Going the Second Mile

Introduction

I remember seeing this expression on a motivational poster decades ago, where a runner is shown in full stride with no one else in sight. I get it, the others gave up before going the second mile. It’s an interesting expression in the figurative but not literal sense since real runners don’t tire easily. Most wouldn’t probably even bother to lace up for just one mile!

Origin of the Expression

However, it turns out that this expression isn’t about runners at all. Going the Second Mile has Roman and Biblical roots. As you may know, one of the feats of the Roman empire was to create an elaborate road network not previously seen in the ancient world. The expression “Many roads lead to Rome” comes from that. Any Roman soldier or citizen could ask anyone traveling along the road to help carry his/her load for exactly one mile. In Matthew 5:41, Jesus tells anyone who is so asked to go two miles. Of course, Jesus doesn’t say just go an extra 100 yards; he makes it clear we are to go far beyond what is expected!

Inspiration to Carry On

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

The Struggle of Piano Students

I’ve seen the same struggle at work in my piano students, particularly as they arrive into the early intermediate repertoire, where pieces double in length and become more complex between the hands. Some of them come to lessons with a first-mile attitude. You can see it when they come in saying they only practiced hands separately, or that they’ve only gotten a partial way through their piece. To be fair, there are some advanced pieces that require several weeks to get through. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about bringing a beginner mindset to intermediate pieces. They haven’t fully embraced arriving at the higher level.

However, some of my students don’t seem phased by longer and harder pieces. They try their best, and they sometimes surprise me at how far they’ve gotten or the achievement they’ve shown. They’ve learned the secret that a piece double the length isn’t necessarily double the work. Lots of those passages repeat. They are much better readers than they used to be and can cover more measures in a practice session than they used to be able to cover. They’re okay with certain passages being complex and don’t just stop and give up when they encounter a hard passage. They know I’m here to help them figure those out.

Thoughts?

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

Last Updated 2021-09-21 | Originally Posted 2021-09-19

Sharpen Your Pencil

Introduction

When I was in public school, you learned quickly whether the teacher required a pen or pencil for class. Once you got past early elementary school, pretty much every class except for math required a pen. It’s always been a surprise to find that kids typically don’t bring anything to write with to lessons. In case your kids missed the onboarding notice, here’s the announcement once again: Sharpen your pencil!

Fingering

The most important thing we’ll often discuss at a lesson is fingering. Unless you have one of those uncanny minds, how can you possibly remember what we’ve discussed unless you write it in your score? Sometimes I’ll give two different fingerings to try, each with its advantages. A good fingering often simplifies the execution of a passage. Or, at the very least, it simplifies the passage by using sound fingering principles.

Other Score Markings

There are other things that you might want to write in your score. It might be the metronome marking of practice and goal tempos. It could be to circle a dynamic marking or write a reminder on the page. (Slow down here!) Sometimes a student will take that to an extreme as you’ll see in the picture below. However, this is much preferable to seeing a page with no markings, which to me means no extra effort.

Sign of Respect

I had a boss several jobs ago named Fred who would call me into his office to deliver very specific instructions. One day, when I apparently wasn’t thinking, I just plopped down in his guest chair empty-handed. Fred asked me where my pen and paper were. The point he was making was that I wasn’t being invited for tea and scones (or coffee and donuts). He wanted something specific done, and I wasn’t prepared to take notes. Lesson learned. When I see a student with a pencil, I see a student who cares and is ready to learn. When I don’t, I often think back to that day in Fred’s office.

Sharpen Your Pencil

In choosing the wording of the title of this brief blog post, I was trying to be a bit clever. Bringing a pencil is a good start. When you sharpen your pencil, you’ve gone the extra mile. This points to other parts of preparedness, like being ready to play the scale that was assigned, knowing the pieces in your repertoire, and what I expected you to cover during your practice since your last lesson. Sure, a sharp pencil won’t solve any of those problems, but it shows you are serious. And that has to count for something, right?

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

How to Succeed in the Recording Process

Introduction

This article was originally intended to help my students prepare for their first recorded recital in May 2020, two months after lessons went online due to Covid-19 confinement. I’m repurposing it to preparing for any recording because it’s a different preparation process from live playing. You might say, yeah, it’s actually easier because you can record yourself as much as you want, and then just choose the best take. However, that flexibility can actually make the recording process much more difficult!

Be Prepared

There is no getting around the preparation and the memorization, if that’s required, no matter whether you are performing live or making a recording. A live performance means that you have one shot to make it count. Even if you don’t do your best, you’re done once the performance is over. If you don’t do your best in a recording, then you’re faced with take two. Take two leads to take three, and a seemingly endless spiral. There are some techniques to make sure that doesn’t happen!

Do a Trial Run

This should be at least several days in advance to your selected recording day. You’re going to find out things you didn’t imagine. Do you have the right batteries for your equipment, if you’re using peripherals requiring double-A or triple-A batteries? Have you tested out your equipment to make sure that you have the optimal camera angle and distance from the instrument? Have you experienced what it’s like to do a recording? Just because you don’t have an audience to make you nervous, the camera can do that all by itself! Know what the process is like so the actual process is no surprise when it comes to recording day.

What Did You Learn from the Trial Run

Besides wanting to make sure the process goes correctly, you’ll want to actually hear what your recording sounds like. Are the levels correct? Does your playing come across as intended? Are there problem areas that you need to focus on that can be reasonably improved in a short amount of time? Do you know how to record your takes, so that the editing process goes smoother?

Recording Day

Now that you’ve practiced all that you can, and have made some sample recordings before recording day, you’re ready to make your final recording(s). Try to either set a time limit or a take limit. Two or three takes are normally best because your performance will likely get worse, not better, after that number. Use your instinct as to whether a recording was good or bad. Don’t give up on any performance unless it’s so below your normal playing that it doesn’t pay to keep going.

Make sure to reference each take with a note. On my equipment, each recording is incremented. I write the number of the recording with a note about what piece or movement recorded, and whether that take should be considered. Sometimes I’ll know right away that a recording is not worth considering. On the flip side, I sometimes will know that a particular recording is my winner. Don’t waste time making additional takes or deciding later which one is better if you know on the spot the winning take. Only keep going if you haven’t made a worthy recording and think you have what it takes to make the next take work!

Adjust on the Fly

If you’re making lots of mistakes, either adjust the entire tempo to be a little bit slower or do a little emergency practice on the area that needs help. Be realistic as to what is possible at that moment. Your recording should reflect an approximation of what you would do in a live situation and isn’t going to be any more perfect than that.

Submit Your File

If you have to choose between takes, don’t agonize too much between what likely will be pretty similar performances. Use your instinct to choose what you think your best recording is, however you judge that for yourself. Remember that your audience, whether it’s a festival judge or the studio families, will enjoy your performance and appreciate the effort that you took to make it happen. Once you’ve completed this process, you’ll get better and more efficient in the process. You may not grow to love it, but at least you’ll learn how to do it! Accept and embrace the process.

Enjoy

Try to have some fun during the recording process. If you enjoy your performance while it’s happening, it will likely translate to a better recording. If your recording is part of a recital or other student performances, make sure to listen and offer positive feedback to the other performers. Your peers will appreciate your attentive listening and your kind compliments. Don’t offer constructive feedback; let the teacher take care of that. Good luck!

Photo by Gerd Altmann. Courtesy Pixabay.
Last Updated 2021-09-11 | Originally Posted 2020-05-01