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

Advertisements

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.

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.

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!