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.

Advertisements

The Truth About Being Really Good at Something: A Recipe

There is a recipe to high achievement. This recipe can apply to any practice: sports, music, medicine, artisanship, meditation…you get the idea.

  1. Interest
  2. Talent
  3. Consistent hard work for a long period of time
  4. Backing or support

You need all four on the road to mastery. If one ingredient is missing from the recipe, then the dish falters. It’s edible, but it’s not amazing. The other ingredients need to compensate to make up for the lack of the one. But the dish is incredible with all four.

I can speak from my personal experience as a serious piano student and teacher. As a student, I had all four ingredients for a very long time until ingredient #1 wavered. I was burnt out from years of pressure and personal baggage that had no direct relationship to piano. So, I relied on #’s 2-4 to keep me going. #3 started to stagger. In the end, it all came back to that missing #1. I crumbled. So, I took a break to refresh my stores of inspiration. I went through a lot of personal reflection and therapy to figure out why I lost #1. But that’s my own unique story.

Most of my students begin with a strong #1 and #4. Talent, our infamous ingredient, is usually harder to come by, but it’s not so important when you’re just curious. However, even rarer to find in students than #2 is #3, interestingly. Perhaps the beginning student’s expectations are high and optimistic. Perhaps the student-parent team underestimates how much work it’ll really require because it’s supposed to be a fun extracurricular. In reality, you have to get your hands dirty to knead that dough. It’s messy a lot of times, it’s tiring, and it takes a lot of patience. But like the other ingredients, you need it to make that delicious dish. You need more of it than you realize.

The fourth ingredient, a strong network of support, is also essential. It’s like a chef relying on farmers and food producers to provide the fresh ingredients, as well as the kitchen and waitstaff, cleaning crew, food haulers, and restaurant owners to run the whole ship. Like a chef, a student cannot go at it alone. A young piano student will rely on his or her parent or family member to not only pay for expenses and get to the lesson every week, but also to reinforce a solid practicing routine, get exposure to the arts, and be a sounding board. There is also the teacher, who serves as a mentor, source of wisdom, and psychologist for the student. You really need a strong team effort, day in and day out. In short, it takes a lot of resources to succeed.

Most people obsess about ingredient #2. Most people believe that talent, above all, is what carries one through. This cannot be further from the truth. Oftentimes, those with a strong talent fail to recognize the importance of hard work and ultimately lose interest. They lean on their talent like a crutch. Talent is the initial boost and the final ingredient that allows one to soar in ability. Talent isn’t crucial to making a good dish, but it adds that extra special something. However, without any of the other ingredients, the dish is only half-baked. It’s a soggy apple pie with nice cinnamon on top.

I placed #1, pure interest, at the top of the recipe because it’s the ignition to the whole thing. You can’t start a fire without it. How do you make your children interested in piano lessons? You don’t. You expose them to music and anything that you think is wonderful, and you hope for the best. But you don’t shove interest down their throats. It’s difficult to explain where interest comes from in the first place. Perhaps it’s the product of a culmination of things, or perhaps it’s genetic. Perhaps they’re motivated by Grandpa’s piano playing or by that kid on 60 Minutes. It doesn’t really matter in the end. You either have it, or you don’t.

You don’t need to have all four ingredients to merely dabble at something. But you need three to be okay, and definitely all four to be astounding. Think about anyone who is known for something truly remarkable. I can guarantee you that nothing was missing in that recipe.

 

 

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.