-05 | Originally Posted 2020-02-04
When I was thinking of a topic to discuss for January, I kept coming back to “your playing reflects your practice.” I witnessed lots of student performances in the past month, and had some of my own. Each of those performances was the product of weeks or even months of practice time. To a large degree, the level of success in each performance was determined at home, by practice. Sure, lessons help, as does a certain amount of innate ability. However, as one sage college professor recently said to me about semester-ending juries: The kids that practiced hard did well, and those that didn’t, didn’t! Let’s look a bit more into the relationship between playing and practice.
Time and Attention Are Important
The amount of practice per day is where I start the conversation with students and their parents. There is a certain natural and practical limit per person, adults included! By natural limit I’m referring to the amount of time that a person can focus. Past that limit, practice time is largely wasted. For a very young child, that may be just 10 minutes, whereas for a teen or adult, it might be measured in hours. Some practice days will be better than others, and that’s just, well, natural!
The practical limit refers to allocation of time. Even though a teen might easily focus for an hour, he may have to stop at 30 minutes, in order to get a host of other things done before the next day. When a child has lots of activities, it’s good to see if there is enough time available to practice. If there isn’t enough time in the schedule, the family has to take a serious look at what needs to be cut. Regrettably, sometimes piano is the activity to be cut.
It goes without saying that frequency is also important, but it really needs to be considered separately from time available. For a younger child, a small amount of time per day with daily frequency is the best solution. As students get older, and get more variability in their after-school schedule, practice frequency will need to fluctuate. That older student might be able to get her work done in just three to four days per week, as long as practice time is increased. My schedule is even more extreme than that, since I typically only practice two or three days per week, but can be efficient for hours each time.
I make sure my students have plenty of time to learn a piece for a festival or recital, and I do the same for my own performing. If I have a recital coming up in a month or two, I try to get a jump on my practicing, because I cannot afford to get behind. For students, this generally doesn’t present much of a problem, unless a student gets into a multi-week practice rut. Sometimes there’s not much to be done when that happens, though regular checkpoints can help to identify the issue.
I can give a very good example of last-minute preparation, from my own experience. I performed a piece on the organ where most of the notes were played correctly, but there was a serious lack of musicianship. I was performing in a musical style rather foreign to me, and I didn’t understand the larger form of the piece as well as I should have. There were lots of nuances that went unexpressed, trills that weren’t well planned, and the registration was not varied enough. When you leave the note learning to the end, you don’t get the gift of time. Our brains often process our learning when we are doing other things, and gift us with new insights at the next practice session.
Your playing reflects your practice. No shortcuts! I’m reminded about what Stephen Covey said about the Law of the Farm. If you don’t prepare the land, plant the seeds, water, and fertilize, you won’t have a crop to harvest. Our work really isn’t much different. Cramming doesn’t work well for musicians. Take my warning from the paragraph above. Music needs time to germinate in the brain between practice sessions, just like plants need time in the fields. An impartial observer at a recital or concert will never know how much time went into preparing for a music performance. However, I assure you that there is no magic involved!
I received approval to start a new concert series at the church where I work, First Methodist of Bella Visa, called the Curious Squirrel. My mascot is Samuel the Squirrel, a critter who attended and wouldn’t leave my recital at Central Methodist in Rogers. Although he was a nuisance during the recital, he was an inspiration towards my new marketing plan! How I got here is the rest of the story!
When I landed my part-time salaried job at First Methodist in 2012, I received the Wesley Series as an added bonus. I performed several times with various fantastic artists. One of them was violinist Er-Gene Kahng, who is now full Professor of Music at the University of Arkansas.
A New Focus
When funding for that series ended in early 2017, I was no longer able to participate in professional chamber music. So, I decided to go solo on organ and piano. During the past two years, I have offered 18 events, mostly solo. However, there were a few concerts offering seasonal vocal selections with Chancel Choir members, and even an Irish Sing-A-Long that I hope to make an annual event.
These recitals have allowed me to build repertoire and experience in solo performing. Most of my prior experience in performing happened before age 25 – when I graduated from The Juilliard School and decided to make music just a part-time endeavor.
Try Something Different
I tried to re-establish a professional concert series at the church, but there was no support for that. Over time, I decided to redirect my focus to something more palatable – my continuing education. The church does have a small continuing education budget for music, which covers my membership in the American Guild of Organists. However, there is just a fraction of the amount of money needed to attend organ conventions or even week-long sacred music classes. Church musicians are very isolated in their work, and these opportunities are a wonderful shot-in-the-arm to revive and revitalize us for the work we do in our church communities.
How You Can Help
I’m not putting out offering plates, since I don’t want folks to feel yet another sense of obligation. Instead, I’ve purchased a bright red box, which will accept any optional gift you wish to make towards my continuing education. You can write your check to the church, with a memo line mention of the Curious Squirrel. When I need to make a claim against the fund, I’ll do so with the church administrator.
Artists appreciate support in a variety of ways. Subscribe to my Monthly Newsletter, which I’m re-branding to the Curious Squirrel in January 2020. It details my upcoming performances, and provides access to some extra performances that I don’t release elsewhere. If you’re more of a small bites person, consider liking/following my professional social media on Facebook or Instagram. Search for me @brockeyspedals. One more way to help: Be a good squirrel! Invite a friend to a future Curious Squirrel concert!
A Toast to Success
Here’s a toast to the future success of the Curious Squirrel! If you’d like to see a listing of concerts under the banner of the Curious Squirrel, just look for the icon on my Concerts page.
Gotcha! There is no such thing as memory magic. Yet, some students often treat memory as something that’s just going to happen, because it always has before. As a student progresses, pieces get longer, more difficult, and trickier to memorize. Thus, form study, key/chord analysis, and visualization are just three ways to provide a multi-layer approach to memorization that repetition alone cannot provide.
Form study simply means looking at the big picture. This is often done better away from the keyboard, pencil on score. I’ve attached a score study from the first movement of Lynn Freeman Olson’s Sonatina No. 5 1, a piece that has become a right-of-passage for many of my late beginners. What makes this first movement tricky is that the A theme returns twice, each time in a different, abbreviated way. Analyzed using letters, it’s A-B-A-C-A-Coda, which is rondo form, not typical sonata form. I’ve heard students do all sorts of crazy things once they get lost! Knowing the order of the sections and how the A theme changes each time is key!
The key analysis goes hand in hand with the form, yet it makes sense to also separate it for study. In the movement I analyzed, the starting key is D Major. The B section is in D minor, then cadences back into D Major for the second iteration of A. The C theme is in G Major. It, too, cadences back into D Major for the final appearance of the A theme.
Chord analysis is a way to look at what’s happening inside each section. I’ll look at just the B section. It starts in D minor, with tonic and dominant chords in alternation. It briefly moves to E minor, with tonic and dominant chords in similar alternation, that then cadences on a dominant chord that leads back into the A section in D major. These details help firm up the finger and aural memory that naturally develop during repetition.
By visualization, I mean playing the piece through in your mind. Even though I’ve never sat down to practice this movement, I could play it almost perfectly just because I’ve heard it enough, and done the analysis described above. As I just played this movement through in my mind, I realized a bit of blurriness in the coda. Even before looking at the score, I slowed down that passage, and now I’m confident that I do know those notes. I refer to this as musical meditation. You could sit in a chair, or even lay down on a bed to do this. You could even do it as sleepy-time practice – and don’t worry if you fall asleep before you get to the end. The true memory magic might happen without any effort from you!
When memorizing music, it’s important to obviously know it well from the score. However, repetition alone makes for a risky performance, since the tactile and aural memory is easily thrown if you wander onto the wrong keys. By looking at the form, keys/chords, and by practicing the piece away from the keyboard, you increase the chances that you will have a memory secure performance, or at least can get back on track quickly. That’s where you find the real memory magic!
I’m sure that the majority of the congregation where I work in Bella Vista, Arkansas, are not even aware of this occasion. On February 4, 2018, I played the First Prelude and Fugue in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, by J.S. Bach at First Methodist. The prelude has been quoted by other composers through the centuries, including Charles Gounod in his setting of the Ave Maria. Today I complete that journey with the Twenty-Fourth Prelude and Fugue in B minor. It’s my way to say Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One!
Thankfully, I have a group of loyal fans who have been with me every step of the way. I also have some friends and colleagues from far-flung places with whom I want to share the performance, so I’m broadcasting it via Facebook Live just before noon today (CST). Although it’s not good to be boastful, I’m proud of following through a commitment to learn all of these gems. I was not a big fan of these pieces in music school, something I first shared in my blog post celebrating the beginning of this project.
The B minor Prelude and Fugue
Before reminiscing about the entire cycle, I have to point out how odd this last entry is. Both the prelude and fugue have tempo markings, andante and largo, respectively. None of the other 23 preludes and fugues have any tempo indications. There are repeats indicated on both the A and B section of the prelude. There are no other repeat marks in the entire book.
The fugue is 6 pages long, matched only by the A minor fugue. However, this fugue carries a pathos and chromaticism that is unparalleled in the rest of the set. Upon hearing the fugue subject, which is the single voice that sets the tone for what follows, you know that a wild ride is coming. It brings to mind the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the opening of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. While Tristan is almost 5 hours long, this set of pieces wraps up in about 12 minutes.
One of the benefits of playing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, in my case just the first book, is getting to know Bach better. Many of the great composers have referenced these pieces; Robert Schumann called them “the pianist’s daily bread.” Many great pianists learned and performed them, even those you wouldn’t think of as Bach specialists. I enjoyed how Bach took standard forms and exploited them for their full worth. Each prelude was sometimes very simple, but occasionally it was just as contrapuntal as the attached fugue. Although I didn’t learn these pieces to study voice leading, harmony, or improvisation, I subconsciously absorbed all of these concepts.
To look at this from a wider lens, I find that studying an entire set of works gives you a more complete view of a composer. It forces you to look at each and every piece and figure out how to convey the message in the most accurate and musical way. No shortcuts! No selecting the easiest or most popular works, then puffing oneself up as being an expert in the composer.
Having a great piano as a practice instrument certainly was great inspiration. It’s the one highlight that I can truly credit since there’s a lot of loneliness inside the walls of a church sanctuary. By design, it’s a great environment for practicing, with no interruption from the outside world. However, I did appreciate hearing the occasional squirrel scampering across the roof.
Once I say Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One, I will go back through each of the pieces as my daily bread. I will emphasize those several pieces that were just lightly practiced, in which I did a great disservice to the master, J.S. Bach. Besides memorizing a few of these pieces for use on future recitals, I do plan to offer all 24 preludes and fugues together in recital, not memorized. I need to find opportunities where I can play them all, but people can feel free to come and go as they wish. Even experiencing a few of these can reset the day’s worry meter, or give one a glimpse of the Almighty. Bach reminds us of this at the bottom of the final measure of music, with the following initials: S.D.G. 1
1. Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone. Used also by Handel, it’s a commonly used abbreviation among those not wanting to take credit for God’s gifts. It’s also the motto of the American Guild of Organists.
Six of my students from Shepherd Music School and one of my private students participated in the annual Sonatina Celebration held at NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) on November 9, 2019. I didn’t post on last year’s festival, but you can read my first go-round at the Sonatina Celebration in 2017. The group sponsoring this, the NW Arkansas Music Teachers Association, is a local affiliate of the National Music Teachers Association (MTNA). This particular festival was started by the group in 1995 to give students an additional chance to perform with no other testing included.
How it Works
Each of the students must perform a piece with Sonatina or Sonata in the title. They choose two contrasting movements to play by memory. The exception is if the piece is an advanced one, in which case only one movement is required. Each session includes around 10 pianists, most of who don’t know each other. In this situation, even the most confident kids sometimes admit to being a little nervous at first. However, the award that’s given is based on how well the students does at playing her piece. Performers are grouped together in age groups, so often there is a wide range of levels, particularly among the older students.
Three of my students received the highest Superior Plus rating, typically only earned by about 25% of all students. The four others received the second-highest Superior rating, which accounts for about half of all students. Lots of practice went into that level of achievement. I was lucky to be the one to help these kids along the way.
It’s Fun but It’s Not Everything
The halo from the Sonatina Celebration has lasted for the past week, but it’s not the end-all goal. Learning the piano is developing a skill that can provide joy for a lifetime. It provides a connection back to centuries of music and musicians. It opens the door for an understanding of the arts in general, which in turn makes life pretty awesome!
It’s said that you can’t officially call something an annual event until you do it at least twice. With that, let me present a summary of our Second Annual Halloween Piano Party. We always seem to have some type of drama before starting. Last year, we couldn’t get into the building because the door code didn’t work. This year, the code worked perfectly! However, I left my footprints behind – literally – in the floor wax as a contractor was working off hours. I didn’t have another way to get in the building, but that didn’t make the contractor any happier with me. Oh well!
We had really good attendance this year! Most of the participants were playing their sonatinas under pressure for the first time. We held this event three weeks ahead of the November Sonatina Celebration. The composers represented included Lynn Freeman Olson, Muzio Clementi, and Anton Diabelli. The pianists could perform in costume, so it wasn’t all that serious. However, the ringmaster below took his costumer as serious as his playing!
This ringmaster means business, on and off the piano bench!
Everyone got a chance to play something fun after the sonatinas were presented. There were some favorite pieces from method books, a Bossa Nova that’s being worked up to audition for a jazz workshop, and a piece by contemporary composer Andrea Dow.
As a reward for the great playing, I distributed some candy bars, Belgian chocolates from Aldi, and Red Delicious apples. Surprisingly, the apples were really popular! And thus, the Halloween Piano Party 2019 came to a close. Sorry, I have no candy left to share, but I can share some pictures. Enjoy!
Music is inherently difficult, because there is no such thing as a perfect performance. When learning a new piece, it’s routine to get to the point where everything sort of works, but it’s still not great. I’m not just talking about my students, but in my own playing, too. I call this place the 80% malaise. It often takes extra practice to take care of troublesome technical passages or to make sure that everything is in place musically. It just doesn’t happen on its own. You have to be purposeful to make those refinements.
A Teacher Helps
Students have that built-in helper: their teacher. She will point out all of the places that have potential to be better. It could be little stops and starts, unclear phrases, lack of dynamic contrasts, among other things. However, in order to take advantage of those tips, it’s crucial for the student to practice within a day or so after the lesson. If there isn’t an instrument available, notate the score or write down the places where you have to focus, when you do get back to a piano.
But You Still Must Do the Work
When this doesn’t happen, and the student comes back playing the same way, with the same issues, it puts the teacher in a bind. Does he take the time to explain all of these things again, as patiently as possible? Or, does he just move on, since there is always lots to do in a lesson? While I always give the student my best, I do realize at a point that not all students are striving to be excellent. Some are just satisfied with good enough.
When I train my athletes, it’s a dictatorship with three rules: show up, work hard, and listen. If you can do those three things, I can help you. If you can’t we have no use for each other. I will bust my a** for you every way possible, but I expect you to do the same for yourself. I’m not going to work harder than you do for your benefit. Show me you want it, and I’ll give it to you.
Tim Grover, trainer to elite NBA athletes, including Michael Jordan 1
Try A Digital Audio Recorder
A good digital recorder can be helpful to both students and professionals alike. You might say that you have one built into your phone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t serve much use due to its poor fidelity. The Zoom brand is widely used among serious musicians, and you can get the base model for $200 or less. A generation ago, the Sony Professional Walkman cost far more than this, and that’s before adjusting for inflation. Listening to yourself while not playing can give you an unbiased perspective that you can’t get any other way.
Even though it’s true that we’ll never be perfect, striving to be better is always worth the effort. There’s lots of guidance on that score to get you closer to musical nirvana, and you might have a teacher to give you that extra boost. In the end, it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to do the hard work that makes our listeners sit up in our seats, or just looking around waiting for the performance to end.
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