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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The Importance of Listening

children listening to a gramophone, Uzbekistan c. 1920s

children listening to a gramophone, Uzbekistan c. 1920s

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.”

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!

My First Piano Recital

West Los Angeles Piano TeacherI was five years old and dressed in a flouncy dress covered with rose prints.  People around me clapped, my mom nudged me toward the stage, and I marched directly to the shiny black piano.  Then I flopped down and spewed out Hot Cross Buns.  It was over before I knew it.

I don’t remember much more about that piano recital, but I do remember that I wasn’t shy or self-conscious.  Maybe one could say I was puzzled, rather.  All in all, that little performance led to many, many more, and I have to say that despite all the fuss, stress, and jitters I felt before each one of them (lacking the unabashed qualities of a five-year-old), they have rewarded me with more inner strength, resolve, and motivation to push myself to learn challenging pieces and to improve upon my mistakes.  It really takes a lot out of someone to want to partake in such a self-revealing event on stage that also requires a lot of focus and preparation.  But more importantly, this entire process sticks with you, showing you what it takes to fulfill a pretty big achievement.

I’ve had all kinds of performances: good, bad, nerve-numbing, nerve-wracking…you name it, I’ve done it.  But all of these varying experiences come with the territory, whatever that may be for anyone.  What matters is constantly moving forward, being inspired by what is not yet within your grasp, and sharing what you already have with those trodding along the same path.  This is why I teach, even though I’m still moving along a path connected to that piano recital when I was five years old.

Share some of your “first recital” experiences, whether they be a performance on stage or Little League game.  We’ve all had that first shot at something in front of other people, whatever that first experience was.

Why Kids Hate Practicing

Practicing the PianoIt is highly probable that 99.8% of the entire population of children hates to practice.  It is also the most common complaint of parents who worry why their kids refuse to leave their friends and Xboxes behind for a couple hours with scales, metronome counting, and Beethoven.  After all, who really prefers work over fun?  It’s not just coincidence that those two words are hardly ever synonymous.

There are actually reasons why kids detest practicing.  Some resist more than others, but few ever elect to practice on their own free will.  Here are the reasons:

1. It’s too boring. Your child goes to a piano lesson and learns the same things every, single week.  She isn’t practicing, and in turn, the teacher doesn’t move forward.  It becomes a vicious cycle of boring, boring, boring and your child loses interest.  What’s the point in practicing if it’s never any better?  Besides, she could just  score some serious points on Wii Tennis and feel like a superstar.

2. It’s not challenging enough. Oftentimes, kids lose interest when they’ve solved a puzzle or if they learn faster than their classmates in school.  Grades drop, your child becomes cranky, and you wonder what you did wrong since he’s so smart.

3. It’s too hard.  Ever notice your child refuse to do her math homework simply because she didn’t get it?  Kids feel discouraged when they don’t understand something, and besides, not understanding something they’re supposed to learn makes them feel stupid, even if they’re clearly not.

4. There are no real goals.  If your child goes to his lesson every week with the expectation of doing the same darn thing again, interest will wane and he will get antsy – to get out of there, really fast!  Kids are dynamic and need smaller goals to reach a bigger goal.  The same goes for why kids enjoy playing video games – they see they are progressing and reach “check points,” eventually conquering the game.

5. Parents push too hard.  No one really likes being told what to do.  When kids emerge into their own sense of independence, they will fight as hard as they can against those who preach, push, and provoke.  An argument can be made that children must be pushed since they’ll usually never do anything challenging on their own, and while this is mostly true, there is a degree of moderation which must be exercised here.

6. They simply don’t want to do it.  Now, I left this reason for last since it’s easy to make this the go-to reason.  In reality, it’s the least common reason why kids hate practicing.  But when all else fails and your child has an undying passion for basketball, by all means, it really means they’d rather play basketball!

The real question lies in how to encourage your child to practice.  Here are some ways to create healthy habits of practicing:

1. Ask your child’s instructor how they could incorporate new things into the lessons that both help and engage the student.  They can try short games, quizzes, pop music, new concepts, etc.  Another great way to draw inspiration is to go to concerts with your child.  And they don’t have to be a specific type of concert, but rather anything that your child can really sink their teeth into.

2. Tell your child’s instructor that he doesn’t feel challenged enough.  Hopefully, the instructor can assign pieces that are just slightly above your child’s capabilities, motivating her to work harder to master the given assignment for the week.

3.  Ask your child what he finds especially difficult and ask his teacher how they can work together to better understand a concept or technically handle a difficult passage.  Breaking it down into much smaller chunks, slow practice, and even backtracking is a very productive way of getting to the root of understanding something new.

4. Set up smaller goals for the end of every week.  You can set up a chart, give points, or assign fun pieces as rewards for mastering a particular goal, such as rounding the hand position or playing a G Major scale.  Your child may get lost in the bigger picture, so it’s important to emphasize the small but important achievements that she can see at the moment.

5. Ask yourself if your child isn’t playing because of you.  If their reasons are, “I don’t want to do what you say,” or if your answer is “Because I said so,” chances are that you are indeed enforcing practice in unhealthy ways.  The reasons for practice should never be because of your wishes as a parent, but because of the fact that they enjoy it and there’s a some work involved in achieving anything, including sports and video games.  Relax a little bit and see how your child approaches practicing when not told to do so.  If you child still refuses to practice, talk to him about how playing, not practicing the instrument makes him feel.  If he enjoys playing, then create a chart with daily and weekly goals to indirectly enforce his practicing habits while giving him some level of independence.

6. Be understanding about this one, but also really dig deeply into the situation. “I hate violin” is usually an easy complaint, and though it isn’t always the reason why your child hates practicing, it truly can be if your child has other interests which she’d like to pursue.  Lots of times, children will come back to music later in life, but even if they don’t, never take it as a personal failure as a parent or as a rejection of you.  After all, the world would be pretty dull if we all shared the same interests, wouldn’t it?

It’s important to be patient, persistent, and adaptable as your child grows and learns.  Think about how you responded to homework, football practice, tests, and lessons as a child…depending on the kind of kid you were, you hated at least one of those on the list.  Practicing is very important, but it is also can be a very slippery slope on the path to musical growth.  Above all, listen to your child and really hear what he or she needs.