Is Learning Music Really That Academic?

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.

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Tips on Staying Motivated During the Summer

beachpianogull2

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.

Happy practicing!

Why Does My Child Not Want to Practice? Part II

Practicing piano

This is another FAQ-type of question I’d like to address based on my observation and experience as a teacher (and student!).

Practicing is work. It’s lots of hard, grueling, often intense, and always consistent work. The most difficult aspect about practicing is how much consistency it requires, and this means WILL POWER.

I liken practicing to exercising.  If you want to get into shape and stay in shape, what do you think that it will take?  Of course, you’ll have to exercise every (or nearly) every day while you make healthy food choices.  Practicing requires daily devotion in order to see results.

Like exercising, sometimes you hit plateaus or pitfalls and get frustrated.  Your will power wanes and you sometimes question why you do it.  That’s normal.  That’s healthy.  These feelings are part of the ups and downs of trying to get better at anything, including learning a musical instrument.  Try looking at your frustrations from different angles and attempt to re-think and re-work out the kinks.

Quality practice is key, just like quality exercise.  Just going through the motions will only get you so far in your progress.  You must be consciously aware of what you’re doing at the moment and what you need to do to improve.  BE PRESENT.  How you practice is vastly more important than how many hours you log in front of the keyboard.

With that being said, it’s still important to be consistent because that’s what will ultimately give you results. Our brains (most of ours, anyway) can’t handle what I call “binge-practicing.”  Knowledge and physical ability can’t be stuffed into our craniums all at once.  Give it time.  Let it sink in and become a part of you.  You’ll remember things better this way.  DON’T “binge-learn” something last-minute and expect to be awesome at it (been there, done that – never worked!).

Going back to the question of why someone, young or old, may not want to practice, the answer is quite simple but yet we make it complicated.  It’s hard to push yourself to work.  It’s easier to tell someone that they’re not doing enough of this or that, but it requires sheer drive and dedication to push yourself to improve each day.  Children often need that extra support to get into the daily habit of practicing, and adults need to do that for themselves.  It’s always easier said than done.  As someone who has practiced since the age of five, it’s always been a sort of challenge to push myself to enter into a session since there are often things I’d rather be doing instead, whether it’s finishing a certain task, watching a movie, seeing a friend, reading a book…the list can include an infinite number of things.  But often, when I get past that initial “bump” and get into the groove of what I need to do, I feel better.  It’s a gratifying feeling to have achieved something, and it’s these smaller rewards that pay off big time when it all comes together.

So, stick with it.  Get into a habit of practicing at the same time and place, every day.  If you brush your teeth daily, you must practice daily.  Simplifying your outlook on the whole matter will help you re-generate your stores of will power so you can give that extra push when the tank seems empty.  I also find that practicing in thorough, bite-sized sessions is the most effective way to get motivated and get stuff done.

Now, what do you do when your child WANTS to learn but puts up a fight every time they need to practice?  This is a tough question to answer.  I’m not a child psychologist by any means, but I can say that if your child resists each and every time, it’s time to look at deeper issues that may not even be related to piano.  I find that inconsistent parenting and a lack of limits often causes children to act this way.  When parents don’t initially set ground rules about practicing, children treat it as a “secondary” or “optional” activity that is not essential in the same way that doing homework is.   It’s important that your child learns that daily practice is an expected part of their routine, not an extraneous one.  They won’t improve if there is no practice, and this can lead to a deeper spiral of disappointment.  You, as a parent, need to teach this to your child.  We all don’t come into the world with a strong, inherent sense of self-discipline and a work ethic that doesn’t require parental encouragement and reinforcement.

On the flip side, what do you do when your child DOESN’T want to learn and therefore hates practicing?  You can’t force anyone to do anything.  You’re a parent, not a dictator.  So many parents like to blame the teacher for not kick-starting their child’s love for the piano (imagine if all people suddenly loved math because their teacher did the right song and dance – some of us just don’t favor numbers!).  Everyone has different interests and talents, so it’s important to listen to your child and try different things out.  Some kids are drawn to so many activities (I have a few students like this) and others would rather sit in front of the TV all day.  We all have different personalities here.  Inspire and enrich your child, but don’t force an activity into their system if it’s clear that they have zero interest.  Move on and try something else.

Any comments or thoughts related to this subject are welcome below.

Happy practicing!

How do you practice?

I’m not gonna lie: practicing ain’t fun.

People have always said that practice makes perfect, and yes, there is some truth to that. However, it’s practicing effectively that separates someone who is okay at something from someone who is, well, freaking awesome.

Read this  fantastic article by TIME Magazine that discusses the concept in more detail. Even though it just came out today, I’ve been telling this to my own students since the dawn of my teaching days.

Happy practicing!

I want to learn how to play the piano, but I don’t have one.

You won’t be able to learn something that you can’t practice.  So, the answer to this statement is: get a piano.  Or, at least find a piano that’s available to you regularly.  People are often surprised by how affordable pianos and keyboards can be if they look in the right places.  Keep reading on if you’re ready for the next big step…

The second most common question about pianos that I hear from beginning students and parents is, “How do I get a piano?” (the first is “What’s the difference between a keyboard and a regular piano?”).

The answer completely depends on several things: your budget, the amount of space you have to house it, where you live (you probably want to avoid irking neighbors who don’t have an affinity for early-morning scales), and what your musical goals are.  Purchasing a piano can be an investment, so you’d want to do your research before settling on one that’s either more expensive than your mode of transportation or bigger than your designated two-foot wall space.

*Tip: look at used pianos and keyboards to save a TON of money.  New instruments (not including Steinways, Faziolis, and some nicer grands) are often more expensive.

Electronic keyboards, clavinovas, synthesizers:

Although many models come with “weighted keys,” electronic keyboards will not have the same touch and sound as an acoustic piano, regardless of the price you pay.  Despite this aspect, they’re designed to offer a variety of effects and synth patches, and can readily work with music software.  In short, keyboards are ideal for composition, rock/pop genres, gigs, and those who simply want to experiment with a plethora of sounds.

Pros: Portable, takes up a marginal amount of space, promotes experimentation, MIDI capabilities, headphone jack (to appease neighbors and/or offer privacy while practicing), never needs to be tuned

Cons: Doesn’t offer the same depth of sound as an acoustic piano, light action

Acoustic pianos:

Ideal for musicians who are serious about sound quality and technique, acoustic pianos offer complexity in sound and have a heavier, deeper action.  Because of this, players have more control over dynamics, sound quality, expressiveness, and texture.  Classical musicians should only consider purchasing acoustic pianos, as there is really no electronic substitute for pianos built to produce harmonics that resonate against a wooden soundboard.

Pros: Offers complex sounds, deeper action to produce a variety of textures and timbres, feels and sounds more “raw”

Cons: Takes up a considerable amount of space, heavy to transport, requires regular tuning (ideally every 6-8 months), cannot be easily muted

Types of acoustic pianos:

Upright:

  • ideal for smaller spaces
  • is more moveable
  • has a more limited range and depth of sound than a grand due to a smaller, more compact soundboard
  • perfect for beginning-intermediate students
Grand:
  • requires as much space as a couch plus entertainment system
  • produces a wide range in volume and complex harmonics
  • ideal for cultivating artistry and technique
  • lid can absorb and narrow some of the sound if lowered
  • comes in an array of sizes, from “baby grand” (5’1″ long, 57.6″ wide) to “concert grand” (8’12” long, 61″ wide)
To see a the full extent of grand piano size variability, check out a size conversion chart.
Pricing:

As with anything else, the pricing of pianos can rely on its amount of use and care.  Used electronic and acoustic pianos are often less expensive, but many factors, such as the make, model, size, newness, and condition of the instrument can affect their pricing.  It is wise to first consult with a piano salesperson, technician, and/or teacher before purchasing an instrument.
Fun Fact: 

The average medium size piano has about 230 strings,  each string having about 165 pounds of tensionwith the combined pull of all strings equaling approximately eighteen tons!

Stage Fright and How to Deal With It

Boy With Stage FrightMost of the general population has been there before: standing in front of a cluster, group, or crowd of people and completely freaking out.  If you’re an actor, you flub a line, or if you’re a musician, you forget a couple of bars here and there (for a real-life example, famous pop singer Christina Aguilera forgot the lyrics to the National Anthem).  Maybe it happens before, during, or after the fact, and the reasons can be as varied as simply being shy or fearing judgment from strangers. Regardless of the causes and details, stage fright or performance anxiety is a very real issue for those who love to perform but just can’t quite get over their personal hangups.  It even affects seasoned professionals, proof that it’s not about experience with the art form, but rather about un-learning the self-destructive, parasitic thought patterns that squeeze into the mind.

So what’s a performer to do about performance anxiety?  Negative self-talk is an unwelcome beast that can’t seem to be harnessed. Well, this is the first problem: you must stop thinking that it is an uncontrollable force and begin to acknowledge that you are in complete control of your mind.  Nothing is holding you back but your own mind, and it is also propelling you forward at the same time.

Sound easier said than done?  It is.  This kind of mental control of your stream of consciousness is incredibly difficult and takes exercise, time, and patience, much like playing an instrument or dropping 20 pounds.  You have to be consistent, and more importantly, you have to be self-forgiving.  There will be times when negative thought patterns spiral out of control and there will be other times when you are comfortable in your own skin.  Remember that habits of any kind become more engrained with time and effort.

Some techniques to help mitigate performance anxiety are the following examples.  Remember that every individual may find something that works better for them – the key is to try something for long enough until it works.

  1. Recognize that “butterflies” and pre-performance jitters are completely normal.  You need this adrenaline to play with excitement and energy.  However, don’t obsess over it.  Just think of it as your natural preparation before an exciting moment and put it away as you prepare to go on stage.
  2. Look over your score/script/whatever you used to prepare for this performance.  Remind yourself that you know what you’re about to be doing.
  3. Be on time.  The best thing you can do for yourself before a performance is reduce any added stress.  Sometimes life inevitably presents a last-minute challenge, and though sometimes you can’t avoid them, you can do your best to be kind to yourself by allowing adequate time before a performance.
  4. Eat right.  Bananas have natural beta blockers which help calm shaky nerves.  Fruit, light salads, and yogurt are other great pre-performance meal options that aren’t difficult to digest and give you enough (but not too much!) energy.  Always remember to eat something!
  5. Visualize the performance.  You’ve practiced it countless times in the privacy of your own home or room.  You clearly can do it – it’s all up there!  Close your eyes, breathe deeply to counts of ten, and see yourself giving the performance.
  6. Remember that no one is there to judge you.  You are surrounded by friends and supporters who are there to enjoy your art form.  And if there are indeed judges, they aren’t there to bash you to shreds, but to offer helpful advice.  No ill-willed critics should be of any consequence to you.
  7. Create practice sessions that mimic performances.  Although practicing in the venue would be ideal, you can create a performance-like setting by inviting a couple of family members or friends over who don’t normally hear you practice every day.  This creates a similar mental reaction and allows you a chance to practice healthy mental preparation techniques.

After a performance, no matter what happened, remember that it’s over and that you no longer have any control over the past. Instead of dwelling on what you could have done, try to emphasize what you did well and how you can incorporate better mental, physical, and emotional preparation into your practice sessions.  Remember that learning how to perform with confidence comes with mental focus and time, and that the most important thing is to convert all of the pre-performance rush into exhilaration and fun!

Age is just a number!

Too old, too young…I’ve heard this response before when asking people to do something outside their comfort zone. True, a mom may be too old to be wearing her teenage daughter’s outfits, and a two-year-old may be too young to understand algebra (well, maybe with a few exceptions!).  But I hardly see age as a reason for not doing something.  In fact, no one is ever the incorrect age to achieve anything – even if they are retirees over sixty competing in a world-class piano competition!

Often, prospective students and parents ask me when the “right” time would be to begin lessons for their youngster.  My answer is that not every child is truly ready to sit near a piano for half-an-hour at the same age.  Typically, children begin learning the piano around the age of 5, but given a child’s ability to focus for chunks of time and aptitude with counting, this age can vary between the ages of 4-8.  Most children are ready by 6 with the help of loving parents and supportive teachers.  Although not every child can begin learning the piano at this age, it is important for a child to begin learning a musical instrument during these early years when the brain is rapidly developing and absorbing new material, more so than during later childhood.  There are many parallels to why very young children can also naturally and quickly learn second languages.

Adults can begin learning at any time.  Don’t believe me?  I once taught a fifty-year-old mom how to read music within a month (she also learned how to play Schumann shortly thereafter).  Yes, this student was quite determined, and no, this student had never played the piano before.  This does not prove that anyone will or wants to set the same goals, but it does suggest that anyone can achieve whatever they set their mind to.  Young tots may not have this kind of drive to learn, but older children and certainly adults do.  It just comes down to setting reasonable goals and sticking to them.

So, if your question is, “Is my age too…,” I will say, “Yes, you can do it.”  You can run a marathon, make a quilt, or learn art history, too.  Age is just a number!

How to Pedal Like a Concert Pianist

Ever experience the “bump” sound from not knowing how to really master the pedals of the piano? It’s a difficult task in itself, let alone using it to create expression in your playing. Most students taking piano lessons and even amateurs find it challenging to actively think about both what the hands and feet are doing.

First thing to remember: your heel always remains on the floor (much like using the brake and gas in the car) and the top part of the foot lifts up to release the pedal and pushes down to depress the pedal.

Let’s begin with the damper pedal, or the sustain pedal (the pedal to the far right, used by the right foot). As a beginner, you may have brazenly pedalled through your sonatinas without really thinking about what your foot was doing. Old habits die hard, as they say, but they aren’t impossible to fix. One way to go about it is to take a simple phrase in one hand and pedal after each note, first playing the note, then depressing the damper pedal, then smoothly lifting your foot completely before you play the next note. Try to avoid the “bump” sound when your foot releases the pedal by doing it slowly. It’s tricky at first, but after doing it slowly until you master the technique, you can then apply the same exercise to every three notes, depressing the pedal after the first note and then lifting it after the third is played. The idea is to smoothly transition the up-and-down motion of the foot without the unwanted “bump” sound. Remember that the key is doing this slowly at first.

If you’re at the intermediate level, you will be using the pedal to shape phrases, very much like how we connect certain words in sentences to either emphasize or de-emphasize them. For example, if you’re playing a series of connected chords that require a change of pedal after every four chords, chances are that you will do your best to not make it sound muddy. The trick to this challenge is not depressing the pedal all the way to the floor after each pedal change, but lifting it completely at each pedal change. This “half-pedal” technique is ideal to create a smooth, clear, but very connected line containing many different notes.

What about the soft (aka una corda) pedal? Located on the left side and played by the left foot, this pedal mutes the strings, creating a softer, duller sound. Although most people think to use it to create an even quieter volume, the soft pedal is an excellent tool to create different “colors,” or types of sounds that are more subdued rather than bright, much like a soft pastel painting versus a vibrant acrylic one. Unlike the damper pedal, the soft pedal must be depressed to the floor since it operates by shifting the keyboard to the right.

The middle pedal, otherwise known as the sostenuto pedal, is rarely used but can be quite useful when needed. It is utilized by first playing a note (or notes) on the piano and then immediately depressing the pedal with your left foot. All other keys played while this pedal is depressed are not held, allowing only the depressed notes to be continuously sustained. Like the soft pedal, you must completely depress the sostenuto pedal in order for it to function.

Practice these techniques at home and remember that the key to good pedalling technique is a smooth up-and-down motion of the foot. Good luck!