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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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.

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!