Fall 2016 Piano Recital

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

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Fall Studio Recital, 10/11!

Images by Jordan Mirrer.

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.”

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!

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.

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!