Studio shot from our recital held in Santa Monica yesterday! Many thanks to all the students and parents who made this happen.
So much progress this year! Congratulations to all the students and parents who made all of this possible.
Images photographed by Jordan Mirrer.
Location: Santa Monica Public Library
Most people have heard about the numerous studies suggesting that early music education has positive effects on a child’s academic performance, fine motor skills, ability to focus, and overall cognitive abilities, among a long list of other desirable attributes. How does a musical education have that power over a young mind? Can it truly transform, say, an “average” child into a “gifted” student who is now destined for success? Let’s think about this for a bit.
What kind of young, prospective music student would want to take lessons in the first place? It would have to be a child who has: a) a motivated parent or guardian, b) some previous exposure to music, c) some sort of liking or inclination to music because of said exposure, and d) financial and emotional support. With all of these elements in perfect alignment, we’ve got a new music student on board. Yay! But does this really support the argument that any child can become extraordinary at academics because of music lessons? Already, we’ve got an extra boost just from checking off all the boxes. Isn’t that…kind of like…cheating? What about those kids who have never heard of Beethoven and will probably never hear Beethoven?
Perhaps, then, the real problem lies at the source. We need to democratize music education. We need to incorporate music lessons into classrooms from preschool onward. Hypothetically, all children would reap the benefits of learning rhythm and differentiating among pitches. But is mere exposure to music enough? Does it even make a dent?
As a private piano teacher, I can tell you that learning music can be intense, especially if it’s one-on-one and consistent. There are expectations and weekly assignments. There are goals that need to be met in order to move on. Good lessons can make a student feel chipper and on top of the world, and bad lessons can bring out the Kleenex. It’s personal sometimes because the student and teacher demand the best out of each other. And beyond these emotional demands are the academic ones. Yes, you heard that. Music is very, if not mostly, ACADEMIC!
The best teachers are methodical and analytical while allowing breathing room for the student. Each lesson should build on the previous one (which is why practicing at home is essential). There are weekly assignments that consist of music theory (a.k.a. music notation, harmony, rhythm, melody, scales, key signatures, etc.), ear training, sight reading, some music history, sometimes composition, and a rotating array of pieces that are in some state of learning. All of these elements inform one another to allow a greater understanding at each level. There shouldn’t be holes in any person’s education, whether it’s earth science in the 5th grade or world history in the 8th. Music education is no different.
So, with all of that being said, can a one-on-one music education truly steer a student into not only being an informed musician, but also a future Harvard grad? It certainly can, but there are never any guarantees. However, what I can say, through observation and through experience, is that it makes you stronger. It makes you work harder. If you know how to take a new piece from its rough beginnings to a polished performance, then you can apply those same principles to other challenges, like knowing which steps to take to compose a good essay or improving your backstroke technique. If it doesn’t make you “smarter,” it certainly makes you tougher. Maybe this is what can elevate a student from the rest of the pack.
However, not all students have the privilege of taking private lessons. This is why it is essential to bring music classes back into schools, even if it’s music appreciation, tooting a recorder, or rattling rhythms to a beat. This is the required exposure that could inspire a child to ask about lessons or to find a way to get more of this good stuff. But it’s the week-to-week and day-to-day aspect of taking private lessons and practicing diligently that will offer the more character-building aspects of education. And undoubtedly, it has other positive side effects, too.
There is a recipe to high achievement. This recipe can apply to any practice: sports, music, medicine, artisanship, meditation…you get the idea.
- Consistent hard work for a long period of time
- Backing or support
You need all four on the road to mastery. If one ingredient is missing from the recipe, then the dish falters. It’s edible, but it’s not amazing. The other ingredients need to compensate to make up for the lack of the one. But the dish is incredible with all four.
I can speak from my personal experience as a serious piano student and teacher. As a student, I had all four ingredients for a very long time until ingredient #1 wavered. I was burnt out from years of pressure and personal baggage that had no direct relationship to piano. So, I relied on #’s 2-4 to keep me going. #3 started to stagger. In the end, it all came back to that missing #1. I crumbled. So, I took a break to refresh my stores of inspiration. I went through a lot of personal reflection and therapy to figure out why I lost #1. But that’s my own unique story.
Most of my students begin with a strong #1 and #4. Talent, our infamous ingredient, is usually harder to come by, but it’s not so important when you’re just curious. However, even rarer to find in students than #2 is #3, interestingly. Perhaps the beginning student’s expectations are high and optimistic. Perhaps the student-parent team underestimates how much work it’ll really require because it’s supposed to be a fun extracurricular. In reality, you have to get your hands dirty to knead that dough. It’s messy a lot of times, it’s tiring, and it takes a lot of patience. But like the other ingredients, you need it to make that delicious dish. You need more of it than you realize.
The fourth ingredient, a strong network of support, is also essential. It’s like a chef relying on farmers and food producers to provide the fresh ingredients, as well as the kitchen and waitstaff, cleaning crew, food haulers, and restaurant owners to run the whole ship. Like a chef, a student cannot go at it alone. A young piano student will rely on his or her parent or family member to not only pay for expenses and get to the lesson every week, but also to reinforce a solid practicing routine, get exposure to the arts, and be a sounding board. There is also the teacher, who serves as a mentor, source of wisdom, and psychologist for the student. You really need a strong team effort, day in and day out. In short, it takes a lot of resources to succeed.
Most people obsess about ingredient #2. Most people believe that talent, above all, is what carries one through. This cannot be further from the truth. Oftentimes, those with a strong talent fail to recognize the importance of hard work and ultimately lose interest. They lean on their talent like a crutch. Talent is the initial boost and the final ingredient that allows one to soar in ability. Talent isn’t crucial to making a good dish, but it adds that extra special something. However, without any of the other ingredients, the dish is only half-baked. It’s a soggy apple pie with nice cinnamon on top.
I placed #1, pure interest, at the top of the recipe because it’s the ignition to the whole thing. You can’t start a fire without it. How do you make your children interested in piano lessons? You don’t. You expose them to music and anything that you think is wonderful, and you hope for the best. But you don’t shove interest down their throats. It’s difficult to explain where interest comes from in the first place. Perhaps it’s the product of a culmination of things, or perhaps it’s genetic. Perhaps they’re motivated by Grandpa’s piano playing or by that kid on 60 Minutes. It doesn’t really matter in the end. You either have it, or you don’t.
You don’t need to have all four ingredients to merely dabble at something. But you need three to be okay, and definitely all four to be astounding. Think about anyone who is known for something truly remarkable. I can guarantee you that nothing was missing in that recipe.
As teachers, we are consumed with demonstrating and explaining how to play something. As students, we are consumed with playing things correctly. While it’s important to master fundamentals in learning a piece of music, such as the rhythm, note names, tempo, dynamics, texture, and overall musicality, we often fail to teach and learn by listening. I’m not referring to teaching or playing by rote, or a monkey-see-monkey-do approach to learning. I’m talking about learning by surrounding yourself with music.
Looking back on my days as a serious piano student, there was a lot of direct instruction on interpretation. For example, as a doe-eyed pre-teen attempting Mozart sonatas, my teacher would stop my clumsy playing mid-phrase and say something along the lines of, “More forte on the first beat. The last note of measure nine should be leggiero and release with a gentle lift.” What she was trying to say to my childish, un-elegant self was, “Play that line like a Mozart aria.” I wouldn’t have understood the latter at such a young age, so the specific, micro-managing instructions were necessary for me at the time. However, if it weren’t for the fact that both my teacher and my parents flooded my ears with recordings of Mozart piano sonatas, radio broadcasts of Beethoven symphonies, and live concerts and recitals, I don’t think I would have quite gotten the message even later in life. I learned by listening.
Hearing music allows you to learn sort of by osmosis. I’m not saying that it replaces diligent, careful practice and weekly lessons, but it gives one that boost of understanding as one matures into a finer musician. Young students aren’t expected to be cognizant of style and interpretation, but with steady exposure to music (of all types), one can gain a deeper, more insightful appreciation and awareness of why we play music.
I’m encouraging all parents, students, and teachers alike to go to more concerts and listen to more music. Use the vast numbers of resources online to find music that you aren’t familiar with or to play a piece or song that you enjoy. Kids usually listen to what their parents play around the house and in the car, so spark that fire of loving listening to music from an early age. I feel that teachers should assign listening “homework” for their students to fulfill, especially if it’s in the same vein as the piece they are learning at the moment.
Most of all, savor what you’re listening to. There are so many studies that purport the benefits of learning music (greater academic skills, improved motor abilities, etc.), and while they are all wonderful and true, the significance of learning, playing, and listening to music lies in enrichment. It improves our lives and challenges us. It gives us something to share with each other. You can even say that it gives life some sort of meaning.
I’ll conclude with this quote by Douglas Adams:
“Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.”
This gallery contains 27 photos.
All images by Jordan Mirrer. This recital was held at the Santa Monica Public Library on October 26, 2014.
This is another FAQ that should be addressed. The short answer is that it depends on your child. I’ve seen kids start as early as three and as old as 15. I started when I was five. But here’s the long answer.
Most children begin recognizing and writing letters by ages four or five. They start recognizing rhyming patterns and developing a vocabulary. Reading doesn’t really kick in until ages 6-10.
How does this tie into learning music? If a child cannot see that the letter ‘A’ is an ‘A,’ it will be nearly impossible to teach him or her how to read musical notes and symbols. There is an extra step beyond just recognizing the letter ‘A.’ He or she would have to translate that from the space or line on the musical staff which is the musical note ‘A’, and then find the corresponding ‘A’ on the keyboard. That process would include three steps of translation in all!
Very young children naturally listen to and imitate new sounds. They have fun saying and singing these sounds repeatedly, and then they stick. Most children begin to learn to read when books are read to them out loud. Shouldn’t we teach music to non-reading children in a similar fashion?
Instead of having non-readers painfully decipher one note from another on the staff, they could listen to different musical melodies and rhythmic patterns and attempt to sing or play back what they hear. Children love games, and this could be an easy way to capture his or her rapt attention while exposing them early on to music education.
I find that young non-readers excel in group lessons that are short, fun, and aurally-based. It’s difficult to pursue private lessons for this type of child, as one-on-one sessions can be rather intense and lacking in the social interaction department. Children love being around their peers and can learn from them in this type of environment. It’s more about ‘play’ and less about ‘work.’
In order to pursue private lessons that cover a comprehensive curriculum (including note reading), not only does your child need to be a reader (or at least have the ability to recognize letters and numbers), but he or she must have the ability to focus for short spurts of time. It’s natural for children to get distracted by the smallest of things (and believe me – they have no filter). But if your child is consistently interrupting the lesson and is unable to play through a short piece without a disturbance, he or she might be too young. If your child is still in the squirmy stages, it may be beneficial to hold off for another year or so.
With all of this being said, it’s crucial to recognize that everyone learns in a unique way. Learning milestones can occur earlier or later from what’s considered to be ‘average,’ so don’t worry if your child isn’t following the typical route. Even if your child is too young to start taking private lessons, expose him or her to music by having them listen to music. Play a recording of your favorite song or piece while you do the dishes or drive the car. It’s a powerful yet simple way to ignite the spark!
If you’re not planning on spending time away from home (and a piano) during the long summer months, here are some tips on keeping you or your student motivated to keep up their piano chops!
- Enroll in a music camp or class outside of the normal private lessons. My best memories were at the Aspen Music Festival and School, a summer-long classical music program. I was lucky to earn scholarships to go twice when I was 15 and 20. I loved the nature-y atmosphere, the free concerts performed by both students and the world’s best, the friends I made, and how much I learned by simply being surrounded by music day and night. The practice rooms were right off a bumbling brook, and you could hear the water rushing by as you played.
- Go to summer concerts! Sometimes you need to see and hear someone inspiring to get inspired. The Hollywood Bowl, The Greek Theatre, and your local community orchestra – even free street music – can offer experiences that stay with you (I remember the awesome time we picnicked to the music of Andrew Bird when we won free tickets). Check out this summer guide for the latest concert highlights in Los Angeles.
- Enroll in more than one private lesson per week. Summer can be a time of catching up, as the school months are hectic and filled to the brim with after-school activities. When there is the pressure of having two lessons per week, students are more likely to amp up their practicing in order to be ready for the next lesson.
- Observe or participate in a master class. It’s sometimes a rewarding opportunity to have another musician or pedagogue critique your work in front of a live audience. Masterclasses are held throughout the year and usually are a part of summer music programs.
- Form a chamber music group. What better way to learn to listen than to play with others? There are so many possibilities: piano duos and duets; multi-instrument trios, quartets, quintets, sextets; and collaborating with another instrumentalist or singer. Grab a few friends and play!
- Organize a recital. This can be an informal event held at a local school or church, including friends, family, and the local community. You could even share the program with another musician (and your chamber music group!). Sometimes having a deadline is the best motivator.
This gallery contains 26 photos.
Yesterday we held our Spring Recital at the wonderful Santa Monica Public Library! Below are some photos taken by Jordan Mirrer: