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