Make Those Refinements

Introduction

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.

In Conclusion

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.


Footnote

1. Relentless by Tim Grover (h/t James Clear) – NOT an affiliate link

Courtesy Wikipedia/Project Gutenberg
Posted 2019-11-01

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

Try a Motivation Ritual

Introduction

Since piano parents are my best audience for helping guide my piano students, I wanted to give them something concrete. As a result, I posted a version of what I discuss below in my monthly studio newsletter. However, I’d also like to share these same tips with a larger audience. During the summer, I had the chance to read a lot through several Facebook piano teachers groups to which I belong. One of these groups has a book club that started reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Although this is not specifically a music book, Atomic Habits has many great ideas about how to build habits. I’m trying to adapt them to the habit of piano practice. One of his most interesting ideas applying to music is to create a motivation ritual to get to the piano bench.

Motivation Ritual

The motivation ritual is simply a device that gets you to do something you want to do by tacking it onto something that you enjoy. If you want to get into the habit of doing a morning devotional, connect it with some kickoff activity.  The kickoff activity could be preparing a cup of coffee, tea, or pouring a glass of water, plus preparing the coffee table. You sit down, beverage in hand, with your books nearby, so why not start reading?

You can create a motivation ritual for piano practice as well. That’s important since one of the biggest obstacles to progress is lack of practice. Even the site of the piano bench can become an object of guilt. If starting is an issue, then create a motivation ritual that gets you to sit down on that piano bench. It could be to sight-read a new Andrea Dow piece, or something from a pop book you like, regardless of whether it’s part of your lesson assignment. You could also play through some of your favorite previously-learned repertoire. If you’re especially stressed out or tired, maybe you just choose to listen to some music, seated at the piano.

The beauty of the motivation ritual is that it makes the difficult habit possible, without being heavy handed. There may be some days where practice doesn’t follow the kickoff activity, which got you to the bench in the first place. But, on other days, practice does follow. That practice may not have occurred if you didn’t start with some something that helped you ease into it. 

Let me know!

If this approach appeals to you, give it a try.  Let me know what you try, and how it works out for you!

young man playing the piano
Jeune Homme au Piano (1876) – Gustave Caillebotte – Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo
Posted 2019-09-21

Keep Pushing Forward

One of the challenges of learning new music is that there are literally so many notes. When I look back on the four Chopin Scherzi that I learned anew (2) and relearned (2) this year, that’s 82 pages of printed music. When organizing, musicians usually think in measures. Even using measures, there are 967 measures in the 12-minute Fourth Scherzo. How do you tackle pieces that are so daunting in length? Keep pushing forward.

There are plenty of metaphors out there about facing Goliath, an 800-pound gorilla or a large elephant, but the concept is the same: Take small bites. I write in pencil a small date/time code to identify my latest stopping point. It’s something that I did years ago when reading books, mainly because I constantly lost bookmarks. My goal in each practice session is to move forward from that spot about 50 measures or so. Of course, I have to loop back to practice difficult spots earlier on, but I have to always keep pushing forward!

One thing that I’m careful to do on longer pieces is to front-load learning. Tackle the difficult parts first, then leave the easy stuff for the end. Even though each Chopin Scherzo has very different musical themes, the construction is remarkably similar. I start with the the measures from the beginning through to the beginning of the middle section. Then, I skip forward to the coda (at the end), which tends to have some new material that is typically indicated at a rapid tempo. Once done there, I make my way back through the recapitulation, which lay between the middle section and the coda. Then, after all that hard work, I get to learn the middle section, which is almost like the ice cream or cake at the end of the meal!

In addition, I’ve also sometimes used a practice notebook, much like the spiral notebook I ask my students to use for their lessons. Lately, however, I just make my practice notes in Trello. It’s really helpful to have some type of journal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s written or electronic, as long as its consistently used. The more music I have to learn, the more organized I have to be. Using the traffic light colors alerts me to how well I’m doing. I use five colors: red, orange, yellow, blue, and green to indicate my progress on each piece.

I’m sometimes jealous of my school-aged students, who have regular practice routines built into their schedules. I practice when I’m already around a piano. That’s typically after teaching or after my work at the church. I do have a very good Yamaha U1 48-inch upright at home, but I almost always find something else to do at home. Sometimes it’s good to be somewhere that you have limited distractions!

Posted 2019-09-03

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

Fear or Laziness?

I was practicing after teaching this week, something I do whenever I have the chance. When learning new pieces, I sometimes find it difficult to get started. Once I get started, it’s sometimes difficult to keep making progress. Such was the case in trying to get through the entire Chopin Scherzo No. 2. It’s a new piece for me, with 780 measures over 23 pages that I’ll perform as a church postlude on February 10th.

It was really tempting to just practice the portions that I already knew, versus getting further into the piece as I must. One of the techniques I use is to mark the date at the furthest point that I have practiced. Then, I use that endpoint as a starting point for the next practice session. What was frustrating this particular evening was that I really needed to move forward quite a bit to stay on my timeline. And I was having a hard time doing it.

That’s when it dawned on me…was this fear or laziness? Or a combination of both? My particular challenge is one that I set for myself. I decided a while ago to commit to learning lots of difficult new music on both the piano and organ. Even if I’m the only one who knows I didn’t do my best, it bothers me.

I’m in good shape right now on that piece, and on the other pieces that are upcoming. But that will only remain true if I keep remembering to battle these two foes, fear and laziness, by continuing to push forward each time I practice!

Posted 2019-01-31

Guide Your Child to Independent Practice

Background

Let’s face it: Kids don’t always like doing assigned tasks, even if they are related to a (hopefully) fun activity, like the piano. Parents don’t always remember to check that their child is doing the work that is assigned. The result? Progress in lessons sometimes comes to a grinding halt. The good news is that a little bit of time spent checking assignments and practice, in the right way, can be extremely helpful!

In my experience, true independent practice does not emerge until the teenage years. When it comes earlier, it’s a real blessing, but it’s not typical! For a young student, check-ins should be regular. For pre-teens who have not yet reached independence, spot checks are good once in a while. You know best how your child functions, and how often you need to follow up. After all, you’re probably already harassing them to get their homework done for school, right?

What you can do

If you have a younger child, please consider helping to structure your child’s practice time. This can be as simple as setting a timer and letting your child know when to begin and to end. I suggest 20 or 30 minutes, which varies by age and level. Once this routine is established, see if your child can take it over himself, or whether he needs some help from time to time. Also, check in once in a while to see that time is spent on the entire assignment, which typically includes some aspect of technique (5-finger pattern or scale), activities, and learning pieces. If you don’t understand the assignment itself, ask your child to describe it to you.

Of the three parts of the assignment, activities are most often avoided. Activities comprise several activities: written theory, keyboard harmony, sight-reading, rhythmic drills, and ear training. Even as a graduate student at Juilliard, I was in the majority of pianists and organists who didn’t spend as much time on keyboard harmony as I should have. Our amazing instructor warned us that we would be sorry later on for not taking it more seriously, and he was right! For the most part, kids avoid doing this work because they don’t like it; I can relate to that. However, occasionally it’s because they don’t understand it. In that case, I am more than happy to help a child work through a new or confusing concept.

For your pre-teen, give her some independence in her practice sessions, to the extent that she has earned it. Check-ins can be different than those for younger children. It can be as simple as asking to hear a piece she is playing, or discussing what goes on in a lesson. Be sure to ask once in a while if she still finds the piano fun and meaningful.

What I can do

There’s a lot more I can do with pre-teens and teens once they’ve achieved some fluency on the piano. I make a special effort to check in often with pre-teens and teens about what they want to do, whether that’s incorporating playing by ear, playing from lead sheets, and to offer different styles of pieces in addition to their normal classical repertoire.

In Conclusion

I can only help my students progress to the extent that they put in the work at home. Raw talent only gets you so far, and every student faces roadblocks that only time and practice can break through. When the student, teacher, and parent are working together, great things happen! And, we have a lot of fun along the way.

Posted 2018-10-24

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

Where Music Notation Fails

Have you ever faced a situation where music notation fails to convey the essence of the music? I routinely find this when dotted rhythms and syncopations enter the curriculum I use to teach piano students. Of course, preparatory activity like tapping, clapping, and singing the tune can be especially helpful. After all, any pre-school kid can sing London Bridge Is Falling Down. If I can convince an eight- or nine-year-old to sing, the teaching becomes much easier. Syncopations, especially those that cross the bar line, are another matter!

YouTube to the rescue! I always remind my students that the music came first and that the notation is just a necessary shorthand. Here is a short list of videos of innovative music that requires more complicated notation and time signatures.

La Bamba – Sing and clap where the words are just “La La Bamba”

America – Tap foot on the beat and clap off beat

Take Five – Feel and clap the innovative five beats per measure

Posted 2018-04-30

Same As Last Week

Every teacher has written “same as last week” in a student’s assignment book many times. It happens when your student hasn’t practiced a bit – or very little.

You give the lesson, and maybe you touch on some different topics that you didn’t get to last week – like technique, scales, or theory. But when it comes to writing in her assignment book, you cross out the old date, write in the current date, and write same as last week. But what happens when you find yourself doing this a second or third time? How do you help the student get unstuck?

Here’s the letdown – I don’t have the perfect answer. I think one of the answers has to be to get the parents involved. It’s important to let them know that progress has stopped since they are funding the lessons. There is some risk in this approach, in perhaps losing a student sooner rather than later. However, this approach keeps my reputation intact.

I think another answer is to dig deeper to uncover the issue. In my experience, it rarely is pure laziness. It might be the repertoire, and that can be remedied by assigning a piece of a different musical style. I was about to quit piano lessons when I was about 13, though I had progressed quite far and had even played for church services and weddings. A book of highlights from The Sound of Music kept me going.

For younger students with difficulties learning how to read music, I have a different approach that works. I take a short break from the method books and design some activities using colored pencils.

Sadly, the main reason a kid gets stuck is that she is overbooked. She really wants to do better, but just doesn’t have enough time left over from school and all of her other activities to practice. Sometimes this leads to her quitting the piano altogether, but more typically it just results in a long plateau that has to be suffered by both student and teacher until a spark happens, practice picks back up, and growth resumes.

What have I missed? What are some other approaches to getting unstuck? What is your experience with this issue, whether in music, school, or even life?

Last Updated 2018-11-28 | Originally Posted 2018-01-15