Images by Jordan Mirrer.
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.
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:
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.